Monday, 27 July 2015

Demolishing the household

Although I'm not really one for conspiracy theories (I've known far too many decent Freemasons and Giant Alien Lizards in mufti to be easily convinced by such theories) I do have a residual fondness for the 'big business is out to get you' version.

In reality, this is more about a lingering sympathy for Marxism: economic realities tend to drive the cultural superstructure. And thus, with my foil hat firmly in place, I read with interest the article in this week's Economist about declining birth rates in modernised countries:

In east Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea the expectations heaped on wives and mothers are even harder for educated women to bear. Working hours are so long that it is almost impossible to combine work and any active parenting role. Children must also be tutored for make-or-break exams, raising the cost of child-rearing. And, unlike in western Europe or Scandinavia, women must sign up for the whole wife-mother package: births outside marriage are rare.

It ought to be possible to loosen this bind. Governments could make it easier to combine work and parenting; marital expectations could evolve. But for some it will be too late. Countries like Germany seem to have grown accustomed to single living and low birth rates. And in Asia and Europe alike, a new problem has grown: cities have become too nice.

(Article here.)

The key sentence here is: It ought to be possible to loosen this bind. Governments could make it easier to combine work and parenting; marital expectations could evolve. 

Whilst this certainly is wider than the preceding phrase 'births outside marriage are rare', it is clear that part of what the writer is thinking about here is that loosening of the expectation that birth is conducted within marriage.

When I look at the young today, I do find it incredibly difficult to see how many of them will be able to live their three score years and ten in the sort of lifelong, monogamous bond that we used to call marriage (and now, given its modern remaking as a festive bonk lasting only a little more than Johnny Rotten's two minutes of squelching we will have to find a new name for). Given professional careers don't really leave one free to starting having children until your thirties when female fertility starts nose-diving; given the career long pressures of long hours and expected geographical mobility etc etc, only heroic sacrifice and conscious determination to create the small civilisation of a household will make it all possible. In short, modern business and traditional marriage don't go together at all easily.

Insofar as I'd thought about this before, I'd simply concluded that the rational conclusion to this is childlessness: it's simply too difficult to have children in modernised societies and people will just stop having them, or at least will have too few to meet replacement levels. And that of course means that mass immigration is required to support all us old sterile wrinklies. Whether that's a totally bad thing is another question. But we should at least be honest about where the economics leads:

A country that worries about having too few young people to pay old folks’ pensions might be able to import workers. But that tends to bring the natives onto the streets. And home-grown citizens are handy for conscripting into armies. 

But the article hints at another alternative: to encourage having children outside traditional marriage. And with foil hat firmly on, one might become suspicious that the drive to abolish marriage as an institution that stands in the way of a mobile workforce devoted to business is driven by economics rather than the cultural superstructural blether of equal rights and autonomy.

While writing this I came across an Italian article on similar lines.*

...the logic of capitalist profit move[s] directly to the exploitation of the instincts of individuals who are isolated and constantly bombarded by consumer enticements, regardless of any assessment of rational nature, morality or even...pure and simple human ecology.

Ickean nonsense, no doubt. But odd that the house journal of international business seems to be thinking on the same lines...

[*Health warning: my Italian is almost non-existent and it's entirely possible that any article from I quote in this language is in fact a pizza recipe onto which I've projected my own preoccupations.]

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Preaching to the unconverted

I'm embracing my inner hippy on this one...

I've been struck a couple of times recently chatting to the 'young' (as one does) that a not uncommon type is 'pretty decent half Catholic'. You talk to a twenty year old or so, get thinking that they've pretty sound on a lot of things (solid grasp of the importance of family; not too materialistic; just a fundamental sense of decency) and, you sort of half suspect that or wonder whether they've had a Catholic upbringing. And 9/10 (based on an entirely objective, scientific statistical sample) they have. (They might even still go to Church.)

Now it's quite likely that this 'pretty decent half Catholic' (PDHC) will also hold views that make any orthodox Catholic squirm. Typically, they'll be in favour of same sex marriage, abortion (though perhaps only allowing the freedom for other women to choose), aardvarking outside marriage etc etc. If you push on this, you'll probably get some sort of response along the lines of 'well, no one takes the official line on this seriously anymore' or the sort of blank look that anyone could still be so homophobic and sexually repressed whilst not painting themselves in woad.

I mentioned in my last post the strategy of 'Aesopian Catholicism' (basically disguising your true thoughts, and, in the broad sense I'm going to be using it here, 'keeping your head down'.) Although there's more to be said about this, I'm not advancing this as a particularly good strategy. But it is certainly a current one. And if you're a moderately serious young Catholic who, while not rejecting Christ or the Church, is probably more interested in the opposite sex and in the daily business of life, it's entirely understandable. ('No one takes that seriously anymore' is probably translatable as 'Look, let's drop this subject' in many cases.)

There's a knock on effect among the clergy. If you have a congregation of PDHCs, even if you're the most orthodox, fire breathing priest imaginable, you might wonder precisely what to do with them. Get too rigorous and you'll probably drive what are, after all, sinners needing mercy and the sacraments across that line that takes them completely out of the Church. Say nothing and you're simply complicit in their slackness and ignorance and removing any possibility of maturing in the faith and morality. I think this explains much of the fairly well known 'Father Nice' syndrome: just as it's easy for a PDHC to forget the teaching of the Church in the effort to keep out of trouble, so it's easy for the Father Nices of this world to forget what the Church actually teaches in an effort not to drive off the (half) well -disposed but ignorant.

Solutions? Absolutely no idea. Screaming at them they're all unbelievers and are going to roast in Hell probably won't work in more than a few cases. Keeping silent about the depth of the Church's teachings and vision is cheating them of a chance of growth. But again the Benedict option is useless as a total solution. (It might work as a reservoir for PDHCs, but you then need to talk about how you establish aqueducts to distribute the water/teaching to the parched.)

Mediaeval Catholicism has often been mocked as presenting itself as a) a spiritual elite  who b) sneaked sinners into Heaven by a mechanical application of sacraments (grace) instead of effecting true conversion. Whatever the truth of this criticism, it's perhaps worth reconsidering the merits of such an approach. Whatever its dangers, such a view does correctly acknowledge the state of most people (and I include myself in this). I need grace and frankly I need a Church that is going to try to save me as a PDHC myself. And since (given the absence of autos-da-fe) I'm not liable to be frightened into submission, I'm gong to have to be persuaded, seduced even. From my standpoint, you could have sermons on sexual morality till the cows went home: the advantage of age is that stops being so much a problem. But being a smug comfortable git? Well...

More the setting out of a problem than a solution. But here's a suspicion. The priesthood, certainly in its everyday parish variety, is not well placed to seduce into the depths of Catholicism. In part, this is a matter of time. If you have few priests and a decline in non-Sunday contact with parishioners, there simply isn't the number of hours required for such a seduction to work. In part it's a matter of position and formation. This is tricky to articulate, but perhaps one can get a sense of the difficulties here by imagining the problems of a priest or religious enthusing over Rubens' portrayal of flesh and sexual allure. (If it's done, I bet they'd only go and ruin it by going on about sacramental presence and the like. You need rather more of the earth and Crazy Jane's 'Love has pitched his mansion/In the place of excrement' and perhaps just the simple joy of being alive.)

In sum, it's the laity and the culture which have to do the heavy lifting here. And the key problem (well, an important one anyway) is not to construct communities of the saints, but to work out how -as the Middle Ages did so well (and let's give Rubens and Yeats a place in the long middle ages)- PDHCs immersed in the pleasures of this world can still be led to the next one. Because if there are neo-benedictine communities, I bet I'll be one of those left on the outside with my sloth and lusts and my box sets of Breaking Bad wishing that someone would drag me, half despite myself, into heaven.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Citadel Catholicism: the Benedict Option. Not.

                                       Manoeuverable and secure: the Nelly Option

It's entirely understandable -given the SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage and more generally just the times we live in- for those of us attached to past forms of life to feel a little disoriented and to long for a place of security. And so we come to the Benedict option much pushed (eg) by Rod Dreher and amounting to a claim that Christianity (or just Western Civilization) needs to established oases of civilization separate from the dominant barbaric culture and, in essence, make sure we can ride it out while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart.

It's named after MacIntyre's famous closing passage in After Virtue (although I suspect it takes on some of the emotional colouring of sharing a name with Pope Benedict XVI who appears, for a variety of reasons, a safe haven in current Catholic turmoil) where MacIntyre urges (or rather hopes for) another St Benedict. The general line of thought here is clear: just as learning was saved for Europe by the monasteries, so must western civilization be saved by similar foundations.

I'm not convinced. First, I'm not convinced because I am convinced that there is no one solution because there is no one problem. It's rather more a case of  how to 'show the fly the way out of the fly bottle' or perhaps unpicking a tangle of wool. So, for example, in my last two posts, I have talked about concrete examples of  the attack on the family in modern TV and the importance of the cosmopolitan as a reflective part of local culture. 'Salvation' at least as far as our natural end is concerned requires unpicking these two knots and a host of others: there is no quick and no single way. (In general, I'm profoundly suspicious of monocausal analyses, whether these are blaming Duns Scotus or Vatican II or whatever.)

Secondly, I'm not quite sure what the Benedict option could be. MacIntyre himself is suitably agnostic:

We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -doubtless very different- St Benedict.

In the context of his work, I've always taken MacIntyre's own message to be primarily about ensuring the integrity of intellectual traditions. Since modern liberalism is, for MacIntyre, a sort of Mad Max bricolage of philosophies that once made sense, but have since been forced together into shoddy verbal contraptions that rely on brute willpower for their survival, the aim should be to establish (in particular) Catholic educational institutions that teach the integrity of the Thomist tradition rather than simply reproduce the secular mess. (A PDF of an article by him on this is downloadable here.) Certainly, if we are looking at anything close to the historical Benedict, we are looking at the establishment of reservoirs, from which surrounding populations can be watered: a monastery or a university still has to exists in a surrounding culture. Historically, the Benedict option coexisted with (say) a Charlemagne or an Alfred option: some deployment of royal force both to support the monastery's existence and to ensure its influence. You might, I suppose, argue for a dhimmitude option, in which Christians become a barely tolerated minority in a secular state, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't sound very attractive (even if the reality in some places may well end up rather like that).

Well, what's my alternative? Again, let me make it clear: I don't have one. But that is because I am a limited human being with limited knowledge and sensibility: I am not a Moses. I am still less Christ. Even St Benedict didn't have the answer. None of us have to provide the answer or the analysis. Find what you can think of doing and do it. If you can found an Amish like community of Catholics, do so. Certainly, make sure that you pass on Catholicism as far as you can to your own children. Write books. Pray. Fume quietly. None of this will be enough, but each knot at least chewed at will bring us closer to the unravelling.

But let me be slightly more useful and suggest two strategies that I haven't seen suggested. First, there is the Aesopian Catholic. (I owe this thought to my reading of Melzer on Strauss which I hope to come back to.) Learn how to speak so that the surrounding culture leaves you alone but your associates understand you. Become cunning in the same way that dissidents in the USSR became cunning. Live publicly but esoterically. Second, become a Catholic cosmopolitan. Whatever your local circumstances, live intellectually (and really) in the Catholic cosmos. Read foreign Catholic publications. Absorb Catholic culture. Learn Latin if you can. Improve your Romance languages (how many of us learned no French at school?) and follow Catholic thought in that language. (For how many of us have the Cathos of France been a recent inspiration? ) If languages elude you, follow the American Catholic intellectual world. Use MOOCs and online syllabuses to educate yourself. Live as a Catholic cosmopolitan with Catholics across time and space. (Get on that flight to Florence!)

Let me repeat: no one strategy will work and all, moreover, have their dangers. (The Aesopian Catholic will always have a tendency to fall into dishonesty and to allow the dominant culture to rest unchallenged for example.) Those who do possess big cultural guns should use them: there are enough Catholics still in positions of political and cultural importance for us not to abandon that weaponry until we have to. But the rest of us (the guerrilla Catholics perhaps?) must do what we can with pitchforks or at least podcasts.