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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Quagmire

It’s official. New York City has become a quagmire. It’s been almost six hours since the transit strike began and no resolution has been reached. Top U.S. officials are seriously concerned.

“New York City is simply a luxury America can no longer afford,” commented Hillary Clinton. “We’re pouring millions of dollars each year into this region in police, fire and medical protection and now this. We need an exit strategy. Besides, I don't think they are going to vote me into office twice. Even New Yorkers aren't THAT stupid. Well, not enough of them, anyway.”

Political strategist Howard Dean concurred. “This is a nightmare. We’ve spent hours and hours negotiating – I can’t count hour many hours, at least not without taking off my shoes. And can you believe it? We still haven’t got it resolved! Mr. President, get us out of there!”

“The refugees pouring across the border into Massachusetts are incredible. We’re running out of espresso and the President refuses to open our strategic latte reserves,” fumed Senator Edward “Teddy Bear” Kennedy. “We need to seal our borders! Now! Before those damned foreigners buy up all the Maker's Mark!”

Meanwhile, the impact reverberated across the nation.

“Oh yes, the transit strike,” commented a pedestrian in St. Louis, “What is that, anyway?”

“I heard New York City had a transit strike,” responded one public high school student, “but I don’t think the U.S. should get involved in the problems of foreign countries.”

“I was in New York during the Gulf War,” a veteran reminisced, “It’s a hell-hole. No American in his right mind would want to live there.”

“Well, of course New York has transit strikes!” replied one irate West Coast resident, “Next thing you know, them Muslims will be burning cars and things! They aren't civilized like us! I don't think they even have Tivo over there!”

Meanwhile, President Bush insisted that America stay the course, “You have to remember the history of New York City. It’s the home of Tammany Hall, the Rockefellers, Rudolph Giuliani and the UN. Thoughtful people understand that New York City has never had a free election. Neither has Chicago, for that matter. But we can’t cut and run now.”

The press instant poll discovered that the statement sent the Presidents' approval rating plummeting. "Why not cut and run? Who the hell needs that damned city, anyway?" replied one Los Angeles gang-banger, "can't they get some other country to annex it? Like Boston?"

There are darker rumors on the horizon, however. CBS News reports that some of the city's boroughs may have acquired nuclear weapons. Marlene Mapes is hot on the story of a mysterious group involved in something called “The Manhattan Project.” She promises to present memos from members of the organization demonstrating that they are, in fact, developing an atomic bomb. Well-informed journalists believe the delivery system is cleverly disguised as a church. It is thought to be targeting journalists.

“The religious extreme – pardon the redundancy – well, they are always trying to kill us,” said Mapes. “No, not' us Americans,' I mean ‘us journalists.’ We are the only truth-tellers in this society, you know, and that makes us extremely dangerous."

"What?!? I am TOO dangerous! Have you ever seen me try to split a board with my bare hands? Well, I can you know. But not right now. But I could if I wanted to. Has anyone seen my hat? It's the crinkly tinfoil one."

"Anyway, you need to listen to me and turn that damned Internet off. We are very serious about truth, especially in times when truth is hard to come by. That’s why we don’t just report the news, we create it.... Turn it off! OFF! Turn the PC OFF! .... AND listen to me! LISTEN! I'm dangerous! You better listen or else!”

As for New York City?

“Blow it up,” replied Dan Rather, “What the hell do I care? I’m retired.”

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Amnesia

Mark Twain liked to say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. If that is true, what do we do with a generation that prefers free verse?

This thought arises from the recent e-mails generated by my essays on Christmas Past, available here and here. While many people of various philosophical persuasions wrote to thank me for the essays, a few were scandalized. They argued that this review of history worked at cross-purposes with the laudable Christian endeavor to salvage Christmas from impending oblivion. Silence on this history, they argued, would best help the Christian cause.

In times past, the common history of a community was kept by the story-tellers: Homer, Thucydides, the prophets of old, the bards and the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages. Whether through oral or written tradition, the culture resonated with men who told the story of where we came from so that none would forget who we are. Times change. So do cultures.

Americans are no longer very good at history. Our culture is built around our economy, and our economy is future-oriented. No one wants us to fixate on what we have now or what we had before, except insofar as it compares badly with what we could soon have. A culture built on marketing, as any relentlessly capitalist culture must be, is relentlessly future-oriented. It is also relentlessly unwilling to consider that the future holds only one certainty: death.

As a result, Americans are caught in a continual twilight of illusion wherein we don’t recall our past nor do we dwell on the realities that awaits us. Rather, we try to construct a temporary shelter against the coming storm by amassing our goods in rows around us, creating the illusion that we are safe, or soon will be if only that last product is purchased.

This loss of historical sense, this loss of contact with reality, must eventually destroy any culture it permeates.

The Memory Hole: Example One

Everyone knows the Civil War was fought the twin issues of slavery and states’ rights, but how many Americans know the Revolutionary War was fought to stop corporations? As Thom Hartman points out, the revolt over the Tea Tax was not a revolt over the fact that the tax had been raised, but rather, over the fact that it had been lowered.

The new, lower tea tax allowed a multi-national corporation, the East India Company, to flood the American market with cheap tea, thereby driving small mom-and-pop tea shops into bankruptcy. In that respect, the Boston Tea Party was akin to an attack on the local Super-Walmart, the Founding Fathers were dedicated in part to destroying the ability of corporations to operate on American soil. Do any of today’s commentators, liberal or conservative, mention this? Aren’t these facts relevant to any discussion of the Founders’ original intent?

The Memory Hole: Example Two

Or what of the way America and Britain invented the science of eugenics, and thereby invented Hitler? It is a matter of historical fact that virtually every major eugenicist prior to 1930 was either British or American: Galton, Davenport, Sanger, Stopes – it is a roll-call of the some of the most prominent people America and Britain produced.

America was the first country to institute mandatory involuntary sterilization of “defectives,” the first country to ban marriage between whites and blacks. Eugenics was one of the few things Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler agreed on. Yale was the home of the American Eugenics Society and Harvard graduates traveled to 1930’s Germany to help them draft laws modeled on the sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws of Protestant America.

Everyone knows Hitler was a eugenicist, but who remembers that Neville Chamberlain, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a member of the 1935 English Eugenics Society or that Marshal P├ętain, who led the Vichy government in France, was a member of the French eugenic society in the 1930s? As for the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all ardent eugenicists, while Herbert Hoover was, in 1921, on the committee that sponsored the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York.

In short, every American president from 1901 through 1945 agreed with Hitler on the importance of eugenics. Is it any wonder that International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the organization started by American Margaret Sanger, spent the first seventeen years of its existence rent-free in the headquarters of the English Eugenics Society and was a member of that organization in 1977? Americans lambaste the Germans for their past inhumanities, but we taught them how to think eugenically.

The Memory Hole: Example Three

And let’s talk about thinking. America’s modern mass compulsory school system actually created riots and armed insurrection in many parts of the country when it was first instituted. Why? Because parents recognized even then that it was inferior to the one-room schoolhouse and homeschooling. Parents recognized even then that it was an attack upon the family. They understood that it degraded learning and separated children from adults, thereby stunting every child’s growth. But not a word of this leaks out into the grade school, high school or even most college texts. No one remembers it. Why not? Wouldn’t the roots of this conflict have some bearing on today’s education conversation?

John Henry Cardinal Newman, the famous theologian and historian who converted to Catholicism through his thorough study of Church history once remarked, “knowledge of history is the death of Protestantism.” Protestantism, corporate America, modern education – each in its own way encourages amnesia. The facts of history are dangerous things. They call to mind ways of thinking, ways of living, that are inimical to the modern American way of life.

So, we can forget and argue endlessly, pointlessly.

Or we can remember.

Choose.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

How Christians Stole Christmas, Part II

Years ago, Max Weber asserted the Protestant work ethic made America and England great. While that may be true, it is much easier to demonstrate that the Protestant work ethic made America secular humanist and atheist.

As we noted last week, the Christian assault on Christmas has been subtle but unrelenting. This is due in no small part to the Protestant work ethic and Calvinist theology which insists that we can tell who is saved by looking at who has the biggest bank account – according to Calvin, the elect aren’t poor.

The attack on Christmas in America began in earnest during World War II, when this virulently Protestant nation started sending its boys overseas to fight. Prior to that war, Advent and Christmas were still recognized as distinct seasons. It is difficult today to imagine the scene, but we must try.

How Things Used to Be

The liturgical year used by Christians for one and a half millennia was intended to make us aware of Christ’s life every day. According to this way of understanding the passage of time, Advent served two purposes: it made us aware of Old Testament anticipation as Israel waited for the coming of the Saviour and it made us aware of our own current anticipation as we wait for His Second Coming. Advent was meant to look backward and forward simultaneously: backward to the sinfulness of man prior to the Incarnation and forward to both the sinfulness and the glory of man that would be revealed at the Last Judgement.

Because Advent had this dual meaning, Christmas also had a dual meaning. The celebration of the Christmas season was meant to remind us of both the gifts of salvation Christ brought through His Incarnation and the gift of heaven, the eternal exchange of divine Persons which we would in some sense experience in the Beatific Vision.

This was the reason for the gift-giving during the twelve days of Christmas. The days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three kings laid theirs at the Child’s feet was a reminder both of Christ and of heaven. While every feast day in the calendar year involved some kind of feast and some kind of gift-giving, Christmas season was pre-eminent precisely because it alone was meant to be a foretaste of heaven. In fact, the season was not considered complete until the Feast of the Presentation at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin on February 2.

After the Feast of the Presentation came Lent, when everyone spent six weeks walking the Via Dolorosa, with the suffering Christ, walking the Way of Tears. After we lived His suffering and death, we lived His Easter Resurrection. For the liturgically-minded, Easter day lasts eight mortal days – the whole week following Easter is considered one long celebration, although the partying didn’t end until Pentecost, which marked the end of Easter and the beginning of ordinary time. During ordinary time Christians lived out and contemplated the growth of the Church through history as She prepared for the Second Coming and the Last Judgement.

When this is understood, the importance of the Feasts of All Holy Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, indeed, the whole month of November, is much more obvious. This season was crucial to understanding and properly celebrating Advent. Those feasts and that month were spent in special contemplation of death and dying, of sin and judgement and all who had gone before us, marked with the sign of Faith.

The Four Last Things are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. During November, Christians contemplated and prepared for Death. During Advent, we contemplated and prepared for Judgement. During Christmas, we contemplated and lived out Heaven, at least as best we could.

So, up until World War II, every Christian treated Advent as a time of preparation and repentance. No one would think of putting stockings, ornaments, even Christmas trees, up until Christmas Eve. During Advent, everyone meditated on the world’s wickedness prior to God come in the flesh (past), and prepared themselves for the Last Day, when God comes as Judge (future). For centuries, Christmas was at once both a reminder of the Incarnation, the First Coming, and a reminder of Dooms-Day, Judgement Day, the Second Coming.

Why Things Changed

Martin Luther changed the understanding of November and of holy days in general; World War II changed the understanding of Advent and Christmas. As war swept the world, buying habits had to change. Because it took six weeks to transport anything by ship over the ocean, Americans were told to buy their Christmas gifts for their sons overseas by Thanksgiving, or their sons would not receive those gifts by February 2.

The Christmas buying season had been December 25th through February 2nd, with the most intense gift-giving happening during the twelve days of Christmas. But during the war, it extended from Thanksgiving to February 2nd. American Protestants, that is, American businesses, liked the extra income generated by the much longer and earlier selling season. The war against the Germans ended in 1945, but the war against Christmas was just revving into high gear.

Ever since World War II, America’s Christian businessmen have been strenuously trying to destroy the whole concept of Advent. Repentant people, sorrowing people, people aware of their gluttonies, these kinds of people do not buy much. This is unacceptable to a Protestant understanding of commerce.

Not only was this sorrow bad for business, it was bad for the pulpit. If Calvin is right, we have no reason to repent. We are the Elect – we are assured of our salvation! In fact, we have a duty to show others how well the Elect live! Break out the credit cards!

Sixty years of advertising broke two millenia of Christian practice. America famously refuses to contemplate death, so all Holy Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day had to be destroyed. Protestant businessmen knew just how to do that. They disassociated the days from their traditional contemplation of the saints’ joy in heaven and turned them into pagan party festivals. Contemplating saints is dangerous, after all. They don’t own credit cards. Christian businessman could not afford the possibility that anyone would realize this.

So, Halloween has now become the closest thing we have to an Advent season. Advent has been transformed into a four-week long Christmas season, and Christmas season is now Purgatory. The season during which we are supposed to celebrate our life in heaven with the Christ child is now the time we pay all the bills. Today, we sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during Advent. Unlike Good King Wenceslaus, we toss all of our Christmas decorations on the trash heap on the Feast of Stephen. The Church’s first martyr has lost out to Boxing Day and end-of-the-month card statements.

When was the last time anyone had a school Christmas pageant or business Christmas party during Christmas season, that is, after Christmas Day? Indeed, how many Christians even gather together to worship on the Feast of the Incarnation? Even as the Christmas/Holiday controversy swirls through the news media, CNN reports that most large evangelical church congregations don’t even have Christmas services.

The irony is rich. Protestants insist on retaining the word “Christmas” even though they have already drained every scrap of belief and practice out of the word. They stripped the Mass out of “Christ-Mass” day, they stripped the contemplation of death and judgement out of the Advent season, they stripped the gift-giving out of the Christmas season, they don’t even gather to celebrate on the day of His birth, but they are in high dudgeon about the missing word. The day is dead, but the lack of white-washing on the tomb offends them.

And I’m supposed to join them in being upset?
Alright, I will.
I promise.
Just wait until I stop laughing.

No Attachment to Sin

As many of you know, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI recently announced a new plenary indulgence valid only for this year, December 8th.

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, any Christian who:
Participates in a formal prayer service in honor of Mary "or at least openly demonstrate devotion to Mary" by praying before an image of the Immaculate Conception on display for public veneration.
Recites the Lord's Prayer, the creed and a prayer to Mary and
Performs thnormal requirements: Confession within 20 days of Dec 8th, Reception of Eucharist Prayer for the intentions of the pope, All in a spirit of total detachment from the attraction of sin. , may win a plenary indulgence for themselves or the deceased.


Here's the problem: a lot of people don't know what it means to have no attachment to sin. Here's the explanation.

The non-attachment to sin is only necessary for winning a plenary indulgence.
It is not a condition for winning a partial indulgence.

I've talked to several priests on this and they all give the same answer.
Plenary indulgences are not intended to be difficult to win.
Furthermore, an indulgence is NOT a sacrament, it is only a sacramental.
One can accurately describe it as a completion of the sacrament of reconciliation, but that's as close as you get.

Now, since even the great and glorious sacrament of baptism doesn't free us from concupiscence, it would be quite absurd to think that we have to be free of concupiscence to win a plenary indulgence. The Church can't mean that we must be, since it is not possible to be free of concupiscence while in the body. Furthermore, the saints are holy precisely because they are much more aware of their own concupiscence than most others, and therefore they struggle with temptation even more than we do because they recognize their attachments more clearly.

We are not responsible for that which invincible ignorance prevents us recognizing. So, if we just make an act of the will, praying something along the lines of "Lord, I desire only You and Your perfection, I desire nothing of the sins or defects of this world" and MEAN it, that would be sufficient to constitute no attachment to sin. Our flesh may experience a movement towards some illicit thing, but that isn't the same as an attachment to sin.

Some people point to private revelation that seems to indicate the contrary.
My response is that it is private revelation, and therefore not binding on the faithful.

More information on indulgences in general can be found in the Beauty of Grace wall calendar of Indulgences for 2006