Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Reading While Parental

MrsDarwin and I were talking about Brideshead Revisited this morning.  It's one of our favorite novels.  Indeed, a copy of Brideshead was one of the first gifts that I gave MrsD back when were were college freshman.  

Now our eldest child is a college freshman, and we find ourselves in the position of trying guide adult and near-adult children on issues ranging from time management and study skills to romantic relationships and life plans.

I remember my Dad telling me that Brideshead as a deeply middle-aged book, and that perhaps I should not read it till I was older.  Nothing, of course, could make me more eager to read it, and so I read it and loved it in late high school.  I re-read it several times during college (I remember, in those early, slightly lonely days of freshman year when I didn't yet have enough friends or homework to take up all my time, sitting around the air-conditioned student center and reading Donna Tartt's Secret History, then Brideshead Revisited, and then Secret History again.

The reason I was sitting around binging on these novels as a college freshman was the tantalizing sense of a whole world unfolding through college learning and friendships both offered -- never mind the fact that both also focused on dark consequences unfolding from the overindulgence of those college temptations.  Tragic consequences and grand gestures definitely drew me in as themes when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

That element of Brideshead still appeals to me, thought I think it's come home to me much more over the years the extent to which Charles and Sebastian's idyllic college days are an illusion covering pain and emptiness.  But what we were discussing this morning was Lady Marchmain, Sebastian's mother, and a character who as a young reader seemed so obviously and totally misguided as to seem almost unbelievable.  

I have to say, as a parent with children who are now the age of Charles and Sebastian when we first meet them, Lady Marchmain's actions now seem a lot more explicable.  Not that she's right.  Indeed, in addition to her efforts to rein in Sebastian making his disfunctions worse, Waugh rightly sets her up for some savage satire of overly comfortable Christianity.  Her “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion,” monologue is perhaps one of the best send-ups of an attempt to use Chestertonian-style contradiction to justify doing whatever you like that I've ever read.  

But she seems a lot more true to life now.  I can readily understand feeling like you have all the answers to your children's problems if they would just listen.  When Sebastian is clearly in with a bad set at college (how else can one describe a social set that spans from Anthony Blance to Boy Malcaster?) she tries to get him to hang out with the Catholic student group.  When he's constantly cutting class and not doing school work, she tries to get him to become friends with the eagerly friendly don Mr. Samgrass.  When she sees that Charles is close to Sebastian, she tries to draw him into the family and get him to lead Sebastian towards better habits.  

None of these things work, and in many cases they make things worse, but they're the sort of things you can definitely imagine some nice mom in the parish doing.

Why is she so repeatedly unsuccessful in raising her children in the faith that means so much to her?

The bad example of her marriage is definitely a key aspect.  The children have been raised among the long distance tug of war between their separated parents, and that definitely undercuts Lady Marchmain's attempts to pass on her Catholic faith and the comfortable Edwardian lifestyle she sees as fitting so well with it.

That comfort with the union of faith and culture from her own youth is another of the problems.  She and her fondly remembered brother seem to have fit their faith and the template for worldly success together pretty well.  But Lady Marchmain seems to have little idea of how antithetical the world of high society debutantes she launches Julia into is to the life she hopes Julia will live, until the point where Julia is already far estranged from her faith and seeing Rex as the solution to her social status problems.  

Of course, all this involves doing a great deal of reading between the lines.  When we first meet Charles and Sebastian, Lady Marchmain is part of the inexplicable older generation.  And when we see Charles again in his 30s, Lady Marchmain is seen more through the lens of her effect on her children than as a fully rounded character.  

Waugh himself, when writing Brideshead, was 41, married, and had several children.  But he's inhabiting a younger set of characters and as the novel opens, "my theme is memory."  But this interplay between generations seems fascinating to me as I think about stories from my current vantage point.  I'm trying to think if there are any novels which do a particularly good job of  that mixture of insight and helplessness that afflicts the parent of a new adult.

Divisive Visions of Unity in the Catholic Church

 While there's another big data-driven set project that I'm working on for The Pillar, I got a chance this week to do some straight forward news analysis for them on the debate at the recent USCCB meeting over writing a document on the Eucharist.  

As many as a quarter of U.S. bishops, including several cardinals who have positioned themselves as interpreters of Pope Francis, voted against the document, possibly agreeing with Gregory’s assertion that the document will cause division. 


Clear to most observers is politics. Even as institutional religion wanes, Americans with increasing frequency treat politics with the zeal previously reserved for faith. Any appearance that the bishops’ conference could be taking sides against the Democrats just feeds passions already burning hot.

But the bishops seem split over what Christian unity really is, and divided by conflicting visions of how to evangelize an increasingly post-Christian culture.

Among the bishops speaking last week against drafting a document, there was often a suggested - and sometimes made explicit - vision of maintaining ecclesial unity by remaining aloof about the aspects of the Church’s sexual and medical morality which are most often expected to present stumbling blocks to non-practicing Catholics.


The approach has been a successful means of maintaining visible communion with Catholics who remain attached to some aspects of Catholic devotional and social practice — Grandma’s rosary or her statue of Our Lady, the annual parish golf fundraiser, going to church as a family on Christmas — but who get angry when the Church speaks about contraception or says that Junior’s second marriage isn’t valid.

Indeed, the unity-through-silence tactic appeared to serve bishops well in the waning days of America’s cultural Catholicism. Many Catholics of Joe Biden’s generation wanted to consider themselves members in good standing of the Church well after they had distanced themselves from its doctrine — especially after the 1968 promulgation of Humanae Vitae. They easily found clerics, and even bishops, willing to soft-pedal controversial issues as a kind of compromise with a changing social ethos. 


But the compromise has become less viable with the passing decades. Catholic moral doctrine will not reverse itself in order to keep up with the times. And secular morality has come to demand not just silence but ever-more active ally-ship on what it considers matters of justice: easy access to contraception and abortion, recognition and celebration of same-sex marriage and of sexual diversity, etc. The number and breadth of such demands is likely to increase.

During the pontificate of Pope Francis, the advocates of this approach to unity have enthusiastically adopted the terminology of “accompaniment.” But if their approach lacks the missionary element of Pope Francis’ agenda, it might better be described as “accommodation.” 

Accompaniment lacking a missionary orientation toward conversion can devolve easily into what papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre warned the USCCB against in his introductory remarks last week: “religion a la carte”. 

Quoting Pope Francis, Pierre said, “This is what I believe creates in the end the ‘religion a la carte.’ I believe that one has to recover the religious act as a movement towards an encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Read the rest...

It's been interesting after all these years of blogging to shift over to writing for an actual news outlet.  On the data-driven pieces, I have the clear advantage of having working-world experience with building and analyzing data sets in order to draw conclusions about what's going on.  In a news analysis piece like this, there are a lot of superficial similarities to the blogging that I've done for 15+  years.  However, there's for a style guide to writing for a news site, and also more of an expectation that pieces not only contain an interesting idea but also that they follow certain basic structures: hook out front, clear explanation of thesis with supporting examples, conclusion which sums up.  

Although all writing is good experience, I've been realizing that my habits can be a bit stream of consciousness when it comes to the sort of writing that I would otherwise do in a blog post.  (When it comes to fiction, MrsD and I have long gone over to a highly structure-based approach.)  It's been a good experience and I've very much enjoyed working with the editors (and their tolerance of my learning curve.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

Hollow and Home: A History of Self and Place, by E. Fred Carlisle

I picked this up in the architecture section of the library, which has been my current kick, and it turns out that the author spent his boyhood in my own town and lived on the next block over. The local history is interesting, but overall the author seems to have come to some basic insights rather late in life.

1 Corinthians

I've been reading two chapters of the New Testament each evening before bed. The first chapter is the previous evening's second chapter. It's a rich way to meditate on scripture and make new connections.

1a. Readaloud

Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

On a whim, I started The Hobbit as a bedtime readaloud, and it migrated to our main daytime reading session. Now we're working through Lord of the Rings, which I've never read aloud, believe it or not.

2. What book did you just finish?

all by Witold Rybcynski
A friend shared a quote from Witold Rybcynski's Home, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of books on architecture and household, a pairing of ideas that always interests me.

3. What do you plan to read next?

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

I recently read a striking quote from Moby-Dick, and thought that maybe I'd give it another go-round after my one college slog.

Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?, by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Balthasar's name has come up to me lately from a variety of sources, and this particular topic is one that I've been pondering for a while. I thought it was time to encounter him in his own words and not just through other people's articles.

This was on the same library shelf as Hollow and Home, and it looked interesting. I read The Weeping Time, about the largest slave auction in American history, held at the Butler plantation. British actress Fanny Kemble married into the family before visiting the plantation (and later divorced out of it). Her horrified diary and letters and memoir give a window into the appalling culture of the plantation. 

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson

I'm amused while I'm reading it, but it's been sitting on my nightstand forever.

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Why is this taking me so long? I love it while I'm reading it, but once I put it down...

See above. I will never finish this book.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I'm sure there's something out there I'm supposed to start, but nothing's leaping to mind right now.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Home architecture.

Monday, June 14, 2021

A Wedding Toast to Mr. Dan-Man

My baby brother got married this weekend. 

It's been our family tradition to adapt some song with lots of harmony into a personalized toast at weddings, so my brother Will tossed out a short parody of "Mister Sandman", and I cleaned it up and wrote the finished lyrics. We all worked on our parts individually, which didn't go so well the first time we got together to sing. But after a few intense pre-wedding rehearsal sessions, we found our groove.

I present to you the sweet stylings of the Egan siblings in our last wedding toast.

Mr. Dan-man, that is our phrase
It's been his nickname since his toddler days.
But let us offer one clarification:
Grown up, he likes to go by Nate or Nathan.
Mr. Dan-man, or should we say Than?
Meri, John, Will, Liz, and Anna command:
Hear the last toast that we'll sing
Now that Dan-man's wearing a ring.

Mr. Dude-man, Jack of all trades,
He goes to Europe for his escapades.
Working with wood, giving drumming instructions,
Directing youth group musical productions.
Mr. Dan-man, don't think it's weird
That we're singing an ode to your beard.
Smooth or whiskered, you look swell,
Now that Cupid's ringing those bells.

Mr. Dan-man, God heard your prayer:
(He sent a) brainy beauty with charm and red hair
(He sent a) fellow chastity educator
Now she's your lifelong collaborator.
(Bum bum) Miss Savannah, you're good as gold. 
You handle Dan now 'cause we're getting old.
You two make a perfect team
Mrs. Dan-man, take him
Wedding cake him,
Mrs. Egan, manage his schemes.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Data Journalism on Bishops' Annual Appeals

I've got a new data analysis piece up at The Pillar, looking to see if there is a "McCarrick Effect" on the annual appeals which dioceses conduct.

After the the 2018 scandals of Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse, some Catholics began to say publicly they would no longer support diocesan appeals. Those voices grew louder amid discontent over the Church’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But are frustrated Catholics actually scaling back their financial support for their dioceses? We went to the numbers to find out.

The Pillar examined records of annual appeal collections in 25 geographically and demographically diverse dioceses from 2016 to 2020. We found that on average, the collections of diocesan annual appeals have gone down 4% during the last 4-5 years....

 In related news, The Pillar has made me a "contributing editor".  I certainly won't be quitting my day job, but as Pillar editor-in-chief JD Flynn says, while "it comes with no material benefits, no great prestige, and not even a cool watch. It does mean [Brendan] will continue to develop data-driven journalism for The Pillar, and offer a unique perspective on the life of the Church."

I'm honored by their faith in my work, and if you haven't already subscribed, I'd definitely encourage giving them a look.  They have by far the best coverage of the Church that I've seen in recent years.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Less Strident and Less Tolerant

 Every so often I ask myself why (aside from chronic lack of time to do much of anything other than work, parenting, and mindlessly wasting time) I don't write more.  Then I look back at the numerous posts I wrote in the past and realize that these days I would not write many of them.

Some of this is due to the "I used to have a seven theories and no children, now I have seven children and no theories" phenomenon. Some is due to the cynicism and exhaustion that gradually teaches one that trying to correct everyone who is wrong on the internet is like trying to hold back the tide.  But a lot of it is also that over the years I've come to know and like more people who find various subjects or views upsetting, and so rather than write something which I know will upset people I like, I keep a lot of thoughts that I nonetheless hold to myself.  

In this sense, I probably sound a somewhat less strident than I used to.

However, there's a downside to this constant voluntary self censorship.  It's an unspoken, one-sided bargain, and as such it's one of which others are unaware.  While I may have undertaken these strictures for reasons that seem like they would apply equally to people on the other side of various issues, it is hardly surprising if other people do not feel the same need to keep their opinions under wraps in order to get along.  I know this.  And yet, when one is going to the effort to bottle up a lot of opinion, and others are quite obviously not doing so, it's easy to get angry that others are not following one's own silent code.

The result is that as a direct result of becoming less strident, I think I've become a good deal less tolerant as well. 

I don't know if this is an inevitable result of our current tense cultural conditions, combined with the disorientation and feeling of betrayal that naturally come from the recent scrambling of sides as the right has become more populist and the left has become more illiberal, or if it's an inevitable result of age and weariness, but it definitely one of the key ways that I have changed in the way I think about online opinion over the years.