New Sherwood

Thoughts on a commercial society

The late Christopher Dawson’s essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” is a compelling polemic. Most of us have no sense of what a non-commercial society might look like. There are vestiges here and there – faint echoes in places known to the world as cultural “backwaters” – but we can scarcely imagine a society that is not dominated by commercial or economic concerns. Having first defeated Christianity and then Marxism, the commercial ethic of the “bourgeois” is now ubiquitous and triumphant. Dawson argues sharply that Christianity and “bourgeois” values are utterly incompatible:

… it is obvious that the Christian ethos is essentially antibourgeois, since it is an ethos of love. This is particularly obvious in the case of St. Francis and the mediaeval mystics, who appropriated to their use the phraseology of mediaeval erotic poetry and used the antibourgeois concepts of the chivalrous class-consciousness, such as “adel,” “noble,” and “gentile,” in order to define the spiritual character of the true mystic.

But it is no less clear in the case of the Gospel itself. The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the “open” type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction. For what is the Pharisee but a spiritual bourgeois, a typically “closed” nature, a man who applies the principle of calculation and gain not to economics but to religion itself, a hoarder of merits, who reckons his accounts with heaven as though God was his banker? It is against this “closed,” self-sufficient moralist ethic that the fiercest denunciations of the Gospels are directed. Even the sinner who possesses a seed of generosity, a faculty of self-surrender, and an openess of spirit is nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the “righteous” Pharisee; for the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace.

In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses.” It even condemns the prudent forethought of the rich man who plans for the future: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”

On the whole, I am not quite as negative as Dawson. I like merchants and shopkeepers. We should be glad to have more shopkeepers and fewer serfs. But let’s look at what happened historically. The triumph of the merchant meant, in the long run, the triumph of commercial values which, paradoxically, led to the end of the merchant. Why? Because the predominant ethic of the merchant class, or the bourgeois, was that of maximizing profits. Profits are maximized by creating large economies of scale and eliminating competition (i.e., other merchants). Thus, a commercial society is dominated by a few powerful corporations whose primary purpose is making money, putting thousands of merchants out of business, and employing thousands of would-be merchants for low wages.

The real sinister thing about a commercial society is that the bourgeois merchant’s ethic ends up invading everything else. Manufacturing, for instance, becomes chiefly a matter of producing things that will yield the highest price for the least economic input. Salesmanship becomes every bit as important as quality and craftsmanship, or even more so. They tell you in school nowadays that everyone must be a salesman. In job interviews one is expected to “sell himself” to the interviewer. Self-promotion is mandatory: to fail at self-promotion is to fail at life. Employees are hired, evaluated, and fired based on their contribution to the “bottom line”. Similarly, employees treat employers as nothing more than a means to an end: one is expected to “job hop”, to make lateral career moves, on the basis of maximizing income. The commercial ethic has also conquered the ideals of government. It’s not uncommon for politicians to say things like “government should be run like a business”.

If we replace monetary profit with the idea of personal gain or satisfaction, we can see how commercial values have invaded things like religion, family, and relationships of every kind. It is commonly said that a friendship, a marriage, or a religion is only worth maintaining if one “gets something out of it”. Marriage is reduced to a private contract based on mutual benefit, like any other commercial transaction. When the benefits cease, the marriage is over. Modern Christians attend worship not to give themselves to God in prayer, but to be entertained or stimulated, to have a fulfilling experience. Etc.

It is easy to see how persons who do not conform themselves to bourgeois values find themselves on the margins of a commercial society. If you’re not a natural self-promoter; if you’re not sufficiently motivated by money, utility, or pleasure; if you’re constitutionally incapable of placing economic efficiency over good work done well; if you value loyalty and commitment above personal gain; if you refuse to distort the truth for the sake of salesmanship; if you refuse to treat economic competitors as enemies to be crushed; if you are incapable of pretending that good is evil, and that evil is good, for the sake of professional relationships – you will always be perceived as an outsider. Even if you are seldom directly challenged, your associates will intuitively sense that something about you is very different and a little frightening.

We aren’t going to fundamentally change our commercial society anytime soon. Those on the margins will have to do their best to conform and withstand the temptations to compromise. But perhaps there can be progress at carving out a niche for the incorrigible. Resurrecting the old guild system, in some form that works within the larger economy, might be worth exploring. Intentional communities can lead to intentional economic structures. Certainly there is no reason why governments, schools, hospitals, and other non-commercial institutions could not, in some measure, reclaim their original purposes and put bourgeois values back in their place. Large companies with comfortable advantages that are “too big to fail” can afford to revisit their priorities.

One thing is certain: a commercial society is a dynamic society, but it’s the dynamism of a freight train, not a pendulum. Our society’s dynamism is always oriented towards two specific goals: 1) fomenting human desire and discontent; and 2) removing all obstacles to their economic “solutions”. If we can’t stop the freight train, maybe it’s time to build another track.

April 16, 2014 Posted by | Culture | 1 Comment

The School of Loneliness

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Most people are lonely at times. I think it’s fair to say that a fear of loneliness drives a tremendous amount of human activity. Our desire for God is partially manifested in a desire for union with others. We want to be known, understood, and loved. A soul that is, by its nature, difficult to know is destined to suffer loneliness more acutely. Such souls may seem to have many friends and to be widely admired, or they may be introverted and shy, but they are still the lonely ones.

Because only God can know men the way men long to be known – the way we are created to be known – there is always a danger that human relationships become an obstacle to union with God, an easy substitute that disguises our true condition and purpose. That is why souls who find it more difficult than others to avoid human loneliness are uniquely blessed. The path is cleared for them in advance!

Recently, a seminarian of the FSSP gave a talk on vocations to some young men in the parish. He was asked about the loneliness of the priesthood, especially for priests whose assignment does not include community with other priests. The seminarian responded that this loneliness is intended to drive the priest closer to God, to make him seek the friendship of God, to move him to a deeper life of prayer. The same is true for everyone else.

Ordinarily we should not seek loneliness. It is natural and healthy to desire the companionship of others, and to seek it. God wants this for us. The companionship of others is necessary for the exercise of virtue. How does one acquire patience or fortitude without struggling against human resistance? How does one learn mercy, generosity, or compassion without human beneficiaries? How does one learn to forgive without being offended? How does one imitate Jesus Christ without experiencing human rejection? And not just rejection by the bad, but rejection by the good! Etc. That is why God places us first in a family and then in society.

Having said that, there are souls who are called to acquire the kind of spiritual strength and union with Christ that can only be born of intense loneliness. They don’t seek it at first: the burden is forced upon them by both temperament and circumstances. But if they recognize this burden as a gift and receive it with gratitude, these souls have a “head start” in the spiritual life. They must, however, learn to avoid certain traps. They must learn how to forget themselves. They must accept being misunderstood to an extraordinary degree. They must not accuse those who misunderstand them, or turn their particular burden into a false sense of superiority. Often enough, they must love without being loved in return (because men cannot love what they do not know). One’s natural pride rebels against this condition and wants to blame the world, to take revenge in various ways, to pretend the burden is a virtue, as though it were chosen rather than imposed. And so the soul can respond badly and miss its great purpose in life … or find its purpose too late for the good it might have achieved. The lonely are therefore faced with a more urgent choice upon which their happiness depends entirely: God or self, humility or pride, love or hatred.

In an age of “all fun, all joy, all happy-clappy all-the-time” Catholicism, I think it’s important to re-assert the indispensable value of the desert. The following passage of a rather obscure essay is one of those rare discourses that will stay with me for life.

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LONELINESS
The School of Love, and Other Essays
by Alban Goodier, S.J.

To most men loneliness is a doom. It is imposed upon a criminal as the heaviest of punishments; carried to extremes we know it will drive him mad; nothing seems so to unman a man as the loneliness of a prison cell. Even for those who are not criminals, nothing so wrings pity from a human heart as the sight of another who is utterly alone. Loneliness to many is the very ghost of life, dogging their steps, haunting them at every turn, from which they are always trying to escape. It cannot be fought, it cannot be avoided, yet there is nothing many more dread for themselves, or see with more concerning others. Yet it is this very thing which God has chosen to be the school of training for His own. He has shown it without possibility of mistake. Look down the line of the Old Testament, and you will find it written everywhere …

… Our Lord Himself was alone; in the wilderness of humanity He lived, so long a time, and men did not know Him. He was in the world, and the world knew Him hot; He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. His fellow-Nazarenes claimed to know Him, and did not. His enemies knew Him and refused to own it. His friends – at one point in His life “many went back and walked no more with Him”; at another “all fled away”; at the very end He had to say:”How long a time have I been with you, and you have not known me!” He was born deserted, He lived alone, He died a lonely criminal’s death; and if we want a proof that He felt it, we have it, first, in His frequent cries of pain, and second, in the eager way He grasped at and rewarded every mark of companionship offered Him …

… Loneliness of soul gives wisdom – that breadth of vision that belongs to him who sees all the valley from the hill-top. Loneliness of soul gives understanding – that further power of seeing beneath the surfaces of life. Loneliness of soul gives counsel to sustain another, and fortitude to “endure its own burden”; all the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost come through and are fostered by loneliness of soul.

These are some of the fruits of this special school of suffering. None the less, let it not be forgotten that a school of suffering it is. We are not speaking here of the loneliness which is a joy and a comfort, in which, as the popular phrase goes, one is “never less alone than when alone”; we are speaking of that sense of desertion, of alienation from one’s kindred, of being somehow out of joint with all the world, of separation from God Himself, which human nature can scarcely endure; which even our Lord Himself considered to justify a cry for relief…

… Nowhere has Christ our Lord come nearer to us than in His loneliness and ours. Nowhere has He shown Himself more human. Nowhere has He more condoned the cry of pain, the appeal for some relief; nowhere has He done more, by example and by promise, to nerve us to endurance.

April 14, 2014 Posted by | Catholic Faith | 1 Comment

Friday roundup

Does anyone know how long this embarrassing and incomprehensible document has been on the Vatican website? Have they gone completely and utterly mad? Here’s one gem of a quote (courtesy of Hilary White):

223. As members of one body, Catholics and Lutherans remember together the events of the Reformation that led to the reality that thereafter they lived in divided communities even though they still belonged to one body. That is an impossible possibility and the source of great pain. Because they belong to one body, Catholics and Lutherans struggle in the face of their division toward the full catholicity of the church.

Try and wrap your brain around that. Nothing against Lutherans personally, God bless ‘em. Used to be one myself. But no self-respecting Lutheran would ever sign off on this rubbish. Catholics and Lutherans, for all our differences, used to understand each other. It seems that modern ecumenism has deep-sixed the very idea of rational understanding. Christopher Ferrara and Louis Verrecchio offer some pointed commentary:

Vatican Surrenders to Luther: A Neo-Catholicism Update

The Apparent Death of the Catholic Church

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Speaking of rational understanding, the renowned Thomist Dr. Edward Feser – who really needs to be teaching in a Catholic seminary – recently visited Thomas Aquinas College where he gave an outstanding lecture on “What We Owe The New Atheists”. It’s long but it’s definitely worth your time.

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The Maestro has two important reflections up this week: Liturgy and Legislation, which seeks to recover the proper Catholic attitude toward liturgy; and some perspicacious thoughts on The SSPX, wherein he defends their general position but is also frank about what he perceives as their limitations.

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This is an interesting article about the impact of names: Does a baby’s name affect its chances in life? A worldly and secular perspective, to be sure, but nevertheless illuminating:

Although the main focus of his research is family names, Clark has looked at first names too – specifically, the names of 14,449 freshmen students attending the elite University of Oxford between 2008-2013. By contrasting the incidence of first names in the Oxford sample with their incidence among the general population (of the same age), he calculated the probability, relative to average, that a person given a particular name would go to Oxford. (For the purposes of his research he excluded students with non-English or Welsh surnames.)

He notes that there are more than three times as many Eleanors at Oxford than we might expect, given the frequency of that first name among girls in the general population, and Peters, Simons and Annas are not far behind. Conversely, there is less than a 30th of the expected number of Jades and an even smaller proportion of Paiges and Shannons. An Eleanor is 100 times more likely to go to Oxford than a Jade.

April 11, 2014 Posted by | Catholic News | 4 Comments

We miss you, Papa

Four years ago, on April 11, it was Divine Mercy Sunday. And Our Lord did not fail to pour out His mercy.

My youngest brother put this video together for the man we all loved, and who loved us.

DadJeffPlacerville

April 11, 2014 Posted by | Family | 3 Comments

When you need to “get out of Dodge”

We recently made some changes in our family vehicles, trading in our 12 passenger van for a Dodge Grand Caravan; trading in the GMC Canyon for a Ford Taurus for the older children to drive at college; and purchasing a Chevrolet Suburban to replace the big van and serve as my work vehicle.

Due to the Suburban’s many excellent features (8 passengers, 4WD, adequate storage, smooth handling, 31 gallon fuel tank, etc.) I have referred to it several times as our “get out of Dodge vehicle” should we ever need to flee in the middle of the night as refugees in the direction of, say, Modoc County in mid-winter during a blizzard. Everyone would fit, including some food and clothing and maybe even a fiddle or two.

My dear wife, who speaks excellent English but is still unfamiliar with some English idioms, thought I meant “get out of the Dodge Grand Caravan” when I referred to our “get out of Dodge vehicle” … until an associate of hers at the pharmacy explained the saying’s hazy origin with Dodge City, Kansas and its legendary assistant marshal, Wyatt Earp.

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Family, History | 9 Comments

Triduum Schedule for St. Therese Chapel, Chico, California

For the first time in what must be several decades, the full Sacred Triduum will be celebrated in Chico, California, in the traditional Roman Rite (1962). The liturgies will be celebrated at St. Therese Chapel at 367 East 8th Avenue (at the corner of Spruce Avenue). Here is the tentative schedule:

Holy Thursday – 6:30pm

Good Friday – 12:00 noon

Holy Saturday – 10:30pm

Easter Sunday – 10:00am

For a final confirmation of this schedule, you may send an email to jeff dot culbreath at gmail dot com.

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Chico, Traditional Latin Mass | Leave a comment

Who is this beatified philosopher admired by Pope Francis?

Does anyone know who the pope is talking about in this morning’s homily?

“Also many philosophers of the Church have been persecuted. I think of one, right now, in this moment, not so far from us, a man of good will, a true prophet, who with his books reproached the Church for straying from the path of the Lord,” the Pope recalled.

“He was summoned quickly, his books were put on the index [blacklisted], they removed him from his seat and thus this man’s life ends — not too long ago. Some time has passed and today he is beatified! How is it that yesterday he was a heretic and today he is beatified? It is because yesterday those who had the power wanted to silence him, because they did not like what he said. Today the Church, that gives thanks to God and knows how to repent, says: ‘No, this man is good’. Even more, he is on the road to sainthood: he is beatified!”

Apparently he is a recent figure “not so far from us” who died “not long ago”; he “reproached the Church” with his books; his books were placed on the Index; he was condemned or censured for heresy; he was removed from an important position; and today he is beatified and “on the road to sainthood”.

Who is this man? I honestly have no idea.

April 5, 2014 Posted by | Pope Francis, The Catholic Crisis | 7 Comments

Fr. Michel Simoulin: “Avoiding a false spirit of resistance”

This essay is notable for a couple of things. First, it discloses the only real obstacle that is holding up the regularization of the SSPX:

“And what can we reasonably expect and demand at present as far as a doctrinal agreement goes? The only thing that we can hope for and ask for, it seems, is the freedom to discuss Vatican II. Let them stop trying to impose upon us an unconditional acceptance of Vatican II as a condition. Let them admit that this council was and still is ‘pastoral’ and not dogmatic, and that it can therefore legitimately be disputed. By ceasing to impose upon us a complete acceptance of Vatican II, and by granting us this liberty, they would already be making an important step, for they would be implicitly recognizing that our arguments are not worthless. An authority that consents to this would already be an authority that is not hostile to Tradition, and maybe even desirous of reestablishing it in the Church, and that would already be a true conversion for Rome. We are not there yet, and that is why nothing has been done. But if Rome accepted to no longer make of Vatican II a super-dogma, it would already be a great victory of grace, and could allow us to imagine reestablishing a certain canonical connection. When will this day dawn? No one knows, but we await it with confidence.”

That is all the Society is asking for: freedom to openly - publicly – discuss the merits of the Second Vatican Council (and by extension, the Novus Ordo Missae) in light of tradition. This is absolutely reasonable given the refuge this Council so commonly provides for dissent from the perennial Magisterium. As to the requirement of “avoiding all polemics”, to which the Ecclesia Dei institutes have already agreed, anyone who has been observing the SSPX for a few years will find that, since the breakdown of the doctrinal talks in February of 2012, substantial progress has been made in presenting their case with a minimum of polemical fireworks. In fact, I often find the Society’s statements to be more restrained and respectful than I would naturally be myself – setting a good example of Catholic prudence and charity for the rest of us. A determined effort is obviously being made by the SSPX leadership, and I would hope that Rome and other critics are taking notice.

Second, the following paragraph is a goldmine of Christian wisdom, illustrating the delicate but important balance the SSPX is striving to maintain:

“And now we must open our eyes to another danger, that is not hypothetical, but very real: that of no longer wishing to return to our legitimate place among the societies recognized by Rome, of losing the desire for the Church and for Rome. No longer desiring a normal relation with Rome and the Church is a shadow of the schismatic spirit. We have been living in independence from the Pope and the Bishops for a very long time, as if that were normal. We pretend to defend the doctrine, but we all run the risk of establishing a chosen doctrine, abandoning certain dogmas, those that bother us, especially those concerning the primacy of Peter. We all run the risk of becoming accustomed to the abnormal, of living in a comfortable situation, as if it were right and in conformity with the spirit of the Church. The Pope and the bishops are little by little confined to the realm of the beings ‘of reason’, with no influence on concrete life; Rome is no more that a pilgrimage site, and the Church is a Mystical Body with Jesus Christ for a head, the Holy Ghost for a soul, and the ‘Trads’ for members. Our priests can quickly become gurus. Everyone could be a Pope with his Denzinger in hand, and every father of every family could be the Pope of his family. In these conditions, our children would no longer have any idea of what the real Church is in its full incarnation, from head to members, in all the realities of daily life.

As for authority… recognized in principle but not admitted in fact as far as the Pope is concerned, it risks no longer being recognized at any degree whatsoever. Every superior runs the risk of being challenged, criticized even publicly… and even families will fall apart. Why obey a father who does not obey the Pope, the bishop, the priest?

A summit implies danger on both sides. That of an unsafe recognition is one; the internal danger we have just described is another. While the former remains very hypothetical, the latter is not imminent; it is not even knocking at the door… It has already entered into our city and our families!”

Well, then. I daresay this has implications even for many Catholics who enjoy “full communion”. Perilous times, but we can be thankful for this kind of leadership.

April 3, 2014 Posted by | Pope Francis, The Catholic Crisis | 1 Comment

Thank you, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone!

Thanks be to God, there are still a few faithful bishops with backbone left in the Church. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, California – of all places! - is one such bishop. I think it’s fair to say that he’s not only holding the line, but pushing back. This good man could definitely use our prayers.

April 2, 2014 Posted by | Catholic News, The Catholic Crisis | 3 Comments

Saint Margaret Mary’s, Oakland

One of California’s most significant Latin Mass communities worships at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Oakland’s lower hills. On Sunday, we were privileged to witness the baptism of our godson’s baby sister at this venerable old church. A glorious day. Please forgive the amateur photography; the place is more beautiful than my poor photos let on.

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April 1, 2014 Posted by | California, Traditional Latin Mass | 2 Comments

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