Notes From Across the Atlantic
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Notes From Across the Atlantic

Notes From Across the Atlantic

David Mills FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2013

David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things

The Death of Catholic Liberalism?

Responding to an article on the Catholic Church in Europe in The Economist, the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg argues that we see in Europe the collapse of Catholic liberalism or progressivism, the kind of Catholicism that “(a) demands nothing from its adherents in terms of belief beyond an emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and endless dialogue-for-the-sake-of-dialogue; (b) dilutes dogma and doctrine to the point of meaninglessness; (c) becomes yet another means of self-affirmation in a culture full of self-affirmation; (d) embraces post-1960s sexual morality; (e) essentially anathematises anyone who doesn’t more-or-less adhere to secular left-liberal political, social, and economic positions.”

We think he’s put this a little strongly, and is describing the hard dissenting but not the mainstream liberal, but if you dial down the descriptions about 25 to 40 per cent you get a good description of broad generic progressivism, Protestant as well as Catholic. And, as he says: “No one needs to be a Christian to hold these views.” Most people who hold them “eventually marginalise their Christianity to the point of irrelevance to their daily lives or simply drift away altogether.” And they’re not likely to raise children who believe even that much.

Theirs is a religion (this is me, not Gregg) for those who can’t let go. As I’ve put it to “progressive” friends: if you weren’t used to this religion from growing up with it, would you get out of bed on Sunday morning for it? Few people would.

You might find a small community of like-minded people, a haven in a heartless world, and you might find a way of ordering your life, at least by setting aside Sunday mornings every week, and you might also find worship that moves you and sermons that help you, even if the God you worship is ghostly and the sermons self-helpish. It’s not enough to get me up on Sundays, but it’s something.

From the full version, however, in exchange for your Sunday mornings you get “Your sins are forgiven,” not some version of “Be all you can be.”

Sinners Welcome

“Sinners welcome,” said the banner in front of a Catholic church. Mary Karr – “completely unbaptised, completely without faith”, an “undiluted agnostic”, an alcoholic and someone who wants “to eat all of the chocolate and snort all of the cocaine and kiss all the boys”, the child of a father who drank himself to death and a mother who married seven times – started going.

“I thought I had a better shot at becoming a pole dancer at 40 than of making it in the Catholic Church,” she says. “I think what struck me really wasn’t the grandeur of the Mass. It was the simple faith of the people. For me this whole journey was a journey into awe. I would just get these moments of quiet where there wasn’t anything. My head would just shut up, and I knew that was a good thing. And also the carnality of the church: There was a body on the cross.”

“I’m somebody who really does feel like I was snatched out of the fire,” she says. The story of the snatching appears in her book Lit.

Benedict’s Resignation

A television reporter announced, solemn-faced, that with Benedict’s resignation, “Catholics don’t yet know who they’ll be praying to this Easter”. To which a Catholic friend replied: “Silly reporter, we will pray to whom we always pray, this Easter and every Easter. To statues. Of Mary.” He was, we hasten to say, being sarcastic.
Paddypower and the New Pope

The odds of Richard Dawkins becoming the next pope, according to the Irish betting site Paddypower.com, which apparently has some knowledge of the book of the Apocalypse (aka Revelation), were 666 to 1.

Scientists Losing a Sense of Self

Our “intuitive sense of self”, says a New Scientist magazine special issue, “is an effortless and fundamental human experience. But it is nothing more than an elaborate illusion.” So begins a 10-page feature explaining, or claiming to explain, that “our deeply felt truths are in fact smoke and mirrors of the highest order”. You may think you’re you, but you’re not.

We’ll leave the formal refutation to the philosophers, but would note that all the evidence the magazine gives only proves that our perception of ourselves and our world is imperfect – that we see through a glass darkly. That the self is an illusion does not actually follow.

In one study, for example, people lying on their backs while a machine stroked their backs watched a video of someone else’s back being stroked, and some felt that they were floating facedown above their own body watching it being stroked. This effect “provides more evidence that the brain’s ability to integrate various sensory stimuli plays a key role in locating the self in the body” and of the way it “puts together our autobiographical self”.Which means that the brain figures out you have a body, even though sometimes under specialised circumstances it can be fooled into thinking you’ve gotten separated from your body for a few minutes. We are not worried. You are you, and I am I, and someone’s the walrus, goo goo g’joob (or coo coo ca chu, depending on the translation).


Faith Magazine

May - June 2013