Rod Dreher

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On Writing & Failed Oysters

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Sociologist and musician Richard Sennett, in Spiked:

“Good craftsmen are not expressing themselves. They’re expressing something outside themselves. In that sense, craft is not about selfhood. When somebody declares to you, ‘I feel I have a novel in me, but of course at the moment I’m working in advertising’, you know that person is never going to be an artist. ‘I have this novel hidden inside myself, I’m an artist without an art’. I don’t believe that sort of thing. And I don’t believe in the ethos of personal creativity. You either do it or you don’t. …”

Strangers often say to me, “I have a book inside me,” or something like that. I understand the feeling — I spent my twenties thinking that — but in almost every case, they are doomed to suffer what Truman Capote called the condition of a failed oyster: “irritation with no resulting pearl.”

Sennett is correct: if you had a book inside of you, you would have been working to get it out. Usually the people who say things like this to me have not written a thing — and they are not young, either. The thing is, writing is very hard work. I remember in my mid-twenties, in the winter I spent by myself living in a country house, waking up in the morning, staring at the blank screen of my PowerBook, wondering how I was going to fill it. I didn’t write a single word that winter. I had nothing to say, and equally important, had not yet developed a craftsman’s skills. Those would come only through years of writing, especially writing on deadline for newspapers.

My sister thought I was getting away with murder when I had a job as a professional film critic. Paid to sit on your butt watching movies, and all you have to do is write down your opinion about it? That’s the life! The thing is, she couldn’t have pulled it off if she had had a gun to her head. It’s not that I was a particularly good film critic; it’s that I was a craftsman. Every newspaper journalist has to do some version of what I did as a critic: take chaos and make meaning out of it, on deadline. It’s great training.

What it does is allow the writer to hone her expressive abilities. What it cannot do is either give the writer something worth expressing, or give the writer the inner drive necessary to get her through the years of dull practice that will prepare her to be a writer of accomplishment. In my case, writing my first book, Crunchy Constook so much out of me that I thought I would never be able to write another book. That book came out 10 years ago this month (February 21, 2006), and I laugh now at the memory of laying in bed the night before publication, too nervous to sleep, imagining all the riches that were about to come my way. I genuinely could not comprehend that something I had worked so hard on, and agonized so intensely over, could fail to be anything but a massive success.

Well, I learned my lesson, and a hard lesson it was. All writers have to learn it. I was so disappointed that I thought for sure I would never write another book. I couldn’t go through that ordeal again, only to see it fizzle out in the marketplace.

A decade later, I’m working on my fourth book. I’m still hoping for the big commercial breakthrough, but I know now that the odds remain very much against me (and against all writers). Why do I do it? Because I have to. Fish gotta swim, and I gotta write. I’m almost 50 years old, and have been a professional writer for nearly 30 years. What I know now that I didn’t know when I was starting out is how much sheer artistic drive matters.

I began as a writer because I enjoyed journalism very much. I loved to read, to see how the pros could conjure images, draw forth emotions, and even change minds by the power of words. I had a knack for writing, and I found it … fun. A flimsy word, but a far more truthful one to my own experience than any kind of hallowing language. I made a lot of mistakes in my early career, and made them in public, on the pages of the newspaper. But I kept going because I really had no choice. That was my job. Having to pay bills with my words forced me to get over my embarrassment at the roughness of my writing. I couldn’t afford to be too self-conscious. I just had to live with the shame of mediocrity, learn from my superiors, and try to get better.

Over time, I did get better, and I came to love writing as much as life itself, though I didn’t know what was happening to me until after it had happened. At some IMG_6323point, I can’t say exactly when, writing ceased to be what I did, and became who I was. When journalism students ask me today for career advice, it’s hard to know what to tell them, because I swear I can’t come up with a formula, and anyway, the market is vastly different today than it was when I entered newspapering in 1989. If I had never become a newspaper writer, I probably would never have become a writer, period. My anxiety, my self-doubt, and my lack of a craftsman’s discipline would have stymied the artist in me. Newspapering compelled me to become a craftsman, and made it possible, therefore, to try to become something more than a craftsman (I’m still trying). That path is now much narrower, owing to the turmoil in the media industry, and that is something greatly to be regretted.

The only real piece of advice I have to offer is the same advice Rilke gave to Kappus, the young poet who wrote the older poet asking for direction in his career. Rilke wrote:

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.

And if not, find something else to do with your life. You will never be a writer, and you will put yourself through misery on the way to a dead end. The long hours, the low pay, the lack of job security in the journalism industry — it’s not worth it unless you know in your heart of hearts that this is what you were born to do. You have to ask yourself if it’s worth putting your spouse and family through the misery of being part of the life of a journalist. For most of my children’s childhood, we were never able to eat dinner together as a family on weeknights, because I came home at a different hour each night, usually after dinnertime. Even today, it is no fun having a writer as a husband and father.

What’s more, if you manage to produce a book, you must be able to bear the near-certainty that your work will never find a publisher, and if it does, the odds are overwhelmingly against it being a big commercial success. You have to have it within you to pick up and carry on, and return to writing. The only way to do that, the only way you, Sisyphus, can push that damn rock up the mountain one more time, the only way you can keep going after having to stand before your audience and beg them, “Please clap,” is if the deep answer within you to Rilke’s question is: Yes, I must write; it’s who I am.

As Sennett said, you either write or you don’t write. If you aren’t writing now, even non-professionally, chances are you never will. If you don’t start now, forget it. Nobody likes to hear that. It’s a hard truth, but a useful one to learn.

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When Liberals Were Pro-Life

Emma Green has a fascinating article about a new work of history shining light on the progressive roots of the pro-life movement. Excerpt:

In a new book, Defenders of the Unborn, the historian Daniel K. Williams looks at the first years of the self-described pro-life movement in the United States, focusing on the long-overlooked era before Roe. It’s somewhat surprising that the academy hasn’t produced such a history before now, although Williams says that’s partially because certain archives have only recently opened. But the gap in scholarship is also partly due to the difficulty of putting abortion into a single intellectual framework. “Too many historians took for granted that the pro-life movement emerged as a backlash against feminism, and/or as a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973,” Williams said in an interview. Many of today’s most ardent anti-abortion activists likely identify with this kind of sexual conservatism and resentment toward a meddling government. But in many ways, their political convictions are counter to the original aspirations of the movement. As Williams writes in his book, “The pro-life movement that we have always labeled ‘conservative’ was at one time much more deeply rooted in the liberal rights-based values than we might have suspected.”

Without knowing this history, Williams argues, it’s difficult to understand why pro-life views have had such staying power in American politics, even as public opinion on other social issues, such as LGBT rights and birth-control use, has steadily shifted to become more permissive. Abortion, he says, has a different history. Its early opponents thought it was their duty, and their government’s duty, to protect the unborn alongside the poor and the weak. They believed their position offered women empowerment, not oppression.

Most importantly, this history shows how contorted the abortion debate has become, as women’s bodies and children’s futures have been turned into rhetorical proving grounds for politicians left and right. Today, pro-life Democrats are nearly extinct, and openly pro-choice Republicans rarely make it to a national stage like this year’s presidential race. Fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case. What happened to America’s progressive pro-lifers?

Read the whole thing. In brief, the pre-Roe pro-life movement was heavily Catholic, and the pro-life Catholics saw defending the unborn as part of a seamless garment with New Deal-type measures to defend workers and help the poor. And some conservatives of the 1960s favored abortion as a way to keep down the population of welfare recipients.

In the 1970s, post-Roe, that all changed. Abortion came to be spoken of in terms of gender and sexuality, not human rights. By the end of the decade, with so many Evangelicals moving into the pro-life camp, and social conservatives being pushed out of a Democratic Party that was fast moving leftward on social and cultural issues, abortion politics were slotted into the familiar left-right categories we know today.

But it wasn’t always that way, and that, says Ball, may explain why the complexity of the abortion issue cannot be neatly fitted into our contemporary political ideologies. Again, read the whole thing. It’s really thought-provoking.

[H/T: Caroline Nina]

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‘Mom, I Think We Have Peak Dad’


“Mom, I think we have Peak Dad,” said my son Matthew, spying the scene above, where I had been working. Too true. I’m very deep down the Benedict Option book research rabbit hole.

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Fun With Fly Vomit & E. Coli

My late father was a state health inspector in his first career. That made life around our house interesting. I’ll never forget him fussing at us kids one day for not covering up food left out on the counter, thereby leaving it vulnerable to house flies.

“Do you know what a fly does when he lands on food?” he said. “He vomits on it. They showed us a training film with a close-up of a fly puking on a slice of lemon meringue pie.”

Turns out that’s not really true — flies don’t vomit, but they do drool — but it was close enough to freak us out, and make us shape up. Over four decades later, I cannot look at lemon meringue pie without thinking of upchucking houseflies. Yeah, it was fun having a health inspector for a dad.

I bet it’s much tougher having as your father Bill Marler, who is arguably the No. 1 food safety lawyer in the country. In a recent piece, he listed the six foods his experience has taught him never to eat. Among them:

3. Meat that isn’t well-done. Marler orders his burgers well-done. “The reason ground products are more problematic and need to be cooked more thoroughly is that any bacteria that’s on the surface of the meat can be ground inside of it,” Marler says. “If it’s not cooked thoroughly to 160°F throughout, it can cause poisoning by E. coli and salmonella and other bacterial illnesses.” As for steaks, needle tenderizing—a common restaurant practice in which the steak is pierced with needles or sliced with knives to break down the muscle fibers and make it more tender—can also transfer bugs from the surface to the interior of the meat. If a restaurant does this (Marler asks), he orders his steak well-done. If the restaurant doesn’t, he’ll opt for medium-well.



6. Raw oysters and other raw shellfish. Marler says that raw shellfish—especially oysters—have been causing more foodborne illness lately. He links this to warming waters, which produce more microbial growth. “Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” he explains. “If there’s bacteria in the water it’ll get into their system, and if you eat it you could have trouble. I’ve seen a lot more of that over the last five years than I saw in the last 20 years. It’s simply not worth the risk.”

I cited those two because I love my steaks medium-rare, and like my burgers pink inside. And of course I absolutely adore raw oysters. I confess, though, that I eat a lot fewer Louisiana oysters than I have in the past, simply because our waters here are warmer.

In a really interesting follow-up interview with the Washington Post, Marler told a stunning anecdote:

Do you know the juice Odwalla? Well, the juice is made by a company in California, which has made all sorts of other juices, many of which have been unpasteurized, because it’s more natural. Anyway, they were kind of like Chipotle, in the sense that they had this aura of good and earthy and healthful. And they were growing very quickly. And they had an outbreak. It killed a kid in Colorado, and sickened dozens of others very seriously, and the company was very nearly brought to its knees. [The outbreak, which was linked to apple juice produced by Odwalla, happened twenty years ago].

If you look at how they handled the PR stuff, most PR people would say well, they handled it great. They took responsibility, they were upfront and honest about it, etc etc. What’s interesting though is that behind the scenes, on the legal side of the equation, I had gotten a phone call, which by itself isn’t uncommon. In these high profile cases, people tend to call me—former employees, former government officials, family members of people who have fallen ill, or unknown people giving me tips. But this one was different. It was a Saturday—I remember it well—and someone left me a voicemail telling me to make sure I get the U.S. Army documents regarding Odwalla. I was like ‘what the heck, what the heck are they talking about?’ So I decided to follow up on it, and reached out to the Army and got something like 100 pages of documents. Well, it turned out that the Army had been solicited to put Odwalla juice on Army PX’s, which sell goods, and, because of that, the Army had gone to do an inspection of a plant, looked around and wrote out a report. And heres what’s nuts: it had concluded that Odwalla’s juice was not fit for human consumption.


It’s crazy, right? The Army had decided that Odwalla’s juice wasn’t fit for human consumption, and Odwalla knew this, and yet kept selling it anyway. When I got that document, it was pretty incredible. But then after the outbreak, we got to look at Odwalla’s documents, which included emails, and there were discussions amongst people at the company, months before the outbreak, about whether they should do end product testing—which is finished product testing—to see whether they had pathogens in their product, and the decision was made to not test, because if they tested there would be a body of data. One of my favorite emails said something like “once you create a body of data, it’s subpoenable.”

So, basically, they decided to protect themselves instead of their consumers?

Yes, essentially. Look, there are a lot of sad stories in my line of work. I’ve been in ICUs, where parents have had to pull the plug on their child. Someone commented on my article about the six things I don’t eat, saying that I must be some kind of freak, but when you see a child die from eating an undercooked hamburger, it does change your view of hamburgers. It just does. I am a lawyer, but I’m also a human.

Readers, have you ever had serious food poisoning? If so, did it affect the way you eat? I can think of only one time I had it bad, and that was when both my wife and I got very sick on Christmas Day from undercooked chicken we had eaten the night before. Salmonella, I guess. It was unreal, the misery. Since then, we have been a lot more careful about how we cook chicken. You don’t forget something like that.



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Whistling Past The Graveyard

I can’t understand the rationale — aside from wish fulfillment — for so many pundit types writing Donald Trump off and extolling Marco Rubio after the Iowa result.

Yes, it was a disappointing showing for Trump, considering the high expectations he had raised prior to the caucus. Still, he came in second place in a state where he had no ground game (versus Ted Cruz, who had an amazing one), a state where ground game is of paramount importance. Rubio’s third place showing was impressive, and launched him into position to be the consensus Establishment candidate that the party and movement elites have been hoping for.

But consider that Trump is massively ahead in New Hampshire — 21 points ahead of his nearest rival, Cruz (who is barely ahead of Rubio and Kasich). Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday, is a primary state, which is not going to hurt Trump as much as the caucus system did. There hasn’t been a South Carolina poll since the Iowa result, but the last one had Trump up by over 16 points.  South Carolina votes February 20, and Nevada, where Trump is also far ahead, caucuses on February 23.

After that is Super Tuesday, March 1, when a lot of Southern states vote. Trump is running strong in the South now.

Look, a lot can change in the next three weeks. But if Trump wins decisively in NH, and then in SC, he will have tremendous momentum going into Super Tuesday. If he loses SC, Trump will look a lot more vulnerable than he does post-Iowa. Still, I understand GOP regulars being relieved that Rubio has a shot, but do they really think that all the things that made grassroots conservatives embrace Donald Trump are going to evaporate overnight?

As for Ted Cruz, he can count on winning his home state of Texas on Super Tuesday, which is huge. But remember, conservative Evangelicals are his base, and he’s going to have to show that he can appeal beyond them. Iowa Republicans are heavily Evangelical (as 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee and 2012 Iowa winner Rick Santorum can testify), but that’s less true in most other places.

I still find it hard to imagine Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, but I’ve been wrong about him for a long time. This pundit rush-to-Rubio seems awfully premature, is what I’m saying.

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A Work of Restoration

Cardinal John Henry Newman (Basphoto/Shutterstock)
Cardinal John Henry Newman (Basphoto/Shutterstock)

I focus a lot on Gloom, Despair, and Agony On Us (hat tip: Hee-Haw), so it’s a pleasure to post this e-mail from a reader:

I don’t know if I’ve told you about our parish school that has rebooted itself much in the model of St. Jerome’s.  Anthony Esolen wrote about it here:

I think it would be worth sharing it with your readers.  (I am biased but also want people to know about it.)

My son went to Montessori preschool there last year and we moved all my school age kids there this year.  It has been AWESOME!  We had been sending our kids to the local public schools because the other Catholics schools in the area didn’t inspire much.  They seemed like glorified public schools with a dollop of religion.  (Indeed, they seem to run after what the public schools are doing.  I almost drove off the road when I heard a Catholic high school talk about the bold move it had made by bringing new technology into the classroom for every single student.  This was what he thought boldness in Catholic education was.)

In many ways the local public schools match up with our desires to live in a walkable community.  My sixth grader would have had a two-block walk to school.  My third grader would have been in the same school he and his sister were in last year which is about 10 minute walk.  But there are no ideal situations in this world.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was my daughter being about to move to the middle school.  It is the same school I went to and like most middle schools it has a Lord of the Flies atmosphere.  But that wasn’t the deal breaker.  Rather, it was the “optional” use of Chromebooks by all the students.  And we are talking about the liberal sort of option that is basically mandatory because all the classes teach to the laptops and the classrooms have ONE set of textbooks per class that a student can check out.

We knew the classical model was better, but we also had some big sacrifices to make. Besides, there is something Catholic to being rooted in place.  We tried to sell our house but were not successful, and so we have a 15-minute drive every morning — which is minimal compared to some other families; our friends in DC roll their eyes at because they’d die for such a short school commute.

We are six months in and we are so incredibly happy.  To have teachers pulling in the same direction, to have your kids start each day with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to be able to sit with them at daily Mass when I can, has been awesome.  And the things they are learning are the things I am still trying to catch up on!  My kids were sledding with their uncle (my brother-in-law) and he asked my sixth grader what she was reading.  She proceeded to tell him about the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic which they had been reading and discussing.  I didn’t read any of that–probably didn’t even know about it–until college.  They are learning Latin and being challenged in their religion.  For instance, the wonderful religion teacher that my daughter has challenged them to make the case for Christ’s divinity but then had them flip around and prosecute the other side and make the arguments for why he wasn’t divine.  He wants them to think these things through, not simply to recite some lines from the Catechism.

One of the keys is the smallness of the place.  Another key has been our pastor’s willingness to reach out to homeschoolers.  So often parish schools are antagonistic towards homeschoolers.  Our school has something called the Classical Enrichment Curriculum (CEC) that allows homeschoolers to take classes a la carte on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Some homeschoolers have ended up switching to full time but others continue to come twice a week.

The headmaster is a not someone from the educational bureaucracy; he’s a Air Force colonel and a lawyer and so he thinks outside the box.

I am blabbering but I really have been blown away by what is going on in this school.  My sixth grader also isn’t fighting a constant battle each day in school.  She’s not being made fun of because she doesn’t have the latest iPhone.  She is able to be sheltered in a good way.

The liturgical life is so rich too.  Our kids had Mass on the Ephiphany in the Extraordinary Form.  Yesterday, they had a beautiful Candlemas celebration.  They have Adoration every Tuesday and the kids spend time there as classes.  They have regular confessions.

Here’s the website about the school:

Here are some youtube videos about the academy and the parish:

Pictures from Candelmas:

Pictures from a Rorate Mass in December (scroll down):

Again, I am going on and on, but it gives me so much joy to have this place and to see it growing.  There are families moving to be closer.  There are families driving an hour to bring their kids here.  There is something special happening.  I’d love it if you could share some of this!

With pleasure. Reading this, I am reminded of how Cardinal Newman described the work of the early Benedictines:

St Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it [the caveat], not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.

If you know who John Senior was, it will not surprise you to learn that this school, Sacred Heart Academy, is, in a way, the fruit of his labor. The Sacred Heart provost was mentored by Hillsdale College’s David Whalen, who in this lecture talks about his experience with the legendary Kansas professor — a proto-Benedict Option-er if ever there was one.

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Male And Female He Did Not Create Them

St. Chrysostom’s, a progressive parish in the not-at-all-declining Church of England, is hosting “The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven,” a play written by and starring Jo Clifford, a male-to-female transsexual. The play imagines Jesus as a transsexual returning to earth in the present day. According to the orthodox Anglican blog Stand Firm in Faith, the local Anglican bishop has said nothing about this blasphemy. Watch the reimagined “Our Father” by Jo Clifford above, if you want a better idea about what the Anglicans at St. Chrysostom, and the Bishop of Manchester, support.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the progressive ruling party in Alberta has issued an exciting new policy for schools. Excerpt:

It used to be: “Heather has two mommies.”

Now, it’s: “Heather has two non-gendered and inclusive caregivers.”

That’s the language the New Democratic Party government in Alberta, Canada, is telling teachers and school administrators to use when adressing the adults with whom students are living. Out: “mother” and “father.” In: “parent,” “caregiver,” “partner,” whatever.

And God help you if refer to one of the little rascals as “him” or “her.”

Here’s the pertinent language from the rainbow-adorned “Guidelines for Best Practices” that the highminded-progressive NDP government issued last week:

School forms, websites, letters, and other communications use non-gendered and inclusive language (e.g., parents/guardians, caregivers, families, partners, “student” or “their” instead of Mr., Ms., Mrs., mother, father, him, her, etc.).”

The purpose of the guidelines, according to the text, is to create “learning communities” that “respect diverse sexual orientations, gender identies, and gender expressions.”

And that means that the kids, no matter how young or how old, get to pick their own gender and force everyone else in the school to abide by their choice.

The CBC has more details:

It should be up to each individual whether they use a washroom designated for males or females, according to the guidelines.

Specifically, the document states that students should be “able to access washrooms that are congruent with their gender identity.” …

As much as possible, the guidelines call for the elimination of separate activities for students based on gender.

The Catholic bishop of Calgary denounced these guidelines, but the province is going to compel Catholic schools to comply:

[Education Minister Dave] Eggen said discussions with school boards will continue and there will soon be meetings with Catholic Church leaders as well.

“Certainly I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but important things are never necessarily easy to achieve,” Eggen told The Canadian Press Thursday.

“We’ll receive different opinions on this, but I always take it back to first principles, which is to protect and to focus on children, especially young vulnerable children in regards to gender identities. Once we do remind ourselves of those things, then it becomes clearer what has to be done,” he said.

Won’t somebody please think of the children!  As usual, the propagandistic shibboleth of “safety” is invoked to steamroller the rights of the Church and Catholic parents to run their own schools according to their own beliefs. Americans, say it again and again: “Thank you, Almighty God, for the First Amendment.” There is no doubt in my mind that if not for the First Amendment, gay activists and their institutional supporters would eventually force these policies on religious schools in the US too.

Back in the UK, a private school for kids aged 11-18 is celebrating diversity by allowing students to claim whatever gender category they like. The Archbishop Cranmer blog comments:

Of course, God loves His creation, and, of course, that includes (without exception) the spectrum of hormonal beings who, whether by nature or nurture, are ‘fluid’ in their sexuality, or ‘non-binary’ in their identity. But in these schools, God (and/or nature) seems to have become subordinate to ‘welfare’ and ‘happiness’, which is defined not in terms of any transcendental or altruistic pursuit, but in purely selfish terms of sexual self-identity. Happiness is not to be found in personal sacrifice, selflessness, moral virtue or seeking the beatific truths of God: it is found in the hedonistic attainment of personal pleasure and natural desire, which resides most supremely in contemplating and then realising the act of sexual union with whomever, whenever and however one pleases.

We might leave autonomous, mature adults to decide these ethical matters for themselves: it is not for the Christian to impose his conception of holiness or orthodox morality upon the unbelieving world. But schoolchildren? Are they not to be taught to distinguish left and right (moral neutrality) from right and wrong (moral responsibility)? If they are to be taught that God’s goodness and their happiness consists in the self-contained indulgence of assertions of gender self-identity, then we are not only ordering the natural world of biology to suit the political agenda of a tiny minority, but redefining what it means to be humanly fulfilled and ultimately ‘happy’.

Steadily, the very essence of what it means to be male, female, and even human, is being destroyed. Nothing but chaos and will. You know exactly where this is going.

UPDATE: Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, speaks to what is so dishonest about the way we frame this discussion, in a passage criticizing the way certain concepts are deployed rhetorically to shut down discussion. For example, he says that there are a number of reasons why abortion should be legal, but “choice” is not one of them. In fact, “this kind of appeal trivializes the issue.” More:

[Choice] is a word which occludes almost everything important: the sacrificed alternatives in a dilemmatic situation, and the real moral weight of the situation.

And yet we find these words surfacing again and again, slogan terms like “freedom”, “rights”, “respect”, “non-discrimination”, and so on. Of course, none of these is empty in the way “choice” is; but they too are often deployed as argument-stopping universals, without any consideration of the where and how of their application to the case at hand.

We are watching the concept of fundamental categories like male and female dismantled before our eyes, with no debate about it, without consideration of what this might mean for present and future generations. It all gets pushed along under the concept of “safety” or “diversity,” or some other benign term used in an Orwellian way. As Taylor notes about how oversimplification makes it easier to overpower your opponents (“Four legs good, two legs bad!”), “Shallowness and dominance are two sides of the same coin.”


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The Architecture of the Benedict Option

St. Andrew's Church, 12C, Hampshire, England (Alan M. Barr/Shutterstock)
St. Andrew's Church, 12C, Hampshire, England (Alan M. Barr/Shutterstock)

Here’s a terrific meditation by English writer Niall Gooch, who has been thinking about the Benedict Option, and the way Britain’s surfeit of old churches can be part of it. Excerpts:

One question in particular is less commonly discussed, and it is this: is there any way to make use of the physical fabric of Christian England to increase the resilience of Christian communities? This question occurred to me when reading the US writer Rod Dreher, who has for several years been writing about something called the “Benedict Option”. This is an umbrella term he coined for the many and varied ways in which he argues that Christian communities can and must develop spiritual and cultural resilience in response to the challenges of living in heavily secularised and anti-religious countries, at a time when government, business and culture are profoundly hostile to traditional religious beliefs and practices.


There seems too to be a link between building and ritual. One of the themes in Dreher’s Benedict Option writing is his belief that churches that do not have formal liturgy and traditional, structured devotional practices will face an extra barrier in maintaining their integrity and vitality as Christian congregations when persecution comes or when their members face the harsh winds of cultural ridicule and disapproval. Liturgies and traditional practices act as an anchor to the tradition of the Church, they remind congregations of their adherence to the Creeds and that they are part of something much greater which should not be lightly rejected or tampered with. Solidity, routine and sacraments help to build strong Christians. Ancient church buildings can be a hugely important component of this grounding of the faith. Their physicality is a reminder that the faith is not some kind of gnostic spiritualised thing, but is closely concerned with the material creation, with the lives of people who have bodies.

Read the whole thing. 

This brings to mind the last time I was in Cambridge, and stopped into St. Bene’t’s (that is, Benedict’s), which dates to the 11th century and is the oldest building in the town. I spent some time praying there, and was nearly overwhelmed by the fact of that church: that Christians have been praying on that spot for nearly a thousand years. That those stones have absorbed the prayers, the chants, and the hymns of worshipers for a millennium. What an incredible gift the people of Britain, and indeed of Europe, have in their ecclesial architectural heritage.

Follow Niall Gooch @epiphaniall, by the way. He’s always got something good to say. And by the way, if you have not yet read the recent First Things essay about building, harmony, and God by architect Christopher Alexander, make amends right this very second!


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A New Kind of Catholic School?

Child Jesus teaching in the Temple; from the Strasbourg cathedral, ca. 13C-14C (jorisvo /
Child Jesus teaching in the Temple; from the Strasbourg cathedral, ca. 13C-14C (jorisvo /

A reader writes:

The story about your friends pulling their kids out of Catholic school hit particularly close to home as my wife and I have reached a breaking point with our parish school. Our seven year old daughter has had nearly the identical experience as your friends’ 10 year old. We are very orthodox, but it seems
like most of the school families are cultural comformists, or as a previous commenter indicated more MTD than Catholic. I know most of these kids are being exposed to the full range of bile which our popular culture spews. Our 7 year old daughter has not yet made her first communion, but already she has had a male classmate give a note telling her, “I like your ass,” and has overheard a male classmate telling the girls in the class that he played naked with a girl in his neighborhood. This is concerning enough although I would guess this 7 year old boy doesn’t understand what he’s saying.

More disturbing is the garbage that has come home from the school library where ostensibly there should be some adult oversight as to what the kids can take out or
what should be in a Catholic school library to begin with. We’ve not seen anything like the book you mentioned in your earlier post, but we’ve seen books that glorify all manner of disrespectful behavior, bathroom humor, bullying, mocking people including teachers for weight, hairstyle, dress, etc. Our children are no longer allowed to check books out of the school library because we simply cannot trust the staff to provide appropriate guidance.

There is another factor at work with many Catholic
Schools that has not been mentioned and that is the simple fact that so many of them, ours included, are struggling just to survive. They’re struggling to survive because so many Catholic parents, the vast majority at our middle class suburban parish, send their kids to public schools. Our school is so desperate to increase enrollment that they water down the faith to attract anyone who might be looking for an alternative to public schools of uneven quality. We just had our annual Catholic Schools week open house this weekend, and my wife overheard perhaps the very best and most devout teachers on the faculty, someone who is extremely active in the parish and whom we know to be very committed to her faith tell a prospective, non-Catholic parent that while the school is Catholic it’s not, “overly Catholic.” I cannot tell you how dispiriting this is especially since I’m far from certain that the principal and other teachers are as devout as this teacher.

We are fortunate that in our area there is a private, non parochial Catholic school, recognized by the archdiocese, but not part of the deeply bureaucratic archdiocesan system. This school was founded about 15 years ago by a group of well-to-do Catholics who were not satisfied with the orthodoxy of the local parochial schools. We’ve been doing our due diligence on this school, but all the evidence indicates that it is exactly what we’re looking for. When I first started researching it, I was quickly struck by the impression that it’s the Benedict Option in practice. And it’s more academically rigorous as well. It costs quite a bit more, but it will be more than worth it if it’s what it appears to be. Even so, I know that in our culture, the cost of my children’s innocence and their souls is eternal vigilance.

I was talking not long ago with a friend and reader of this blog who was telling me about the Catholic school system in his very Catholic hometown. It is a lot like the reader above describes his daughter’s school, and my friend said that there are a fair number of Catholic parents who would love to take their kids out of the diocesan system and put them into a Catholic school that took the faith seriously. But there are none.

My friend has what I think is a great idea, following on the example of St. Jerome’s in Hyattsville, Md., profiled in the Washington Post Why not take one of the failing Catholic schools in the local diocesan system and remake it as a “classical” school? Protestants are way ahead on the classical model, and Catholics have a lot to learn from them — and from fellow Catholics like the folks at St. Jerome’s. From the WaPo piece:

“Classical” education aims to include instruction on the virtues and a love of truth, goodness and beauty in ordinary lesson plans. Students learn the arts, sciences and literature starting with classical Greek and Roman sources. Wisdom and input from ancient church fathers, Renaissance theologians and even Mozart — whose music is sometimes piped into the classrooms to help students concentrate better — is worked in.

On the hallway walls outside Clayton’s classroom are student posters on the theme “What is goodness?,” “rules for knights and ladies of the Round Table,” drawings of Egyptian pyramids, directions to “follow Jesus’ teachings” and “be respectful toward others,” and other exhortations to live a noble life.

“The classical vision is about introducing our students to the true, the good, the beautiful,” Principal Mary Pat Donoghue points out. “So what’s on our walls are classical works of art. You won’t see Snoopy here.”

Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included.


“We defined what we meant by ‘classical’ in very Catholic terms,” says Michael Hanby, a committee member and a professor at the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University. “It was not just a method but an incorporation into the whole treasure of Christian wisdom, which includes that of Christian cultures. Our students would get a coherent understanding of history, literature, art, philosophy — the traditions to what Catholics in the West are heirs.”

It could be kind of a “magnet school” for Catholic parents who want something richer and deeper for their children than the “Catholic lite” approach that frustrates many parents. And it need not be outside of the diocesan system.

What’s not to like? Tell me, Catholic readers, especially you Catholic school teachers.



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As The Worm Turns

The Kirkus review of this book:

Austrian and Curato turn the simple wedding of two worms into a three-ring circus that slyly turns the whole controversy over same-sex versus heterosexual marriage on its head.

“Worm loves Worm. ‘Let’s be married,’ says Worm to Worm. ‘Yes!’ answers Worm. ‘Let’s be married.’ ” Seems simple to the two worms but not to the other woodland critters. Cricket insists on officiating. “That’s how it’s always been done” is his oft-repeated refrain. Beetle wants to be the best beetle, the Bees want to be the bride’s bees, the worms must wear rings, and they need a band to dance to, flowers, and a cake. The intendeds solve all these issues as well as the question of who’s the bride, who’s the groom. “ ‘I can be the bride,’ says Worm. ‘I can, too,’ says Worm.” They both are also the groom. One wears a veil, bow tie, gold ring, and black trousers; the other sports a top hat, gold ring, and flouncy white skirt. The wedding party is in awe, save uptight Cricket. “ ‘We’ll just change how it’s done,’ says Worm.” And so they do, and they are married at last…“because Worm loves Worm.” Curato’s pencil-and-Photoshop illustrations use white backgrounds to great effect, keeping the characters front and center. The two worms are differentiated only by their eyes: one has black dots, and the other has white around the black dots.

As in life, love conquers all

From the Publishers Weekly’s review:

How do you explain a revolution to a young audience? This book is a terrific start. … Then their friends make one more demand: there can only be one bride and one groom: that’s “how it’s always been done.” And that’s when the worms show they have a spine. “We can be both,” they insist, mixing and matching veils, tuxes, dresses, and top hats. “We’ll just change how it’s done.” Debut author Austrian proves that it’s possible to be silly and incisive at the same time, while Curato (the Little Elliot books) works in a stripped-down style that subtly reinforces the “all you need is love” message.

According to the image provided by the Tweeter, this new book is now on the shelves at the public library in rural Algoma, Wisconsin (pop. 3,167).

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