Culture

A theory on "pro-choice Catholics"

Whenever one finds a "dissident" group that appears to advocate for the exact opposite of what an organization generally stands for, it's a good bet that it is insincere.  Choose your term of art - "astroturf", "false flag" - the notion is that it's basically a front group that's trying to attack the organization from within.

In the realm of religion this is a bit strange because (especially in the United States), there are few obstacles preventing movement from one belief to another.  Obviously, people in concentrated and close-knit communities such as the Amish or Mormons might find support "on the outside" hard to manage, but if one deeply disagrees with the teachings of the faith to the point of openly disputing them, that decisions has already been made.

There are of course a few exceptions where the dissenters actual win.  The Anglican Church is one example of this.  Just about everything the Anglicans believed in a century ago has been discarded.  Heck, the changes over the last 25 years have been profound.  So it is with the United Methodists (which are in fact breaking up) and other Protestant groups.

Within the Catholic Church, however, such movements gain little official traction.  In fact, right now the Church is seeing a strong push from the laity to become more orthodox, more faithful and more consistent in enforcing doctrine.  The current moral laxity (such as that originating in Germany) seems to come entirely from the leadership, which is stuck in a 1970s mindset).

Thus we have the strange creature known as the "pro-choice Catholic," an individual who claims to be a member of the Body of Christ, yet for some reason directly contradicts sacred scripture,  Church tradition, long-standing doctrine and Papal pronouncements. 

As my father likes to joke, there's a term for people like this: "Protestant."

I think the issue is twofold.  On the one hand, there is the egotism of thinking oneself smarter than the Church fathers, the Magisterium and the rest of the faith.  For some odd reason, people sometimes produce polls showing that a significant amount of Americans support some form of abortion, as if the Catholic Church is some sort of elective body.

There's also the fact that these people tend to be older, cradle Catholics whose identity was shaped when being Catholic was more of an ethnic identity than a religious one.  Neighborhoods were more ethnically homogeneous, so on Sunday, all the Irish, Italians, Polish, etc. went to Mass by default.

These communities have broken up over time, so there's no comparable social pressure.  Catholics are fully in the American mainstream and have been for a while.  Still, the older sort clings to their nominal faith perhaps out of a nostalgic sense of victimhood. 

In any event, I think there's another aspect to this, which also is rooted in the past, and that's the experience of socially ambitious Catholic women.

Young women in the 1960s did not have a lot of options for birth control.  Yes, The Pill burst on the scene (with disastrous results), but women of "good character" would never admit to taking it.  Certainly not Catholic girls.

Similarly, the time-tested condom was out of the question.  For one thing, "nice girls" didn't dare keep them around, nor would they admit having planned to have sex outside of marriage.

This is why abortion became such a lightning rod - because these women were going off to college, experimenting with relationships and wanting to try sex - but if they got pregnant, their lives would be completely ruined.

None of them could face the disgrace of being an unwed mother.  To them, it was worse than death, a live without the dream of house, husband and children and the social stigma was too terrible to contemplate.

Adoption was not really an option because it would require months of seclusion and also a paper trail.  Even if all went well, the child might come back, and could wreck an otherwise happy marriage by exposing Mom's Dark Secret.

Abortion avoided both problems.  The baby was obliterated and no one would ever know.  Having made "a mistake" the woman could resume her hope for a nice husband and happy home - and children whose entry into the world would bring her status rather than shame.

I think this attitude is pervasive among women over 50.  Under that, it's more of a tribal membership because by the time the Gen Xers were getting into college, condoms were pretty much being distributed far and wide.  Birth control had lost its stigma even among Catholics, and if one didn't want The Pill, there were other more discrete but effective options.

But for the generations before, abortion was the only option.  "Nice girls" didn't keep that stuff lying around and in fact if - at the moment of decision it was produced - the man might be filled with disgust.  Here he thought he had truly seduced the innocent, only to find out he's bagged a slut with a condom stash!

To be clear, none of these women necessarily wanted pre-marital sex, but if they got lost in the moment, what would be their recourse?  Abortion would.

Of course, the world has changed considerably since then.  There is zero stigma in popular society to pre-marital sex or using birth control.  Religious communities still frown on it, but they're also strongly pro-life.

In that sense, the secular victory in the culture wars over sexual preference and promiscuity are the very things destroying the necessity for abortion.  Given the many, inexpensive and reinforcing methods of birth control that are available, there is simply no reason for the procedure other than the three classic exceptions: rape, incest, and life of the mother.

But for people stuck in the past, none of that matters - they're still fighting the battles of their distant youth.

Which is odd, given that so many of them identify as "progressive."


Welcome to the (secular) Poxy-clipse: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

It may seem strange to put it this way, but Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is arguably one of the more realistic depictions of the post-apocalyptic world.

Bartertown is a functional economy and (just as with Road Warrior) you get the crazy punk-meets-tribal look, only it is now more fully realized.   The use of livestock manure to supply natural gas for power generation is actually "a thing" these days and large scale operations can reach a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency.

We also see the progression from nomadic raiders to a growing settlement and a semblance of civilization.

One must make a special call-out to Tina Turner, who is exceptional as the matriarch of Bartertown.  I've said this many, many times before, but strong women in films is nothing new.  It is as old as film (and before that theater) itself.  Her portrayal is marvelous, and her discussion of how she was a "nobody" and is now "somebody" is a wonderful shorthand way to describe her rise to power.

There's also her undeniable presence, something sorely lacking in today's stars.  You can readily believe that she can gain and hold attention.

Amidst all the fun and now iconic phrases ("two men enter, one man leaves!"), there is a sour note that I missed when I saw it back in the 80s but now standing out like a flashing light: a complete absence of faith.

The Lost Children have learned their legend, and ascribed semi-divine power to an airline pilot, but what about God?  There's a reference in the memorial the parents left behind them, but that's it.

I suppose it is a sad commentary on Australian culture that even in 1985 no one would think that parents would teach children their prayers or a little scripture.  If they were trying to flee the urban nightmare, might not one have brought the family bible along with a recording of French lessons?

This hearkens back to something that The Lord of Spirits podcast brought up more than a year ago: the modern assumption that settlement patterns are driven entirely by economics, with religion being a later addition, a luxury item.

The origin for this notion is probably in the settlement of the American frontier - or at least the modern secular interpretation of it.  We see it in countless cowboy movies set in the Old West: the town starts has a tavern/general store, later a jail and then once civilization shows up, a church.

This completely ignores that fact that many settlements were actually built around missionary communities.  Indeed, the United States itself was in large part a refuge for religious communities - the Pilgrims, and later Catholics, Anabaptists, etc. - all came seeking freedom of worship rather than simply a chance to build a log cabin.

Even the Old West was shaped by this drive for religious freedom.  Utah exists in its present Mormon-heavy configuration because the practice of polygamy led to that faith's persecution east of the Mississippi. 

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, humans are spiritual creatures, incapable of existing outside of a moral framework.  Those who claim to be most secular have simply substituted their own divine code, which they delude themselves by thinking is "rational" or "science-based," but it really just a reflection of their own personal priorities.

It would be interesting to imagine a post-apocalyptic world with a religious element - mission settlements built around surviving churches or even a shrine commemorating a miracle during the Downfall.

This brings us to the great irony that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome itself uses religious language ("Poxy-clipse") to describe the collapse of civilization without any thought to its deeper meaning.


The Road Warrior: fun, but also stupid

The Mad Max series gave a big boost to the genre of "post-apocalyptic" fiction.  Foremost among them was The Road Warrior, which veered away from the Death Wish style social commentary of the first movie and dove straight into life after civilizational collapse.

I'll be honest: this is a pretty stupid movie.  It has plot holes the size of semi trucks and all sorts of hand-waving to push things forward, but it has had a huge impact on the public imagination. 

Which is funny, because the story makes no sense.  For example, there is no reason the protagonists and Lord Humongous can't simple do some sort of barter trade.  Even the most violent barbarian peoples - the Mongols, the Huns, the Vandals, the Goths - were wiling to trade when it was profitable.

Also: where are the firearms?  No, I don't expect craft weapons, but they clearly have the metallurgy to soup up engines - machining barrels and bolts to make crude firearms is no great stretch.  In fact, we know these things exist in places like the Khyber Pass - which is a pretty anarchic place.

All that aside, the movie's distinct look has become part of popular culture, which means that even though it's deeply silly, it can't be classified as anything other than a smashing success.

Truth be told, the whole point of the film is to do a bunch of violent car wrecks.  That's what we really want to see and that's what we get.

There is also a lesson insofar as the people who work to overthrow the existing order often have no clear notion of what comes next.  In that sense, the plague of ultraviolent punk rocker biker dudes serve as a cautionary tale for our present age.

 


Reading the Bible the Orthodox (and Catholic) way

I'm continuing to enjoy listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast, though as the show has progressed I've noticed a few missteps regarding Catholicism that strike me as unfortunate.

That being said, Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church are farm more similar than different - and many of the differences are a function of culture rather than doctrine.

For example, the treatment of the Bible is essentially the same.  Like the Catholic Church, our Orthodox brothers do not believe that it can be taken out of context or interpreted on an individual basis.  This approach has led to schism and confusion.

Recently they did an episode specifically about this topic.  I should note that most of the podcast goes through how not to read the Bible, and various "Bible scholars" receive (well-deserved) criticism.

The core issue is people who do not understand the way in which the Bible was written, lack historical context and also an understanding of how the Church Fathers interpreted it.  One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism was the fact that all of the 'big questions' had already been answered centuries ago.  I find it terribly annoying when someone comes up with what they think is a hot new idea when in fact they've stumbled on something people figured out hundreds of years ago.

You get a lot of that in what we now call "Bible study," and it bugs me to no end.  I love that I live in a country where people have the freedom to read a simplified translation, come up with their own take and start their very own special church dedicated to what they think it says.

I don't love all the spiritual confusion this creates.

One of the Christian virtues is humility and I wish more of the people who styled themselves authorities in this area were willing to consider that the countless people who came before them were not ignorant or unintelligent and given the same problem set, likely figured out an answer well in advance of this particular generation.

The Bible has effectively been analyzed by a massive multi-century crowdsourced distributed computer system, yet some people think their single brain can compete (and even surpass) the collected knowledge of centuries because we possess an internet search engine.  That's pretty arrogant.

Anyhow, it's a good listen and as usual my only quibble is the stray derogatory remark (often based on a shocking degree of ignorance) about Catholic doctrine and practices.

 


Self-defeating Tactics 101: Attacking Catholic Churches

One of the (many) mistakes made by the Popular Front in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War was its decision to target Catholic churches and clergy.  By 1936, Spain was well on the way to being a secular society.  Mass attendance was low and falling, and there was little reason to believe the situation would change.

One of the many unique things about Francisco Franco was that he was a religious military officer, which was all but unheard of at that time.  Unless it was a wedding or a funeral, Spanish men didn't go to church. 

This changed when the Popular Front gained control of the Republic and its militias began a large-scale campaign of arson and murder.  As Stanley G. Payne has noted, in the run-up to the war and in the chaotic months that followed its outbreak, the Spanish clergy lost a higher percentage of its members than the Orthodox Church did in Communist Russia.

With historic cathedrals in flames, it was not surprising that the surviving Church leadership agreed that it was time to fight to defend what remained of Spanish Christianity. 

One could argue that this was the final straw in turning popular opinion decisively against the Republic.  As I note in Long Live Death, one did not have to be a practicing Catholic to find someone burning your home parish down and killing the local priest abhorrent.  Acts of desecration likewise stirred powerful - and ultimately homicidal - emotions.

This also had to have factored in the decision of the Carlist militias in Navarre to side with the Nationalists.  It is important to recall that the July Rising was originally to "save the Republic."  It was only later that a Nationalist ideology was developed.

The Carlists correctly reasoned that while neither side represented their interests, the annihilation of the Church was unacceptable.  The Requetes from Navarre would become the true elite of the Nationalist Army, outstripping even the Spanish Foreign Legion in their tenacity and determination.

It was a self-defeating tactic, but also an inevitable one.  Having decided to destroy traditional society, the Anarchists would also have to target the Church as well.

While the Orthodox Church was unable to mount much of a defense in Soviet Russia, history shows that Catholics often offer very effective resistance.


The strong finish for Magnum p.i.

In a previous post, I noted that by the end of its sixth season, Magnum p.i. was creatively exhausted.
 
The original focus of the show on Vietnam veterans adjusting to civilian life in the context of a detective show had been played out and the standard 80s private eye tropes were also exhausted.  The fact that the show decided to dig up yet another Higgins half-brother, demonstrated that it was essentially declaring intellectual bankruptcy.
 
Unsurprisingly, the ratings were also tumbling.  Once one of the top shows on TV,  Magnum was being destroyed by NBC's Thursday night juggernaut, led by The Cosby ShowMagnum p.i. was living on borrowed time.
 
In response to this, there were some behind-the-scenes changes.  Tom Selleck stepped up as a producer, giving him more creative control.  The show also moved to Wednesday night, giving it a needed ratings boost.
 
The result was one of the best seasons of the show.  While there had always been call-backs and recurring guest stars, it was until the seventh season that the show embraced multi-episode plot arcs.  This was becoming the norm on American prime time TV thanks to shows like Hill Street Blues, and the writers of Magnum p.i. finally got on board. 
 
This was combined with a sense that the show itself needed to reach a conclusion.   After seven years of production, the characters were visibly growing older and that demanded some sort of acknowledgement.  Accordingly, one of the threads of the season is Magnum himself turning 40 and realizing that being a loafing private investigator dependent on a novelist's largesse was not a sustainable life plan.
 
As the season neared completion, the episodes became ever more closely aligned until the cliff-hanger, where the title character is apparently mortally wounded.
 
In the commentary to the series finale, Charles Floyd Johnson remarks that at the time of filming, it was assumed the show would not be renewed.  When it was picked up for season eight, it was known from the start that this would be the last season of the show.
 
This is probably why the final season had so few episodes.  I initially thought it wrapped in December, but it ran until May, there were just gaps between the shows, probably movies or other specials.
 
As for the finale itself, the two-part episode was apparently controversial, but it works for me.  I don't know if it's possible to have a spoiler for a TV show but those who dislike them can stop reading here...
 
Okay, for the rest of you, I think the decision to have Magnum re-join the Navy makes sense, especially in light of his grandfather's visit.  Magnum had what is known as a "break in service," and it's not uncommon.  He was more than halfway to securing a pension from the Navy, so finishing that up was a logical move.
 
Moreover, the military of 1987 was a step up from the post-Vietnam one he left in 1980.  Some have commented that he jumped up two grades in rank, which is unusual, but in a previous episode he was recalled to active duty as a full Commander so that apparently was still on the books.  I'm not versed in Navy procedures, but they do tend to have a lot more direct commissions than the other services, and given Magnum's unique skills, service record and especially the fact that he's an Annapolis grad, I can see them offering him O-5 with a requirement that he go to the requisite schools upon re-accession.  
 
The other story arcs also work.  T.C.'s reconciliation with his kids and ex-wife naturally flows from the many years of him supporting youth sports teams.  He's ready to be a husband and father and the gap left by his departure was never filled.
 
As for Higgins, er, "Robin Masters," this is the weakest plot point in the whole show, and if you watch it continuously, it does not work at all. 
 
I will grant that after the first few seasons, the writers lost interest in having Robin as a plot element and after that gap, having Magnum speculate that it was all a ruse, isn't completely out of bounds.  That being said, he's a private eye with insider access and would easily be able to see when Mr. Masters' first books were published. 
 
The show seems to have moved away from this in the last two seasons and at one point Higgins challenges Magnum directly, who backs down.  When Higgins appears to come clean in the finale, Magnum is properly incredulous and Higgins' subsequent retraction is appropriate.
 
All in all, it was worth seeing it again, and if I decided to re-watch, I'll definitely avoid the weaker seasons and savor the best days of the show.

Last stand against the 70s: The Thomas Crown Affair

We tend to think in terms of decades because they offer a shorthand way of describing the look, sound and style of a particular period. 

The truth, however, is that time moves in uneven increments.  The late 80s have very different feel from the early 80s, for example.

Probably the starkest peacetime shift in culture happened during the 1960s.  Compare the stylish, sauve, Henry Mancini-themed films of the early 60s with the long-haired look at the end of the decade.

The Thomas Crown Affair is one of those films that takes place at the frontier of two differing eras.  Steve McQueen is generally dapper, a man of means who dressed the part of the establishment type, but under his fitted shirts he's also wearing a gold chain with a large medallion - a very 70s stereotype.

Faye Dunaway is more nuanced, with her outfit conjuring both early 60s business style and the later bra-less 70s look - complete with slightly flared slacks.

This seems like a long digression for a movie review, but it's important because The Thomas Crown Affair is very much a piece of a specific time.  The "perfect" bank caper is dependent on the technology of the time, and the sums of money stolen will - after the end of the gold standard and a decade of stagflation - seem ludicrously small.

Indeed, bank robberies still happen, but it's no longer possible to for a the same type of profit because money is worth so much less.  In a world where nice homes cost $20,000, getting away with $100,000 is quite an achievement. 

The heart of the The Thomas Crown Affair is the dueling match between McQueen and Dunaway, and there are few actors today who could pull it off.  The interplay is a joy to watch.

Another fun part of the film is its experimentation with various split screens, which sometimes gets annoying, but is absolutely a part of the time.  I recall the Disney revival of The Love Bug used this to great effect.

The transition from 60s to 70s was before my time, and as someone who regards 70s fashion as an unmitigated disaster (well, except for the bra-less thing), movies like this are fun to watch.


What are the German Catholics up to now?!

Whenever he came across Catholics who were in favor of abortion, or wanted to ordain women as priests, my father would nod sagely and say:  "You know, there's a term for people who feel like you - Protestant."

Apparently a bunch of Catholic bishops in Germany have decided that the way to put more people in pews is to stop being Catholic.

Which is weird, because all the "reforms" being trotted out are already available in the German Evangelical (i.e. Lutheran) Church.

What's interesting is that this is generating a backlash amongst the Catholic hierarchy of global proportions.

By the way, none of this is in any way new.  One doesn't even have to go back to Martin Luther - a century ago the same bromides were being advocated to "modernize" Christianity.  One of the amusing things about reading G.K. Chesterton or Evelyn Waugh is that the would-be reformers of past years sound just like the ones of today.

The difference of course is that we've had a century to see where that leads.  The fruit of the trees is plain to see, and it's a wasteland of unfaith and depravity.  The same Protestant church I mentioned a few weeks ago has a new message on its jumbo-tron style sign out front:  "You are enough."  The words appear amidst sunlit clouds, implying that God is the one saying this.

Which is absurd, because if we are enough, who needs God?  Why go to church?  Why donate?  I'm enough, so I can sleep in or maybe stream the service between binging on Netflix.

The whole point of Easter is that we aren't enough.  If everything's okay, if God loves me no matter what, why did Christ have to suffer death and then conquer it through the Resurrection?

One gets the sense that a great many German clerics never really bought into any of the Church's teachings.  Perhaps they assumed that the Church would fall prey to modernity and that by now women would be in wearing priestly vestments and they could be having licit homosexual relationships (since that's also always a key feature of "modernization").

There is a certain irony here, because Pope Francis - who is the least dogmatic Pontiff in generations - is being driving into the same corner as the hard-liners.  He also wants to change the Church, but I'm fairly certain he does not want to go down in history as the Pope who lost Germany for the second time.


Keeping the Sabbath holy

I figure Easter Sunday is a great time to talk about one of my other projects: keeping the Sabbath holy.

Growing up as I did in an irreligious household, Sunday was just the other half of the weekend.  Weekends were great because you got to sleep in for two days in a row.  While I always had some conception of God (thanks in large part to the influence of my grandparents), my parents deeply disliked organized religion, so I regarded the notion of going to church to pray as silly.

Even after I entered the Catholic Church, I found my old attitudes and habits persisted.  Saturday was the fun day, and Sunday was now the day of obligation, which meant Mass but also taking care of other items.  After Mass, I might go to the grocery store to get ready for the coming week, or tackle projects in the yard.  It was a day of work, just different kinds of work.

About a year ago I made a concerted effort to make Sunday special.  Obviously, that includes going to Mass, but it also extends to not buying anything.  At first this was just inconvenient, but like so many other ancient religious practices that have fallen into disuse, once you try them you see that there's a lot more going on than you realized.

For one thing, it forces better planning.  When you go over the list, you have to factor in an extra day where nothing can be bought.  The mere act of doing this reminds you that Sunday is not just any other day.

It's not unusual that I will have overlooked something (or more likely, no one told me we were out of it), and that means we'll just have to get by until Monday.  That's also a healthy thing, forcing a pause in our instant-gratification world.

It's also having an effect on my kids, who at first were puzzled but now accept that Sunday just isn't a shopping day.

I'm still grappling with some of the other implications, such as:  "Am I allowed to do minor housecleaning or tackle an obnoxious situation in the yard?"  I think the answer is generally "yes," so long as I find the task satisfying.  The fact is, "rest" doesn't have to mean "idle."  I think puttering around the yard or getting the popcorn I spilled on the carpet last night are okay simply because I can't imagine a theological reason not to take care of it.

A thornier question is whether it is acceptable for me to go to a book store or do leisure shopping.  There I'm going to say "no," because I'm forcing those employees to work on the Sabbath.

Still, it's not like I'm a religious authority, so reasonable people may differ.  The point is to reshape my life (and that of my family) around religious obligation rather than commercial convenience.

Today is the perfect day to think about this.


Even bad sources have good uses

My writing on China has slowed to a crawl because I've been so busy reading new books.  Some are excellent, while others have been questionable.

The situation is not quite as bad as researching the Spanish Civil War, where a uniform scholarly bias exists that has only recently been challenged.

With China, the situation is more complex.  The crimes of Communism are undeniable, which makes it difficult to shower the Peoples' Republic with the same sort of soft-focus fan service rendered to the Second Spanish Republic.

The language barrier is also difficult, particularly with two translation schemes.  What this does is make it much easier for modern pro-CCP scholars to obscure unpleasant facts since the English renderings of most of the place-names have been changed.

Still, I'm reaching a point where I'm getting quite good at detecting the presence of revisionist propaganda, which is particularly important as my account has now reached the modern era.

Just as the bombing of Guernica has served as a useful litmus test on a source's reliability regarding the Spanish Civil War, the treatment of China's brutal imperialist history has provided a useful guide to gauging a source's reliability in other areas.

As a sidenote, I still don't have a title.  I'm sure one will come to me...eventually.