I’m not a libertarian, but I play one on the PC. As I’ve written before (blatant plugs for other rants I’ve written on this subject follow here and here), there’s nothing wrong with the State using its power to foster the Common Good, when the dignity of individuals is respected and the Common Good is properly defined. And that Common Good, as popes have written over and over again, includes the salvation of souls. Now that doesn’t entail coerced conversion, or (as Vatican II rightly clarified) restrictions on the practice of other folks’ religions — however wrong-headed those might be. So try to suppress those fantasies you’ve been having about corralling liberal Catholics (like the gals of Women-Church) into walled ghettos, and forcing them to wear distinctive costumes. Such measures are probably sinful, and the liberals are easily recognizable from their rust-colored stretchy stirrup pants.
So none of us should have a problem, in theory, with the State in a Catholic society funding religious education, censoring indecent material (like most of my favorite HBO shows; see below), hanging crucifixes in courthouses — and generally acting in much the same way that our Abrahamic Muslim brethren act when they have the whip hand. Minus, you know, the stonings. We needn’t be that ecumenical.
But the U.S. government is different. Our system (including the First Amendment) was tailored to fit a multi-denominational country, to accommodate the squabbling Congregationalists, Anglicans, Quakers, and other assorted products of the English Reformation who’d populated this continent. Eloquent men like Thomas Jefferson crafted high-minded rhetoric that made its way into our national ideology, and helped convince even Catholics (like John Courtenay Murray) that somehow the U.S. founders had stumbled onto the perfect system of governance — the best expression available of the Natural Law that is writ on the human heart. Most American Catholics I’ve met have come to the Americanist conclusion that the U.S. system of secularized democracy is not just the best system for U.S. Americans (as I believe), but the final answer to how men should govern themselves — while Catholic states that existed for 15 centuries were flawed, sinful experiments for whose very existence we must apologize. Now I’m tempted to answer that with the pastoral dictum, “Never apologize, never explain,” but a confessor told me to stop saying that. Particularly to him.
Of course we should echo Pope John Paul II’s expressions of repentance for the mistreatment of religious minorities, and all the other manifestations of pride and arrogance that accompanied the exercise of power by Catholics — and reflect on the awful excesses that accompany religious wars. We should also keep things in perspective: Leaving aside the casualties in the Thirty Years’ War (which had as many secular as religious causes — the French fought for the Protestants), no incidence of religious persecution by any Christian government, of any denomination, in the history of the West, came anywhere near the atrocities of the 20th century, committed or permitted by the secular states of the West: the persecutions of Jews and other minorities by the neopagan Nazis, the butchery of Christians by various Communist states, or the mass murder of the unborn that our country recently voted to continue. A commissar once joked that he and his colleagues executed more people in a day than the Inquisition had in hundreds of years. Our own death toll since Roe v. Wade exceeds Josef Stalin’s — although we haven’t yet matched Mao’s. (We never could outcompete those dang Chinese.) The secular state must answer for its crimes, as we must for ours.
So pardon me if my image of a “good” secular leader has nothing to do with Jefferson, Lincoln, or even Reagan, but hovers somewhere between Kaiser Franz Josef and Taoiseach Eamon de Valera. Imagine the government spending your tax money for something that’s actually useful — like building baroque abbeys, or putting the Angelus on TV. Think of all such outreach as the supernatural answer to anti-smoking ads.
But given the fact of American religious diversity, the First Amendment is the best protection we believers could ask for in this society, and we should thump the table and insist on its strict observance in the face of secularist demands that our hospitals do sex-change operations, our doctors perform abortions, or our seminaries admit the “differently gendered.” In fact, in every society where secularism dominates the public square, as long as that suicidal ideology rules the roost, it’s the duty of Christians to be libertarians for the duration. If the State is defined as godless, it will always be inclined to be our enemy — and we should return the favor. The Natural Law, rightly interpreted, could lead men to pursue objective justice and respect each other’s rights. (Get back to me when that happens.) Since all men are fallen and few are philosophers, they require the aid of revelation to make the right decision when the dictates of Natural Law interfere with fulfilling their appetites. Ironically, since David Hume convinced the West that “is” can’t lead to “ought,” it’s pretty much only Catholics who even talk about Natural Law. Rhetorically, it’s less useful as a tool for convincing unbelievers than a four-color holy card of Padre Pio. Especially one that’s 3-D.
I deduce from this that in every country that follows the heritage of 1776 or 1789, we should say with Albert Jay Nock, “Our Enemy, the State.” At its best, a secular government is a near-sighted, well-meaning umpire; at worst, it’s a hungry idol, a Moloch that’s out to eat the children. Best to starve the beast, keep it hemmed in like Gulliver with hundreds of tiny strings, checked and balanced as our wise Founders actually intended. Meanwhile, we should work energetically to convert our fellow citizens, until one fine day in the future we can hear the presidential address preceded by the Angelus. (Hey, a man’s allowed to dream . . .)
Given the dangerous proclivities of a throne that doesn’t acknowledge the altar, I regard most actions on the part of the U.S. Congress with preliminary trepidation. As Ronald Reagan once wisely said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Apart from defending the country’s borders and protecting basic human rights, a state such as ours should do as little as possible — refraining from micromanaging children’s educations, exploring whether employers had racist or “heterosexist” motives for hiring decisions, or bailing out massive investment banks. The larger and more distant the government body involved, the more nervous I become. I’d much rather hear from the sheriff than the I.R.S.
One of Congress’s few activities of which we can unambiguously approve is its passage of non-binding resolutions. Such resolutions don’t take money from the pocket of Jane Taxpayer, or put coercive power in the hands of Alexander Bureaucrat. They express uplifting aspirations, wistful hopes on the part of our legislative branch — like petitions humbly offered to the tsar by a handful of muzhiks, hats in hand. For instance, in 2001, the U.S. House voted to encourage public schools to set aside a moment of silence for prayer. Equally uselessly, the Congress voted in 2007 to decry President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq. These votes came in handy back in the home district at next election. They were shiny and reassuring — like “good sportsmanship” awards to members of a last place little league team. (To answer your questions: Yes. I got one. Yes, I was part of the reason we all got one.)
In the same spirit as the brave acts of our legislative branch, most Americans take this season to draw up a list of non-binding resolutions for themselves for the upcoming year. Unbacked by the power of the purse, perfect contrition, or the sincere purpose of amendment, these resolutions are the spiritual equivalent of a Senate vote declaring January 6 “International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Which is silly, of course. As Dom Gueranger notes, this feast falls on September 19.
In the spirit of office workers greeting each other with “Arrrrrrr, Matey!,” here is my own list of non-binding New Year’s Resolutions for 2009:
It is the sense of this House that in 2009, Dr. John Zmirak should endeavor as much as possible to undertake the following activities (within reason):
1. Say the Rosary. I know, I know. Hundreds of saints recommend it. It’s scriptural. It’s a meditation on the Gospels. It’s a wholesome Christian version of the mantra, which quells the nattering of the conscious mind and encourages introspection — insight into the moral issues and spiritual shortcomings that impede one’s daily dying to self. That’s precisely why I don’t like it. I’d much rather read sermons by Cardinal Newman — who is profound and spiritually searching, but also rhetorically complex enough that I can lose myself in the way he employs parallel phrases, his sometimes archaic language, and the nice little snarks he occasionally aims at the Anglicans or the liberals. I can call this lectio divina, when often as not I treat it as highbrow airplane reading.
2. Only watch TV while exercising. Like everyone else out there, I need to lose 20 pounds or so for the sake of vanity. (Those “insurance charts” drawn up, it seems, for supermodels, say more like 50 pounds — at which weight my girlfriend insists I’d “look like an AIDS patient. Gross!” God bless her and keep her!) So I’ve set up an elliptical exercise machine in front of the TV, and only let myself view reruns of Law and Order while pretending to cross-country ski. Of course, the street outside my window is covered in snow half the time (this being New Hampshire), but if you think I’m going out in that, without some sort of bribe like Mariska Hargitay cuffing felons . . . let’s just say your understanding of the Fall is semi-Pelagian. Applying to myself the lessons I learned training my dogs, I’m trying to set up a Pavlovian feedback loop in my brain, whereby every time I crave an episode of that Augustinian comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, I automatically start to sweat, and reach for my sneakers.
3. Go to daily Mass more often. I find the experience of the liturgy emotionally wrenching — and I don’t mean just when the rock band enters the sanctuary and I go hide in the crying room. (This really happened to me once at a “last-chance” Mass in Nashua, and yes, I really was crying.) The starkness and simplicity of daily Mass, the absence of reassuring, familiar hymns, Gregorian chant I can butcher, or Melkite processions at which I can bow and repeatedly cross myself — it all leaves me feeling too vulnerable and raw. I couldn’t handle that on a daily basis; I’d be even more of a wreck. Unless, of course, I brought along an iPod with Haydn’s Coronation Mass . . .
4. Stop procrastinating. This is every writer’s curse, of course. It’s a truism to say that the longer you put off finishing a column or chapter, the more painful the process will be. Like delaying a root canal, it only prolongs the throbbing in your head, while holding off the promised laughing gas. But procrastination afflicts one kind of person even more cruelly than it does the writer — namely, the writing teacher. Any day of the week I’d rather write 2,000 words of my own than have to read a paper of that length from some of my students — whose high schools or home schools have taught them helpful grammar rules like:
Wherever possible, use “his or her,” as in: “Hemingway made his or her reputation with the novel The Sun Also Rises.”
Use commas for variety, at any point in a sentence where you think it might be appropriate as for, instance, here.
The semicolon is a useful tool for demonstrating; that you are well-read and highly intelligent.
5. Send fewer writs of excommunication to toxic acquaintances I need to shed — the kind of person I call a FWID (Friend Whom I Dislike). Old spiritual manuals used to talk of the need to avoid “keeping evil company,” and they weren’t talking about Wal-Mart. If you’re an affable fellow like me, who is also a sucker for a sob story, chances are you’ve accumulated over the years your own share of narcissists, emotional/financial parasites, or outright sociopaths. Afraid it would be “uncharitable” to tell these folks at which stop to get off, you’ve probably wasted too much of your limited resources, empathy, toil, and time with people who couldn’t take a hint if it were lying in a basket in the back of the church labeled “For the Poor.” Even verbal tirades on your part get laughed off or forgotten, and the person shows up again in your Inbox or at your doorstep, relying on the power of Limitless Chutzpah to blow past your defenses and land him or her back inside what Robert DeNiro called (in Meet the Parents) the Circle of Trust. But the last time they were there, they messed on the floor, and you’ve got to get them out. So if you’re like me — an extremely acerbic writer — you pen the person a searchingly critical letter full of theological references, ugly anecdotes, and long-suppressed emotion, designed to remove every inch of skin, coat him in road salt like a pretzel, and spread him with mustard. This usually does get rid of him, but it can make a dangerous enemy.
I hope to write fewer such letters this year. I’m almost out of FWIDs.
John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.