State of the Union

Can Catholics Still Criticize the UN?

The healthy human reaction whenever the United Nations says something is to ignore it, and hope that, like a singing drunk outside your window, it will simply go away. The normal Catholic’s reaction to a UN attack on the Church ought to be to rally ’round, to refute the thing point by point, and to lobby Congress to cut off U.S. funding. But after reading the UN’s recent report on the Church and the protection of children’s rights, I simply can’t do that. Not on this topic.

Yes, it’s true that the UN report on the Holy See is an instance of an unaccountable global bureaucracy trying to impose its own views on the free institutions of civil society, using the coercive power of government(s). Inside the velvet glove of happy talk about human dignity and children’s rights is the steel fist of radical feminism and homosexual activism, whose central tenets reject the traditional family, religious freedom, and other goods that reason tells us are essential for man to flourish. The report demands that the Church reach in and revise its Canon Law, its schools, and even its doctrine, wherever the UN sees those things as conflicting with its goals of “gender equality” and the sexual “freedom” of children. This use of the UN’s “soft power” can lead to the use of “hard power,” providing governments the pretext for penalizing the Church and its institutions, as the Obama administration is already doing through the HHS mandate.

The totalitarian implications of a world-wide body imposing its norms across the planet are precisely what worried those of us who criticized Pope Benedict XVI’s call for an international legislative authority that would supervene all national governments on earth—and from which there could be no escape.

There have been many previous collisions between UN proposals and the moral beliefs that Catholics (among many others) derive from the natural law. Various treaties on the rights of women, for instance, have been the pretext for UN attempts to expand legal abortion and sterilization, inappropriate sex education, and other intrusions on parents’ rights, sometimes over the objections of actual voters in the given countries. This latest UN document recycles much of that same old toxic agenda, dressed up in the pink and blue of “children’s rights.”

The Church and other opponents of the UN’s children’s rights agenda, sees clearly that it is based on a degraded, subhumanist view of the person, an ethos of utilitarian hedonism, where the goal of human life is to stack up as many happy moments as possible before a quick and painless end, and that governments should use every means they can grab to maximize their happy moments quotient. Any worldview that suggests some higher or deeper reason for human action, which might entail voluntary sacrifice or suffering, is a fetish of the past that must be discredited and repressed.

In the past, the Church was able to point to its unmatched worldwide record of humanitarian action and claim a moral high ground. In the UN it could count on the support of some Islamic and Latin American governments—and under Republican presidents, the firm backing of the United States. Thanks to the election of a president who fought for even partial birth abortion, who won a majority of American Catholics’ votes, the Holy See no longer has a protector in America, but another enemy.

But far worse, and far more appallingly, the Church has lost its credibility. Squandered it, thrown it away with both hands as the prodigal son did his wealth.

The Church’s response to the sex abuse crisis was for decades was simply criminal, and to this day is culpably dysfunctional and inadequate. The UN authors skillfully and cynically make use of the sins committed by churchmen against the helpless and the innocent to remove the Church as an obstacle against still another set of crimes against other innocents. Thus the devil’s right hand washes his left.

So King Henry VIII used the corruption of bad Franciscans as a pretext for burning Carthusians, and the Bolsheviks cited Tsarist-era famines as the pretext for starving “kulaks.” One set of evils provides the excuse for still more evils—and the only common thread is the victims: in this case, those who were exploited thanks to corruption within the Church, and then the innocent victims of evil UN policies. First we have the thousands of young people sexually used by priests, then betrayed by the bishops whose job it was to protect them. Next we will see the children distorted, corrupted, aborted, when the UN gets its way. Call it Satanic synergy.

If the Church wants to defend the innocent children of the world from the hedonistic propaganda, destructive family policies, and abortion profiteering that the UN is promoting, Catholics must prove that we are not self-serving zealots who will safeguard our tribal interests at the price of every principle. To regain our own credibility we must face squarely and manfully the sheer extent of the Church’s wrongdoing, and hold our leaders accountable for proving their repentance. We must stop acting like loyal Communists who defend the Party leadership’s every twist and turn, however bizarre or criminal.

But that is precisely how too many faithful Catholic reacted, again and again, throughout the sex abuse crisis—with excuses, evasions, and unfair attacks on the motives of whistleblowers, journalists, even victims. We all would like to forget about that now, to pretend that we were cheering on The Boston Globe reporters, and other truthtellers like Jeffrey Bond and Jason Berry, from the beginning, that none of us signed on to conspiracy theories—as did Cardinal Maradiaga, who dismissed the sex abuse crisis in 2002 as an invention of the Jewish media.

But most of us can’t. We were good commies, at least for a while, weren’t we? I know that in 2000, when I worked for a paper owned by the Legionaries of Christ, I was none too keen to read the complaints of the men whom its founder abused when they were boys. It would have been too costly to know the truth, so I looked away. And so, dear Catholic readers, did most of you.

In some ways, and on key issues, the Church still averts its gaze. But covering your eyes really doesn’t make you invisible. The world can see, and the Church’s enemies can point to some grave problems left unaddressed in the Church’s response to clerical abuse. Until these are answered, Catholic bishops and the Holy See will have all the moral authority of Alec Baldwin on etiquette.

To speed that process up and give the Church back its needed prophetic voice, I have some questions, directed not at the United Nations but at the Church’s leaders:

Why has not a single bishop, anywhere in the world, been removed from office for covering up sex abuse? In 2002, the Dallas Morning News documented that two-thirds of U.S. bishops were implicated in cover-ups. Each one served out his term and retired in comfort, or else is still in office—including Bishop Robert Finn, who was actually convicted of failing to report the kiddie porn addiction of one of his priests.

Why is there no mechanism for removing bishops in the future if they fail to obey civil and canon law designed to protect innocent children? This past year, a bishop was removed for building too fancy a palace. One might argue that cosseting pedophiles is even worse.

Why have the worst offenders in the hierarchy not been laicized and deprived of their clerical pensions? Why are retired cardinals and bishops who arguably should be in prison still granted all the courtesies and privileges of office—and permitted to say Mass publically? Are churchmen really incapable of understanding the scandal that gives? In a perfect world, the Church would try such men in Vatican City and imprison them itself.

Why is a religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, that was founded by a sociopathic pedophile and run as a mind-control cult still in good standing with the Church—even as priests who drop out of it report that the men in control are quashing reforms, and that many members still secretly venerate its perverted founder? What is there that is reformable in an order that was founded by the moral equivalent of Hugh Hefner or L. Ron Hubbard?

Why does the Church still resist the common-sense demands of lay governments that bishops report—routinely and in every country—sexual crimes committed by priests to the police? Do bishops still secretly side with Cardinal Castrillon, who infamously congratulated bishops who shielded abusers from justice? The Mafia code of “omerta” has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Until the Church’s leaders have healed such suppurating wounds, no one will look to us for medical advice. The world will see the mote in our eye and ignore the log in its own.

The key is to focus not on institutions but principles. Believers must not be pro-Catholic activists, or Catholic “fans” in some fantasy football league, but actual Catholics, which means holding ourselves and our institutions to the highest moral standards. Instead of the bottom line, or the Church’s “reputation,” we must think about the victims—their bodies, minds, and souls. Our founder was a victim, who died at the hands of a mob for the sins of men. Would He really want us to stand by, as still more innocents are victimized, to serve His Church’s “best interests”?

One of the most wrenching passages in all of Western literature comes from The Brothers Karamozov. In it, Dostoevsky’s skeptical anti-hero Ivan asks a question that should haunt us:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Throughout the sex abuse crisis, too many leaders in the Church were willing to answer, “Yes.” They built and preserved their ecclesiastical empires, and did their best to still the voices of the victims, to discredit them or buy their silence, even as they shuffled their victimizers from place to place. The social revolutionaries of the United Nations also say “Yes.” They will build their global utopia at the cost of children’s innocence, of their faith and of their families, and with the bones of the unborn.

And Catholics can do nothing to stop them. We have only ourselves to thank.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His online writings are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall

What Is Pope Francis Saying to the Right?

Faithful Catholics are deeply confused about what the pope is up to. As our spiritual father, he deserves our deep respect and the benefit of the doubt. When he says things that make us uncomfortable, we ought to be open to the likelihood that he’s saying something true that we’ve overlooked, maybe even presenting a truth we have tried to hide from. (Think of how disquieting some of Christ’s words are in the Gospels.) If even after reflection and prayer we feel sure that he’s wrong—as popes in their personal statements and human decisions have often been wrong in the past—we ought to remember Noah, and not act like scornful sons. We ought to greet papal mistakes with solemn sadness, earnest prayer, and respectful attempts at correction. It is in that spirit that I wish to comment on Pope Francis’s recent interview.

The pope’s most controversial statements seem to arise from a single motive: He doesn’t like “right-wing” Catholics, and wants to make it clear to all the world that he’s not one of them.

Up to a point, I see what he means. From what I have read, in Argentina, a swath of the folks who fought for the Latin Mass also supported the right-wing dictators down there—which means they winked at torture and murder, but their consciences proved too tender to countenance altar girls. I have met this kind of smug zealot up here in the U.S.—the guy you meet at the coffee hour who starts off with pro-life talk, then finds a way to assert that most abortionists are Jewish … and pretty soon he’s pressing on you poorly printed pamphlets that “prove” the Holocaust never happened. I used to argue with people like this, but it led nowhere. (Although I learned how to have some fun with them by “proving” that World War II was also a myth, and that all its “casualties” had really been abducted to serve as slaves in the Zionist tin mines on the Moon.)

I finally had to accept the cold fact that some people are not sincerely mistaken, or even deluded, but rather of evil intent, with wicked hearts and culpable motives. In fact, they’re the kind of “evil company” St. Paul tells us to flee. Likewise, I learned to scorn folks who reject religious liberty, who joke about burning heretics or who condemn the American founding because so many Founders were Freemasons. (They don’t, I notice, denounce the nation of Spain, which was founded by Arian Visigoths.) Some right-wing Catholics embrace a hardline agenda because they feel weak and irrelevant, and prefer magnificent fantasies of wielding power over their neighbors to the slow grunt work of evangelizing. Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , . 79 comments

The Christian Case for Marriage Multiplicity

My first reaction to the Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and leaving California’s Proposition 8 overturned was to think: “Note to future historians: we just revoked the Edict of Milan.” History buffs will recall that this edict was Constantine’s fiat offering toleration to Christians, issued almost exactly 1,700 years ago. That golden moment marked the end of the persecuted Church and the beginning of Christian civilization.

There were dark moments, too, which started when Constantine’s successor Theodosius began to persecute Roman pagans and use the state’s coercive power to aid the Church. Like most modern Christians, I deplore that decision and all that flowed from it—the heresy trials, inquisitions, pogroms, and persecutions that dragged on for centuries. But I’m not surprised: while some kind of state is necessary, it is also very dangerous—doubly so, given our fallen nature. Power doesn’t just corrupt, it attracts the already corrupt, the envious, the resentful who crave the chance to micromanage and punish. How tempting it is for entrenched and lazy businessmen to use the police and prisons to enshrine their wealth in law; for sullen, slacking workers to quash fair competition; for corrupt and worldly churchmen to silence dissenters and reformers. (Imagine if the bishops who shuffled pedophiles around had held the power to censor the press.) It is rare indeed for a state to resist all the pressures of those who would distort the rule of law and ignore the common good to serve their private interests; for citizens with strong opinions on how their neighbors should live to respect their human dignity and leave them largely alone; for institutions of civil society to spurn the proffered privileges (and secret strings) that the state extends.

The rise of same-sex marriage marks the end of the long, slow fight the Christian church has waged to keep legal marriage analogous to a sacramental covenant. But these Supreme Court decisions and all their consequences arguably became inevitable some 200 years ago, when the French revolutionaries created “civil marriage,” removing the church’s legal jurisdiction over this contract. At that moment, the meaning of marriage lost its anchor in an authoritative reading of man’s nature and flew off like a kite into the winds of human passions and opinion. We have been rushing about ever since attempting to grab the string and tie it to something else—the best interests of children, the common good, “republican virtue” (in France)—but nothing resists the gale.

Sexual decisions are so intimate and so important to people that it takes a really potent force to goad them into self-restraint; either deep religious conviction or crushing social pressure is typically required. In their absence, people will do what they feel they must, and those of us who try to draw fine moral distinctions will seem like busybodies and prudes. In elite opinion now—which is common opinion tomorrow—–those who hold to traditional Christian marriage are morally no better than racists.

That’s where we are. Now what do we do? Should we wage a legal Verdun in each of the 50 states to revive the pale, exhausted ghost of “marriage” that Bill Clinton’s DOMA defended? Thanks to no-fault divorce, it was already the least enforceable legal contract on earth—–more fragile by far than credit-card debt, not to mention back taxes and student loans. It was, in essence, a weak legal partnership and a temporary sex pact that for some reason excluded homosexuals. Is this a hill worth dying on?

On the other hand, we should be very worried about the implications of marriage’s redefinition for the liberty of Christian citizens and their institutions. How far are we, really, from a court ordering the Catholic churches of California to perform homosexual unions—–and when the bishops refuse, fining the church into bankruptcy? Are we really that confident that future Supreme Court justices will see the First Amendment as trumping their inflated reading of the Fourteenth? Obviously, we have to fight. The issue is over what ground and with what weapons.

The ghost of civil marriage does not deserve our loyalty. In fighting for it, we are going against the grain of American individualism and goading libertarians to join our enemies—–who will, as always, use them then toss them aside. Instead, we can make common cause with libertarians and invoke for our self-defense some cherished American principles, such as freedom of association, contract, and even religion.

And here is how: instead of demanding that the state enforce a single model of marriage contract—–one that is already hopelessly compromised—–we embrace freedom of contract and insist on it for ourselves. Why is it, we should ask, that Christians cannot draw up a legal contract that binds them as their sacrament says it does: for life? Why can’t we embrace that difficult promise and freely agree to have the state enforce it? Last time I was on a casino boat in Baton Rouge, you could mortgage your house on an ATM—and the state would enforce it. Why is it that Christian marriage remains an unenforceable, meaningless contract? As things stand now, in many states gay marriage is legal while Christian marriage is not.

Let’s abandon the notion of a single, normative marriage contract which is all that the state will enforce. Let private individuals (or their churches) produce contracts that lawyers can vet, which once signed will be enforced by the state. These contracts can be polygamous, homosexual, or celibate for all I care. Christian marriage can be one of those contracts. Churches that are serious about marriage can make signing a really solid (“covenant”) contract a condition of marrying in their place of worship. Every parish can have the boilerplate on its website: sign here or go find another Gothic building for your ceremony. To protect the liberties of everyone involved in this newly pluralist society, certain anti-discrimination laws also must be changed. If a gay employer doesn’t wish to hire Catholics, he should have that right—and the same for the goose as the gander.

An arrangement like this should entirely satisfy the libertarian demand for freedom of association and contract—and claim it also for Christians. Christians should be satisfied that our model will prevail without the assistance and entanglement of the state. Of course, the Rousseauian left will not be satisfied: they will settle for nothing less than state-enforced “virtue” and mandatory “freedom.” But with this strategic retreat to more defensible ground, Christians and other social traditionalists will gain breathing room. We don’t need a Theodosius, but without a Constantine we may well find ourselves in the catacombs once again.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism.

Austrians Don’t Blow Bubbles

illustration by Michael Hogue
illustration by Michael Hogue

Remember the golden days of 2007, when we were all investment prodigies? Though I couldn’t balance a checkbook or drive a car, I had raked in 25 percent increases each year on my 401k since 2001, so I felt like a bookish Donald Trump. While I worked as a college English teacher at a school with 70 students, the nice man from Fidelity showed me how I could retire in 20 years with a nest egg of $1 million—heady stuff for a doorman’s son who’d never checked his credit rating. Dinesh D’Souza had published a helpful book, The Virtue of Prosperity, which explained to America’s Christians how to gather a spiritual harvest through our era of endless prosperity, and Karl Rove was counting the chickens who would build the Republicans’ “permanent majority.” Of course, we were also bringing modern constitutional freedoms to the whole Islamic world, so news was good from the colonies.  All this, in the reign of a president for whom English was a second language. (Bush, sadly, had no first.)

We know now that all those paper profits that puffed our portfolios were as solid as tsarist rubles and that the “compassion” which briefly infused conservatism was a bribe to get a few thousand seniors to vote Republican once—in return for leaving their grandchildren eyeball-deep in debt. But wasn’t it fun while it lasted? Who could have possibly predicted that all the experts who carefully managed the investment boom, and the technocrats in academia and government who enabled and cheered them on, would wind up as deeply discredited as Bernie Madoff’s word of honor?

Harry Veryser’s lively and readable new book has the answer: the Austrian economists, that’s who. In It Didn’t Have to Be This Way, this economist and entrepreneur shows how the current morass was the unavoidable outcome of specific policy decisions, some of which reach back decades—and how thinkers of the Austrian school of economics, exiled from academia and ignored by policymakers, accurately predicted how the crisis would come.

The basic narrative is not in dispute: banks, under pressure for short-term profits and goaded by regulators who wanted to enforce racial equality in home ownership, made hundreds of thousands of loans to people who… had never checked their credit ratings. Some of them had gone bankrupt. Others earned less in a month than the monthly mortgage payments they’d soon have to make. Many were middle-class people who’d already mortgaged the homes they actually lived in; they bought additional properties they could never pay for but hoped to “flip,” on the theory that real estate prices never go down. Such loans, which any sane accounting would tally as worthless, were sliced up, repackaged, and granted AAA ratings, then sold as securities—and our retirement plans duly purchased them, which is why you and I will be working until we are 80. We all know this much.

What boggles the mind is how Harvard MBAs, Wharton professors, Federal Reserve chairmen, and other types who convene at places like Davos to plan the global future could have believed things would turn out differently. What would make someone think that worthless loans, all mooshed together then sliced thin and sold, would somehow acquire value? Did these people believe in magic? Statists like Paul Krugman and Alan Blinder who failed to see this catastrophe coming are emerging from the woodwork now to explain in retrospect that this implosion was the result of too little regulation—the natural outcome of free-market greed, unguided by the visible hand of Uncle Sam. Veryser shows that this diagnosis is pristinely, perfectly wrong, like an autopsy report that blames a lung cancer death on “not enough cigarettes to kill the tumor.”

What in fact tanked our economy was something quite simple that Veryser explains in satisfying  detail: politicians eager to win votes tried to keep the economy hyperstimulated by feeding it with ever more money. As a result, there was too much money floating around with no good place to go, so banks lowered their standards and made ever riskier loans. Such “mal-investments” were doomed from the get-go, and the longer government policies tried to keep the pyramid scheme standing, the higher the tab would get. What happened in 2008, Austrians know, was nothing new; in fact, such artificial booms pervade our history, from the ultra-low interest rates Alan Greenspan gave President Clinton—which puffed up share prices for the dotcoms of the 1990s—to the stock and real estate bubbles of 1927-28. Because they direct resources to places where they don’t belong, investment bubbles amount to little more than paying people on your credit card to dig a bunch of holes, then borrowing still more to have them all filled in. Yes, this does boost employment, for a while. But what are you left with in the end?

March/April 2013Veryser points to such key Austrian theorists as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Wilhelm Röpke, who predicted that bubbles and subsequent crashes were the unavoidable result of politicizing the currency—of cutting the last ties between the money supply and tangible assets such as gold. It should sober boosters of the Republican Party that the last such link to gold—and hence to real-world discipline on politicians—was severed by Richard Nixon in 1971. Veryser also shows how economic, political, and international turmoil can be traced, in part, to the meddling of politicians in the otherwise self-correcting mechanism of the market: it is no accident, he says, echoing Röpke, that the collapse of international trade in the wake of the Great Depression coincided with the rise of aggressive nationalism. Either goods will cross borders or armies will; the golden age of free trade in the 19th century made possible the “long peace” that ended in 1914.

There is much more in this book than a stark diagnosis of economic crashes and a solid case for restoring some kind of gold standard; Veryser shows how most of the key principles that mainstream academics use to understand microeconomics were lifted—often without giving credit—from Austrian theorists, whose faithful disciples are frozen out of universities as “cranks.” We see how the Austrians predicted the implosion of the Soviet Union even as Harvard professors issued textbooks explaining how the Soviet model “worked.” Best of all, Veryser shows how the insights of Austrian economics can be uncoupled from the “anarcho-capitalist” politics with which they are often bundled. Ludwig von Mises didn’t favor restoring medieval Icelandic anarchy, but rather the Habsburg monarchy. There is plenty of room, in other words, for social and religious conservatives to learn from the sober analyses of the Austrians—the only school of empirical economic thought that takes seriously human dignity, personal responsibility, and the role of the natural virtues in promoting the common good.

John Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke and The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. 

The Greening of America

Trading Places

I remember when liberals and conservatives used to be able to talk to each other. Sure, liberals had an important advantage, since they controlled most of the prestigious media. On the other hand, we conservatives had logic, tradition, and most of the facts on our side—which pretty much leveled the playing field. I was perfectly comfortable as a teenager taking up petitions for Ronald Reagan and ringing doorbells for the Right-to-Life Party candidate for NYC mayor. While it wasn’t easy being the loudest (and almost the only public) conservative at Yale in the 1980s, I felt I had the Truth on my side—and was constantly subjected to criticism from the Left, which honed my ideas and arguments.

Things are different now. Those who call themselves conservatives have entire TV networks and chains of talk-radio stations on their side. They are able to preach to the choir—much as Pacifica Radio, National Public Radio, or campus newspapers in the Ivy League always have on the Left. Today’s self-styled conservatives can go for months without encountering an opposing opinion—and if they happen to hit one, there are hundreds of blogs ready to dismiss the information or arguments they encountered as toxic byproducts of the “Mainstream Media” or “MSM.” Likewise, the Left has plenty of comfy sandboxes where it can play, untroubled by alien ideas.

Indeed, there is little overlap between the increasingly polarized extremes of American discourse. The Left and Right are barely on speaking terms. You might be pardoned for believing they live on different planets. For the sake of keeping the peace, and establishing interplanetary harmony, I’d like to propose the following thought experiment. Let’s play “Pretend.” (This is gonna be fun, kids!)

Progressives, let’s pretend that every single one of those fetuses aborted in America was an Iraqi civilian, killed by George W. Bush’s failed policies.

Conservatives, let’s imagine that each of those Iraqi civilians killed by George W. Bush’s failed policies was a tiny, innocent fetus.

I told you this would be fun! Let’s try again:

Progressives, every time you complain about the “Christian Right,” just once plug in the “Jewish Left.” Sounds kind of offensive, doesn’t it?

Conservatives, imagine that it had been Arabs, instead of Americans, who killed 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima to save the lives of their soldiers. Then it would have been an act of terrorism.

Progressives, imagine if George W. Bush were using force trying to spread feminism instead of capitalism. Would you still protest his wars?

Conservatives, imagine if it were Bill Clinton trying to suspend the Constitution to protect us against white terrorists like Timothy McVeigh. Would you call reporters “traitors” for covering it?

Progressives, imagine if instead of fossil fuels poisoning the atmosphere that your children will have to breathe, that it was porn.

Conservatives, imagine if the cause of global warming weren’t the use of big old American-made Humvees and SUVs but acts of sodomy. Would you be out there trying to do something about it?

Progressives, pretend that every time Madonna stages a mock crucifixion on stage to sell tickets to her shows, instead she’s appearing in blackface.

Conservatives, imagine that every innocent person who gets executed in America is a cute little blonde girl murdered by Muslims.

Progressives, pretend that every illegal immigrant who crosses the border is a scab crossing a picket line.

Conservatives, imagine if every scab crossing a picket line were an illegal immigrant crossing the Rio Grande.

Progressives, imagine if Islamic extremists promoting theocracy around the world were Baptist or Catholic instead, trying to impose Christianity.

Conservatives, imagine if the Arab Lobby dominated our Mideast policy—thanks to the support of preachers like Pat Robertson—and was able to destroy any politician in America who dared to criticize it.

Progressives, imagine if the Hollywood Ten, and all those blacklisted screenwriters, had been shilling for Hitler instead of Stalin. Would you still admire them for sticking to their principles?

Conservatives, let’s pretend that every time the U.S. government uses force to topple a foreign regime and impose our system on the country, that it’s an act of Big Government engaging in social engineering—like busing schoolkids for the sake of integration.

Progressives, imagine if in every instance in history where Christians were murdered by revolutionaries (from the French Revolution up through the Spanish Civil War), it were Jews or Tutsis or Bosnians instead. Would you still wear that funky little red star cap or that Che Guevara t-shirt?

Conservatives, let’s pretend that the U.S. just outright stole Hawaii and Puerto Rico, the way Saddam Hussein stole Kuwait.

Progressives, imagine that stem-cell research was a plot by wealthy pharmaceutical companies to get the government to fund their labs in the hope that some day Third World women would sell their eggs or embryos, so that rich white people could live an extra ten years or so.

Conservatives, imagine if all those Christians driven out of Iraq and made homeless by the war in Lebanon were parishioners at your local church.

Both progressives and conservatives: imagine you were to apply the same standards to your own partisans and pet causes that you apply to the other side. Imagine how confusing life would get.

____________________________________________

John Zmirak is author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.

Siberian Shamans at Wal-Mart

Happy New Year! Or new liturgical year, at least. If you look closely at your Sunday missalette, you will notice a new edition came out Nov. 27. That’s about all that’s left to remind us of the liturgical year we celebrate as Christians. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Healthy cultures know how to insist upon their holidays, and religions cannot survive without them. The rhythm of feast and fast that pervades the Christian year is a vital part of a faith that is meant to be incarnate, embodied like Christ in the flesh and flux of the world.

In ancient Rome, the year began on the first of January, the month named for Janus, the god of transitions. He was also the first celestial war correspondent, since his temple’s doors were closed during Rome’s rare times of peace, but thrown open during wartime, presumably so he could watch the carnage.

Medieval Englishmen transferred New Year’s Day to March 25, the Annunciation, since for them new life began with the Incarnation of Christ in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Historians call this custom the “Annunciation Style.” After the Reformation, the English-speaking world gradually reverted to the older practice, dating the year from January 1, which until Vatican II was the Catholic Feast of the Circumcision. Thus certain chroniclers began to call the custom of celebrating Jan. 1 the “Circumcision Style.” Talk about starting the year on a painful note.

The church, which stands astride the centuries with one foot planted in this world, one in the next, has its own calendar, arranged according to eternal priorities. So the liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, with the first intimations of the coming of Christ. The colors in church change from green to purple, and the readings turn to the prophetic, emphasizing the desolate moral wilderness in which most of the world still slept until Christ illumined it. In most parishes and homes, the Advent Wreath still serves as a potent reminder of this movement from darkness to light.

Which brings us to all those Christmas lights. They used to go up the day after Thanksgiving but have lately begun to inch further back every year. And this seems only right, since for most us the beginning of Advent is a preparation for little more than shopping and supper. The first “holiday” decorations have now started springing up the day after Halloween—a feast which itself has become unhinged from any connection to the Saints or the Suffering Souls. It now centers largely on providing the maximum sugar possible to already hyperactive children dressed up as Harry Potter characters. What’s more, since the very notion of Thanksgiving implies that there’s Someone Up There to Whom we must be grateful, secularists have begun to call it by the numinous title “Turkey Day.” Give it ten more years, and Easter will be known as “Chocolate Egg Day.”

Our liturgical holidays—with our enthusiastic co-operation—have gradually been displaced by the consumer calendar, as determined by retail stores and greeting-card companies. It doesn’t help that under pressure from secularists, our public spaces are every year more thoroughly scrubbed of any Christian connotation to Christmas. In his wicked anti-utopian novel Love Among the Ruins, Evelyn Waugh detailed the reverent rites surrounding “Santaclaustide.” (On a much grimmer note, in Soviet Russia, Christmas was entirely replaced by a celebration of New Year’s; faithful Nazis were instructed to greet each other in December with a straight salute in honor of “Yule.”)

The newest piece of evidence that we’re sliding in some such direction comes from Wal-Mart. According to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, that retailer has ceased to use the word “Christmas” in its advertising and stores. When a shopper complained, she received the following message:

Walmart is a world wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than ‘christmas’ which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with ‘christmas’ red and white are actually a representation of the aminita mascera mushroom. Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world.

After the Catholic League threatened a boycott, the employee who wrote that note was relieved of his duties. We feel bad for the poor soul, who wrote as if he’d been indulging in a certain sort of religious mushroom. But Wal-Mart still won’t let its employees say “Merry Christmas.”

Perhaps it’s just as well. The way things are going, by the time the Christmas season actually does begin—on Dec. 25—most of us are sick to death of it and ready to move on. Besides, we need time to prepare spiritually for New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.

Some pious, dour Christians have started a countermovement, attempting to revive the original significance of Advent as a season of penance and prayer. Noting that in the early church people fasted three times a week throughout this season and treated it as a little Lent, these people refuse to throw holiday dinners before Dec. 24, skip office parties, and hold off on shopping and decorating their homes. They pile the kids into the minivan full of pro-life bumper stickers and take them to weekly Confession as a condition for attending those mid-December “holiday” festivities. They light their Advent wreaths in a darkened house.

This suits us curmudgeons just fine: we usually forget to decorate until it’s too late—when trees just happen to be half-price. We’ve always gone shopping on Christmas Eve, usually in one stop at Barnes & Noble, which stays open till midnight and gift-wraps for free. We don’t attend office parties either—the combination of free liquor, forced good cheer, randy co-workers, and thinly suppressed office politics make such events a great occasion for getting in a foolish fling or a fist-fight, then fired.

By insisting pedantically on the true meaning of Advent, you acquire a righteous excuse for skipping all this blather and playing Scrooge right up through Dec. 24—after which you can enjoy the holiday season all alone. Open a bottle of wine and unwrap those presents you bought yourself. A blessed Santaclaustide to one and all.

____________________________________________

John Zmirak is co-author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.

The Christ–The Controversy

To see the preview of Mel Gibson’s new film “The Passion of the Christ,” it wasn’t enough to be a film critic; the studio, Icon, had suspended screenings for ordinary journalists by the time I asked for a ticket. Instead, I had to take a back door—using my Catholic connections to score a seat at one of the film’s many church-based screenings, designed to build word of mouth among pastors and their congregations. I traveled from New York City to Darien, Connecticut, to a shiny new non-denominational Christian fellowship. My name wasn’t on the list, so I had to speak with an executive from Icon. A gracious and beautiful woman, she was beside herself trying to keep the event free of hostile press. She asked me a few questions, none of which seemed to come to the point, then finally posed the crucial one: “Are you a believer?”

I said, “Absolutely.” She looked relieved but went on to explain: “It’s just that ever since Mr. Abraham Foxman snuck in to one of our screenings, we’ve had to be very careful …” she said, then paused in thought. “You know, now that he has seen it, I think it will start to work on his heart. Let’s pray that he has a spiritual awakening because of the film. That’s why it was made.”

“The Passion of the Christ” has been the target of an extraordinary campaign of attempted prior censorship on the part of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. But for all the furious denunciations the film has garnered from professional anti-anti-Semites, Jewish people who see “The Passion” are certain to exhibit more fair-mindedness than their self-appointed spokesmen. Those who bestir themselves to view such an aggressively Christian movie will probably not be too surprised to see that it presents the death of Christ from, well … a Christian perspective. Likewise, it’s impressive how many Jews in America and Israel expend themselves in pursuing a genuine, fair peace settlement with Palestinians—even as suicide bombers target Jewish civilians.

But the leaders of some Jewish groups will certainly complain—as some Catholic organizations screamed outrage at such movies as “Priest” and “The Boys of St. Vincent’s,” which depicted problems of homosexuality and pedophilia among the clergy. (Then events caught up with them, and real news reports of Church scandals made the films seem pale by comparison.) In doing so, Foxman and his associates will be making a great strategic mistake—sparking and fanning anti-Semitic resentment where it needn’t exist.

There is nothing in “The Passion” regarding the Jewish leaders of the time and their treatment of Christ that does not come from the New Testament itself —which Christians regard as divinely inspired. (In fact, the key events are confirmed by the Jewish Talmud.) Gibson invents nothing, embellishes nothing, does nothing to suggest that all Jews rejected Christ or sought His death. Because “The Passion” limits its scope to Jesus’ last 18 hours of life, it doesn’t take on the profound mystery—which puzzled St. Paul (Rom. 11)—of why a majority of Jews ultimately did not accept their Messiah, leaving only a saving remnant to lead the early Church. I look forward eagerly to David Klinghoffer’s upcoming, Why the Jews Rejected Christ. Himself a convert to Orthodox Judaism, Klinghoffer is unfailingly fair to Christians, and his account promises to throw light on the most enduring conundrum of salvation history. The best reflections I have read on the question occur in Salvation is from the Jews, by the brilliant Jewish Catholic Roy Schoeman. He speculates that the gentiles would never have accepted Christ had He become the standard of a unified, resurgent Jewish nation. On this reading, there is something sacrificial, even redemptive, in the sufferings and wanderings of the Jewish people ever since. Perhaps Jesus was not the only Jew whose passion plays a part in the salvation of the gentiles.

More than any other film I’ve seen of Jesus’ life, “The Passion” goes out of its way to establish the Jewishness of Christ, His mother, and His apostles—from costumes to casting. Mary, for instance, is portrayed by Maia Morgenstern, a veteran of Bucharest’s State Jewish Theater, whose parents survived the Holocaust. The use of Aramaic dialogue and of Middle Eastern music places these events squarely in their historical context and shows the trial and execution of Jesus for what they were: an intra-Jewish conflict over whether the rabbi Joshua ben Joseph was in fact the Messiah or a blasphemer who justly deserved the death penalty. (The debate in the Sanhedrin, during which several rabbis stand up in Jesus’ defense, turns into a squabble that evokes the raucous floor of Israel’s Knesset.)

Make no mistake: as the Gospels make clear, Jesus did indeed say things that contravened the law of Moses—divinely imposed, the highest, purest religion existing on earth. In the high priest’s presence, Jesus asserted His own divinity. Faced with this, the high priest had only two choices: bow down and worship Jesus or put Him to death.

There is no room in the Gospels for the liberal 19th-century myth of Jesus as a great moral teacher, unjustly persecuted. As C.S. Lewis has written, Jesus was either the Son of God or a wicked, perhaps deranged, imposter. Religious Jews who reject His divinity but affirm Him as a noble ethicist are being extremely generous.

That said, there is a narrative problem in “The Passion’s” depiction of Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia). This is important not because Gibson betrays any anti-Semitism in portraying him, but because Caiaphas is the most overtly active character in the film.

Jesus (James Caviezel) has chosen passivity—being “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” Indeed, the sickening violence Jesus undergoes reduces Him to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp early on in the film, making it hard to identify with Him thereafter. That’s the principle flaw in the film—which is far too gruesome for many viewers, akin in that way to “Saving Private Ryan” or “Reservoir Dogs.”

Pontius Pilate, an indecisive bureaucrat, is buffeted by events and the whims of the crowd. Mary, John, and the Magdalene are anguished onlookers. Satan appears in the form of an androgynous, vaguely erotic Goth chick but mainly skulks and whispers.

Only Caiaphas takes decisive, ongoing action, making him in effect the Passion’s anti-hero. But Gibson does little to establish his motivation for rejecting Christ or persecuting Him. We do not see flashbacks of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, calling the Pharisees “whited sepulchers,” or otherwise making direct claims to displace Caiaphas’s priesthood with His own. We have to infer all that from our memory of the Scriptures—which renders this film’s Caiaphas something of a cipher. His cruelty and relentlessness seem insufficiently motivated. It is easy to see how a paranoid viewer, eager for hints of anti-Semitism, could read them into the empty spaces in the narrative. But Gibson didn’t put them there. In fact, to the fair-minded viewer, Foxman’s attack upon the film will seem like a thinly veiled assault on the Gospels themselves. And this is supposed to be good for the Jews?Gibson even proved amenable to editing out one “hard saying” from the Gospel narrative. After screenings with Christians garnered negative reactions to the scene, Gibson cut the statement by Caiaphas calling down Jesus’ blood on himself and his people. Thank God. This phrase, taken out of context, was abused in past centuries to justify persecution of Jews. It’s impossible to think of a more perverse, destructive interpretation of Jesus’ death than one that targets His own people. Christianity teaches that the sins of all men, of each individual man, and of the first man, were the cause of Jesus’ death. Insofar as particular Jewish people (several hundred at most) on Good Friday followed their leader in denouncing Christ to Pilate, they were merely serving as stand-ins for the whole human race. To blame contemporary Jews for their actions makes as little sense as sending Ralph Fiennes to stand trial in The Hague for his character’s crimes in Schindler’s List.

But Gibson did not go far enough for his enemies. They seem in fact implacable—though that does not stop self-hating Christians from trying. Some biblical scholars suggest the Gospel of John be edited or excised from the scriptural canon because it is “inherently anti-Semitic.” In 2003, some theologians associated with the U.S. Catholic Bishops colluded with several Jewish leaders to produce a document that effectively declared that Christianity was meant only for gentiles, not for Jews, so the Church should stop evangelizing them. When prominent Jewish Catholics, among others, pointed out such statements by Jesus as “Go nowhere among the Gentiles … but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5) and “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), the document was quietly dropped. Appropriately, the architect of that document was Eugene Fisher, the same man who helped the ADL orchestrate an attack on “The Passion” —based on the preliminary, stolen script. The bishops had to back away from that one, too, under threat of legal action.

The eagerness of liberal Catholics to assist in slandering the great Pope Pius XII—whose early anti-Nazi diplomacy has recently been documented, along with the hundreds of Jews he personally ransomed—is even more detestable. Ironically, there are certain parallels between Pius XII and “The Passion’s” Caiaphas. In each case we find a world religious leader existing under military occupation at the sufferance of enemies who persecute innocent Jews. Let Pius be judged by the same standards critics would have us use in judging Caiaphas. Which leader comes off better?

It is clear that the same spirit motivates the campaign against Gibson’s film, the attacks on Pius XII, and similar assaults against Christianity in public life. It’s more than just a rejection of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah—a shocking assertion that requires the divine gift of faith to accept. It is an attack on Christian culture root and branch, an assertion that the Christian faith is a dangerous poison that must be purged from the earth to ensure social progress and the safety of other religions. This position, which most Jews would surely reject, is the basic assumption of contemporary secularism, which knows no race or creed. But since Foxman is leading this particular jihad against the cross, one wonders whether he does not agree with Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby. Interviewed for Ron Rosenbaum’s fascinating book, Explaining Hitler, Maccoby blames Christianity itself, its central doctrine of the divinity of Christ and His sacrificial death, for subsequent anti-Semitism and for the Holocaust. Maccoby asserts in his various writings that the core narrative of Christ’s death on the cross led directly and inevitably to Jews being sacrificed, en masse, in Nazi death camps. “Christians say the Holocaust is part of the evil of humanity,” he told Rosenbaum. “It isn’t the evil of humanity. It’s the evil of Christendom.” For this reason, Maccoby considers that the only forms of Christianity that are not intrinsically anti-Semitic are those that reject Christ’s divinity and redemption. On the same page, Maccoby insists that for him, “Christmas is a sinister festival,” since it points ahead to Easter. Does Foxman agree? I don’t know. But his organization provides on its Web site a comprehensive guide for members on how to purge holiday celebrations in public schools and civic spaces of any reference to Jesus, the Nativity, or Christmas.

Perhaps it’s time to turn the tables on Foxman, who freely attributes to his opponents the darkest of motivations, and demand of him: How much of our faith do you demand that we renounce? How far do you intend to go?

_____________________________________________________

John Zmirak wrote the first English-language biography of anti-Nazi activist and social philosopher Wilhelm Röpke.