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

Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Year End Post

It's December 31st, and the sidebar tells me that it is our least prolific writing year in the 18 years of the blog's existence.  Though as I say that, the idea of a blog being 18 years old is also rather shocking.  51 posts this year to date is pretty pitiful after years (many years ago at this point) when we averaged more than one post per day. Though, to be honest, I'm surprised that this post will even bring us up to that average. It seems like less.

So what has happened this year?

MrsDarwin and I each directed one play for our local community theater.

In the spring, MrsDarwin directed Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

She is a far better acting director that I am, and thus well suited to helping actors deliver Shakespeare's language with understanding and conviction.  And it was a wonderful cast.  Indeed, our Titania and Lysander are now engaged and getting married in a month or two.  (No particular credit to us -- they came to us as a couple, but they were great to work with.)

In the summer musical, MrsDarwin had her star turn onstage as Golde in "Fiddler on the Roof". I dealt with tech -- and when asked, told MrsD that what she needed to make her performance come alive was to remember that the subtext of every line directed at Tevye was, "You idiot". MrsD is someone who is very cautious with her subtext in real life, so this kind of let-it-all-hang-out combativeness did not come naturally, but in the end, I think she nailed it.

In the fall, I directed Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.  If I have a strength, it's on the management and technical sides of directing, and this was a very technical show with a lot of set and sound and lighting.  I think that in the end, it came out very well.

I read 23 books (if I manage to finish one of the incomplete ones in the next few hours, I'll hit my Goodreads goal of 24), and if there was a theme to this years reading, it was non-fiction books dealing with prehistory.  The one I would most recommend to a general audience is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Writing this year...  Well, it was a bit sparse, not just on the blog, but also on the fiction projects we care a lot about. MrsD made some forward motion both on drafting Mrs Dashwood and also on revising Stillwater for publication. 2025 is Jane Austen's 250th birthday, and MrsD is planning to have a banner year for Austen-inspired publications.  My own output has been disappointing (at least in quantity) -- on the blog, on The Pillar, and on The Great War. I feel age pressing upon me, and as I turn 45 this coming year recognize that I had better get this trilogy done while I can still write in the same voice in which I began.

And then there is The Bathroom Project.

It's 18 months now since I started a total gut and rebuild of a bathroom, thinking I could get it done within 3-6 months.  But someone directing two show and tech directing four and being promoted to a vice president at work all (not to mention seven children and a spouse I like to spend time with) adds up to a lot of commitment.

Still, progress is happening.  I got the joists leveled and the subfloor down, and over this Christmas break I have put in the insulation and moved the cast iron tub in order to re-level and re-position it.

It turns out that back in 1929, the way that they put a cast iron tup in place was to pour a bunch of cement on the subfloor and set the tub on it.  Which I'm sure is great, but if re-doing your walls and tile means you need to move your tub over an inch, it's impossible to do. They built to last in those days, but they didn't. build to be easy to renovate.

So now I'm googling up ways to place one's cast iron tub and we're going to level up the joists by two inches (it was always a big step down into the tub) and re-level the beast as we put it back.

So, from this aging blog to any of you still reading: a happy new years, and may you be successful in planning out your vita nuova in the weeks and months to come.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Tired of Lies

For those in the Catholic media world, peace on earth was slow in coming this advent, as a mini firestorm blew up on December 18th with the release of Fiducia Supplicans, a declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on the pastoral meaning of blessings.

You might think that blessings would be a pretty non-controversial topic, perhaps even a boring one. Blessings are everywhere in Catholic life. It's quite normal for a parish priest, at the request of his parishioners, to bless rosaries and other sacramentals, cars, houses, etc. 

Nor are blessings something reserved only for some spiritual or moral elite. Indeed, it is common for priests to suggest that at communion, those who may not be in union with the Church, or who may be in an unabsolved state of serious sin, cross their arms to show that they would like to receive a blessing from the priest rather than the Eucharist.  In this very common move, it is precisely those who are in some state of sin or disunion with the Church who routinely receive blessings. So in no way are blessings reserved for the few or the perfect.

But this document comes in the midst of an already simmering rift in the Church over whether the Church's teachings on cohabitation, on divorce and remarriage, and on whether marriage can be contracted between two people of the same sex can be changed. The Synodal Way initiative pursued by the German Catholic bishops has openly called for a wholesale revision of Catholic teaching on sexual morality and German bishops have given permission for the blessing of same sex marriages by their priests.  The Belgian bishops have published liturgical text for blessing same sex marriages. And although the Vatican has said that this is not possible, it has also declined to in any way stop the Belgian and German bishops, even while showing in other areas that it is quite willing to interfere in very local liturgical matters and remove bishops for seemingly minor issues (as in the case of the Bishop of Arecibo in Porto Rico.)

It's important to note that the document itself states the Catholic teaching on marriage repeatedly. This is not to say that there not nits which one might pick with it theologically. It continues the recent trend of referring to "irregular" relationships, as if a sexual relationship with the Church considers to be clearly sinful were merely an issue due to some fussy technicality. And its suggestion that a couple can be blessed as a couple (not as two Christians seeking God's grace) while at the same time holding that the union is itself sinful seems hard to maintain to human and practical terms. If this same argument were made for blessing other questionable social groupings (say a street racing club -- those can, I am told, lead to relationships that "are family") one imagines that Cardinal Fernandez would be more hesitant.

But issues asides, the document is clearly one which was written with conscious attention to being compatible with established Catholic teaching.

So why has it been greeted with such sharp reactions?  Why have the bishops of Germany and Belgium (who are explicitly violating its rules) declared the document to be a good start, while the bishops of the many conferences throughout Africa have reacted so negatively that under Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar is working to put together a unified continental response to confusion arising from the document?

Fr. James Martin, SJ, celebrated the release of Fiducia Supplicans by calling a NY Times reporter and photographer to document his first official 'informal and non-liturgical' blessing of a gay couple.

I think it's impossible to look at these developments outside the context of the last thirty years of history among the broader world of Christian communities across the world. 

The issue of same sex marriage has split multiple Protestant denominations over the last few decades. Even as the news of the new Vatican document dominated headlines, the United Methodist Church was completing a massive split over LGBT issues. For Episcopalians in the US, the split came a while ago, with congregations which held to traditional Christian teaching on morality re-aligning themselves to belong to a hierarchy centered on (non-coincidentally) Anglican bishops in Africa. Africa is not merely a thriving region for Catholics, but for a number of Protestant denominations as well, including Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists -- all of whom in the US are dominated by progressive theology (though as with all things Protestant, it's complicated and fractured.)

Growing up, a lot of my friends were Episcopalian, and fairly involved in their churches, so I heard a lot about the developing split in the Episcopal Church over same sex marriage. One of the things that struck me then was the amount of double-talk and outright lying about objectives which went on from the progressive side.

Again and again, I saw people who clearly supported same sex marriage argue, "Why should it be a problem if Gene Robinson is a bishop and openly lives with a same sex partner?  We know that lots of bishops are sinners.  All of us are in need of forgiveness.  Was it ever a tenet of the faith that bishops are without sin?"

Advocates insisted they weren't trying to change doctrine, they just wanted to have blessings, or have commitment ceremonies, or have house blessings. All sorts of halfway steps were endorsed and people insisted they were obviously the end point and it was conspiracy minded to see this as one big push for same sex marriage.  Until, of course, enough people had become accustomed to the idea and then suddenly it was a push for same sex marriage and congregations which wouldn't go along with the changes were getting evicted from their churches by bishops.

Now, as a Catholic, I think there's an obvious difference here.  Yes, we have some parts of the Catholic Church which are deathly sick and may wither away. Germany and some other European countries may well see an institutional collapse of the Church in the coming decades.  But I believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Catholic Church as a whole and will preserve it from teaching error.

That said, as we can see from Church history, a great deal of confusion, conflict, and loss of faith very much can go on even as though in the long run the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Whether we live through times of re-awakening and evangelization, or times of confusion and apostacy, can very much depend on our own actions and those of the Church's leaders.

When it comes to confusion, there is at least an honesty to the German Synodal Way, which is stating outright that it wants a complete change in Catholic teaching on sexual morality. They may be wrong, but it's clear where they stand.

Far more frustrating are the people who seem like they would be ecstatic if the Church were to change its teaching on same sex marriage, and yet who keep insisting that they are not advocating for any such thing but rather just want to provide people with blessings.

Indeed, one whole line or argument which I have seen is that the way that the Church could gradually change doctrine is by first changing practice -- making it seem completely normal for same sex couples to get blessings from priests while opposite sex couples get marriage ceremonies -- and then when the blessing of unions seems like a standard part of Catholic life, start pushing the question of "how is it fair that some couples get weddings and others only get blessings?"

And knowing that some of those out there insisting "We only want blessings!  We don't want any change in doctrine!" are lying and very much do want to change doctrine makes those who are eager to protect doctrine wary of everyone advocating for blessings, even though (as the new DDF document shows) there is a way of thinking about blessings for people in relationships that the Church sees as sinful which is no change in doctrine and indeed no change in practice from the current one.

For those who've been seeing this issue play out in the wider Christian community for decades, the loud insistence that "We're very, very excited about this important new document, but you guys need to shut up because it absolutely is not a change in doctrine in the direction that we've been advocating for" sounds (to use an overused term) like gaslighting.  People know very well that there are those out there who want to change doctrine and see a liberal application of blessings such as that celebrated for the NY Times by Fr. James Martin, SJ (himself a darling of the Vatican at the moment -- though that may change if his public victory lap is seen has instrumental in causing the explosion among the bishops in Africa) as a means for gradually enacting that change.

I think there are a number of other leaders in the hierarchy who really do think that informal blessings are a way to somehow paper over the growing split on moral doctrine without having to hash out the underlying issues. To these institutionally minded clerics, encouraging blessings (which really are nothing new) provides a way seem more accepting without actually changing doctrine, which they recognize would be incompatible with the Church's self understanding. The problem is that this attempt to have it both ways -- to satisfy those who actually want same sex marriage and also those who want doctrinal fidelity -- risks making the split seem even bigger than it is. Those who are focused on doctrinal fidelity see the offer of blessings to be a sign of loyalty to the pro same sex marriage faction.

It is actively good to be pastoral and tell people, no matter their actions and attachments, that God loves them and wants to shower down grace upon them. It will be a bad outcome for the Church if good priests and bishops become convinced they must be stingy with blessings in order to seem not to be endorsing doctrinal change.

What Church leaders should do is BOTH crack down hard on those within the Church who are flouting Church teaching on same sex marriage, and ALSO encourage the use of blessings for all people who are eager for God's mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  And those who disagree with the Church's perennial and unchanging teaching on marriage and sexuality should at least have the decency to stop lying and admit that they disagree.  The lies are poisoning the whole Church.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Accommodation vs Evangelization and Their Origins

 I have a piece up in the The Pillar this week, advancing a framework for understanding why we see such different responses to the challenges of talking about the Church's teachings on marriage and sexual morality in the modern world.

How is it that among the world's Catholic bishops' conferences we have countries as seemingly different as Germany, Belgium and the countries of Latin America on the "accommodation" side of dealing with these problems, while on the other we have countries like the US and the African nations?

Pope Francis and Cardinal Fernandez hale from Argentina, where 92% of the population is Catholic, although few people attend mass or even marry in the Church, while Fiducia supplicans has come under strident criticism from the bishops of Africa, where in most countries Catholicism is a minority religion besides Protestantism and Islam

If it were simply a matter of affluence and modern economies, one might expect the US and Europe to seem more similar, while Africa and Latin America were on the same side.

I argue that there are different experiences and fears among church leaders in countries where the Catholic Church is the predominant religious force. Clerics who face a region in which the vast majority of residents are baptized Catholics are tempted by a sense of loss aversion: if only they can avoid giving people a reason to formally separate themselves from the Church, then when some point in their lives draws them towards God, it will be the Church and the Church's sacraments which people reach out to.

In regions with more religious competition, leaders in the Church have pushed to realize that waiting passively for the moment of grace may not be enough: if they do not seek to actively evangelize their flock, the sheep may be quickly drawn into another religious community.

You can real the full piece which lays out the argument and supporting details here.

With this post, I'd like to go a bit further and discuss some ideas which did not make it into the Pillar piece.

Obviously, it is the fact that at many times through Church history Church leaders have seen the necessity of evangelizing even though the vast majority of the people under their care are already baptized Catholics.  Accommodation and the minimization of the conflicts between Catholic teaching and the prevailing culture of the time is not the inevitable approach. The Church's history is full of great saints who recognized and sought to remedy the everyday practical unbelief which is a temptation for all of us.

So why, with the mainstream culture seemingly so opposed to Christianity at so many levels -- not just sexuality, but in regards to the meaning and purpose of human life, of possessions, of civil society -- has more of a movement not sprung up yet to bring the Church's message to a desperate world, even in the regions which are, on paper, already Catholic?

I think one could argue that among the "Vatican II generation" there is an idea that is a hangover from the post WW2 moment (when modernity seemed to have immolated itself in war and destruction, and Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain was a key inspiration for the UN Charter on Human Rights.) Catholic leaders thought that the Church was poised to provide answers to a ruined modernity's questions and lead the world into a new age of peace and thriving.

Whatever influence that Catholic vision may have had evaporated in the conflict with the sexual revolution. Even as the conciliar generation "threw open the windows the Church" thinking that the world would eagerly embrace the ideas of churchmen on ending war, pursuing European style Christian Democracy, and creating an economy focused on human ends, the world instead embraced a consumerism which extended to sex, relationship, and human life itself.

And yet many (especially in Europe and that conciliar generation) still see the post-Vatican II Church as clearly providing answers to the secular world's questions if only they could clear the air of questions about sexual issues.

We see this in a conviction that the Vatican can be a key player in negotiating an end to war in general (in individual conflicts such as Ukraine and the Holy Land in particular), and in providing the inspiration for a new culture which will tame carbon emissions.

But in the minds of the vast majority of people, that post-war moment is long past. When you talk with secular intellectuals about "human rights" they instantly think of gay marriage and trans rights, not the vision of Christian Democracy which the postwar generation of Catholic leaders sought to implement in Europe and abroad.  

And the sorts of questions that people are actually asking are in fact the ones which too many church leaders seem to see as a distraction: how am I to form relationships and raise a family?  What is a family? What is the relationship between me and my body?  If I could upload my mind into a computer, would that be "me"? Do we have the right to create life whenever and however we choose (from IVF to genetically modified "custom babies") and to end life when we see fit? What do my desires mean in a world where countless internet sights are flogging apparently instant satisfaction?  

And while the Church has answers to those questions, they're answers in clear and direct conflict with the post sexual revolution mores of secular society to which many are as deeply attached as pagan societies were to their idols. At some point, the leaders of the Church are going to have to choose between the credibility they imagine they could have with the leaders of the worldly elite and professing the Church's answers on the key questions of the day. They question is: will they choose to do so, in some parts of the world, while they still have a majority of people being baptized into the Church, or will the wakeup call wait until the collapse is complete.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Penderwicks at Last

Why have I not written? Let me count the ways. No, let me sum up. I have not written because I have not written. Life continues happily apace here in Darwinland. Each day brings some fresh incident, but as they're mostly funny little quotidian things, they're not of much interest to anyone but us. Last Thursday, a week ago now, Child #5 finally had her tonsils out (and her adenoids, and she also had a nasal turbinate reduction, which is to say the surgeon essentially roto-rootered her upper nasal passage), bringing, we hope, an end to the storyline that was strep throat. She is recovering well, you'll be happy to know, even though 13 is geriatric in terms of tonsil surgery.

Life is like that, you know? You blink, and all the little day to day dramas and laughs have built up to time passing. Distilling that time into a narrative, and not just a collection of anecdotes and characters, can be tricky, especially if there's not some overarching drama to resolve. 

Which brings me to The Penderwicks at Last, which I read, and then skimmed, in one bout of increasingly disappointed consumption, rather as one eats the whole box of cereal looking for a plastic prize.


The first Penderwicks book was a delight, mostly -- a story of four sisters and their absent-minded professor of a father (given to Latin quotes, you know, as erudite professor fathers are), vacationing in the caretaker cottage of a grand estate called Arundel. They become friends with the boy who lives at the estate, despite his overbearing mother. Everything is a bit too charming, but the characters and situations are fun, in general, and the adventures innocent -- a bunch of modern children strangely unaffected by the world of screens.

If a book is a success, it is certain to have a sequel. The Penderwicks spawned three sequels of decreasing quality, until the fourth book, The Penderwicks in Spring, badly bungled the sisters responding to traumatic memories of their mother's death. Appalling behavior that called out for clinical intervention was brushed under the table. The author had lost control of her characters, and what were character quirks in the first book became serious social maladaptations, in a way that she was not able or willing to address realistically.

Whence this family dysfunction? All erased with a happy stroke of the author's pen in The Penderwicks at Last, an episodic collection of precious characters and no stakes. Ostensibly the story is about the wedding of the oldest Penderwick sister, to be held back where it all started, at Arundel, and the POV character is the youngest stepsister, 11-year-old Lydia, whose tweenhood seems untainted with any impending hint of adult complexity. But the family's minor wedding drama has absolutely no weight for the reader, nor has any other incident  -- there's no conflict whose happy resolution is not signaled pages or chapters in advance. Scads of oh-so-delightful characters (and dogs, three or four or six of them) surface just long enough to be interchangeably wise and charming. The original four sisters are now remote, blank slates on which the author has inscribed one or two residual character traits to manipulate as she pleases. The book dutifully namechecks lots of literature and music, and we're all aware that the author has read Little Women, making certain plot developments as predictable as tomorrow's date. 

It is right and just for a children's book to be mainly about the microcosmic dramas that seem so desperately important in the moment. The juvie novel devoted to grappling with Big History or current social mores already seems as dated as the Improving Literature foisted upon the defiant Jane Eyre. Make kids' lit small again! But even small things need real weight to register. By the middle of the book, Lydia is already achingly nostalgic for the twee memories she's still in the middle of making, and the reader is nostalgic for the kind of children's book where the events matter as much to her as to the characters. There's no prize at the bottom of this cereal box, just a powdery pile of sugar dust.