Notes From Across the Atlantic
Dominic Kamp / Getty
Notes From Across the Atlantic

Notes From Across the Atlantic

David Mills FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2014

David Mills is the Executive Editor of First Things

The Pope and the Press

“He’s been a bit naive,” wrote the editor about Pope Francis in the December issue of First Things, while admitting he’s also been “a bit astute”. Francis’s words “have given unhelpful encouragement to those who would like the Catholic Church to surrender and accept the dominance of our secular elite”, Rusty [R R Reno] wrote in his Public Square column “How to Limit Government”.

I’m not so sure Francis is as naive as Rusty and many others think. As I wrote about Benedict, the press has a settled narrative through which it interprets the papacy. The Pope can’t do much, if anything, to change it. For Benedict, it began with the “God’s Rottweiler” nonsense and when that proved unusable because it was so clearly untrue, a new narrative developed, reaching maturity about five years into his papacy. The new story claimed that Benedict was old and feeble and an intellectual out of place, who just couldn’t run the Church. It’s the patronising story, not the insulting one, and all the more effective because the writer who tells it usually feigns sympathy.

“Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.

The press frames every story about Francis as a break with the rigidity, dogmatism etc, of his predecessors – Benedict’s back in the doghouse, so to speak – and the latest example of a new, caring, open, pastoral (read: lenient) Catholicism. Whatever he says, with whatever qualifications he includes, that is the story the press will give the world.

Francis seems to understand this and decided to speak as he thinks he ought to speak, in the hope that over time his message will get out. It’s a risky strategy, but not a naive one. The always useful blog GetReligion ( explained this with helpful details. Everyone knows Francis’s statement that the Church can’t be “obsessed” about abortion, Terry Mattingly notes, but pretty much no one – no one who reads The New York Times, say – knows about a statement he made a few days later to a group of Catholic gynaecologists.

It’s typical of other statements he’s made, equally uncovered in the papers. Speaking of the enslaving culture of waste that “requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker”, Francis insisted that “attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenceless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life’s most defenceless”.
He continues:

“Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.

That’s not the story you’ll read in the major newspapers. It doesn’t fit the narrative. But we can’t complain that Francis hasn’t spoken clearly.

Symbols Without Substance

Between the religious belief in revelation and the secular rejection lies a popular middle ground, “the spiritual world picture”, Ross Douthat explains in his New York Times column, using the Christmas story as an example. It “keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene – the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight – but doesn’t sweat the details”.

This, he explains, “is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our ‘God bless America’ civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone – including you.”

This kind of religion “lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigour, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.”
What Douthat calls the secular picture offers a “fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism – the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing”. It translates Christianity’s revolutionary egalitarianism into “the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights”.

One can understand the appeal, because the good man’s moral passions last even when he has lost his faith in the supernatural, but as Douthat points out, “its cosmology does not harmonise at all with its moral picture”.

This philosophy “proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigour of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm – the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism – tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.”

In other words, these secularists cheat.

A Model for our Times?

Papal and episcopal political statements tend to the general, to principles the application of which is left to laymen, and reasonably enough. But it wasn’t always so, and perhaps shouldn’t be so now. The Archbishop of Mainz, Christian Ketteler, for example, proposed to the German bishops in 1869 a programme to “eliminate or at any rate diminish the evils of our present system”.

Among his seven proposals were prohibiting child labour in factories and limiting the working hours of all workers, which included keeping Sunday as a day of rest; closing unsanitary workplaces; requiring companies to take care of disabled workers; and the appointment of state inspectors. The proposals also included the separation of the sexes in the workplace, undoubtedly to protect women. His writing influenced Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum. He was, Leo wrote, “our great predecessor”.

Tasteless ‘Virtues’

In this month’s Public Square (“Inequality and Agency”, March 2014), the editor comments on the way many people talk about farming and eating, illustrating (this is me, not him) the way verbally adept people tend to confuse taste with virtue, and the fact that some people compete at both.

In “Let Them Eat Kale”, The New York Observer reports that rich and powerful males in the city compete to lose more weight and eat a more disciplined (read: straitened) diet than their peers, a trend someone in the story calls “manorexic.”

“Thin is the new luxury,” a real estate developer tells the writer. A couple of decades ago “the women looked after their weight, but the men were large,” he said, naming two very big men – physically and economically big, he means – from the Eighties. “They could eat prodigious amounts of food. Their girth was considered powerful.”

Today, “old-school fat is considered slothful. Old school was prime rib, new school is parmesan-roasted kale… . Just like people used to frown on smoking, now they frown on bad eating.” Count us old-school.
“I look at eating as fuel. Eating is not social. It’s a fuel event,” says another friend of the writer’s, described as “ripped”, who when invited to other peoples’ homes for dinner smuggles in fruit and nuts in his wife’s purse. Sometimes, he brags, he brings his own food and cooks his meals in his host’s kitchen, apparently without asking.
I was taught, as undoubtedly many of you were, to eat what your hosts gave you and pretend to like it, no matter how vile it was. It was a way of honouring them for their kindness. It was just good manners. But the man whose belly is his god has no interest in good manners.

The writer asks his “ripped” friend if he feels embarrassed cooking his own food because he won’t eat his host’s. “I would never be embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for them and the way they eat.”

A Lesson for Literary Critics

In “Where Does Writing Come From?”, published in Granta, the novelist Richard Ford mentioned his pleasure at a critic’s “singling out for approval my choice of adjectives, which seemed to him surprising and expansive and of benefit to the story”. One example he (the critic) noted was “He looked on her in an old-eyed way.”

A little later, packing up his manuscripts, Ford happened to see “the page and the very commended phrase ‘old-eyed’, and to notice that somehow in the rounds of fatigued retyping that used to precede a writer’s final sign-off on a book in the days before word processors, the original and rather dully hybridised ‘cold-eyed’ had somehow lost its ‘c’ and become ‘old-eyed’, only nobody’d noticed since they both made a kind of sense.”

God’s own Ballpark

“That makes a difference,” said my friend at lunch, his eyes narrowing. We’d been discussing going to a Yankees game next year, as he grew up in New York, and he’d asked cheerfully if I was a Pirates fan, as we’d lived in Pittsburgh so long. No, I said, I grew up in Massachusetts and so…

After a few seconds of silence he recovered and said that the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, a frequent sight at Fenway [home of the Boston Red Sox] and a man whose baseball passions are properly ordered, says that when he gets to heaven, as he hopes to do, he will ask God two questions: why did he allow evil and why did he favour the Yankees?

These are, of course, the same question.

Faith Magazine