Admit it, you do, as do most people, though few will ever admit it. Well, now is your chance.
This morning I wrote a reply to a friend’s letter, whose key points can be easily inferred from my response. However, having pushed the SEND button, I realised that the missive may be of general interest. That, coupled with my congenital laziness, settled the issue of today’s piece.
So here it is. I’ve withheld my correspondent’s name, along with the personal references that might reveal his identity, familiar to some readers.
I’m so sorry you fell out with the Catholic Church, but those things happen. I do, however, have a few disagreements with your treatment of it – and not just because I am a Catholic and you no longer are. For facts are facts, and they should be impervious to personal beliefs or absence thereof.
First, if you write down everything Jesus said in the Gospels, you’ll get 1.5 hours’ worth of text. Yet his ministry lasted about three years. All that time he was teaching – his apostles, his adversaries, the priests, the multitudes. Surely he said a lot more than 1.5 hours’ worth?
Also, decades passed between Jesus’ death and the appearance of the first Gospel (probably Mark’s, although the conventional sequence puts Matthew’s first). Yet the Church survived during that hiatus and expanded exponentially. Clearly, it subsisted on oral tradition, things the 12 vouchsafed to their disciples, and they to theirs.
Most of them were seeking converts in the Hellenic world, and people raised in the rational Greek tradition were bound to raise many questions and express many doubts. We know this from Paul’s epistles to various congregations.
That’s why oral tradition, exegesis and interpretation are essential parts of Christianity. Reducing it strictly to the Gospels smacks of Protestant sectarianism torn to shreds by even great Protestant thinkers.
Christians believe in a living God, which makes Christianity a dynamic, evolving religion. We don’t think revelation was (or rather had to be) given all at once, and some of history’s most sublime minds created a body of work to that effect.
The upshot of it is that Christianity isn’t only the teaching by Christ, but also, some will say mostly, the teaching about Christ. It’s that teaching that created a world religion, which in turn created the greatest civilisation in history.
Even a cursory look at the history of Europe after the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire will show that the Church was the only institution that survived more or less intact. And it was the Church that bridged the 500-year gap between the Classical and Western civilisations.
Europe overcame the barbarian onslaught thanks to the monastic orders: the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Cistercians, Jesuits, Carmelites etc. For something close to a millennium, they carried the burden of building a new civilisation on the ruins of the old one.
They founded hospitals, shelters, charities, schools, universities and laboratories. They made immeasurable contributions to science, technology, education, medicine, agriculture, art, music, architecture – not just philosophy and theology. (The first foundry in Europe, for example, was built in an abbey not far from us here in Burgundy.)
European politics at its best also owes much to the ideas and practices of the Church, specifically its principle of subsidiarity, devolving power to the lowest sensible level.
I’d define the key political conflict of modernity as a struggle between proponents of the big or small central state. The conservative idea of localism over centralism owes much to Catholic thought. That’s why I always argue with my French friends that the EU, which pushes the notion of a giant central state to grotesque limits, is as aggressively anti-Christian – and consequently anti-European – as any socialist country.
Depicting the Church as so many obscurantist fanatics hellbent on burning people alive is good knockabout fun, but it doesn’t agree with the facts. And they, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. This tendency goes back to the first Protestants, and it was further developed by the Left, atheist fringe of European politics. The names of Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno you take in vain are invariably mentioned in support.
To begin with, these men weren’t opponents of the Church but its products. All three were educated at Catholic universities. Copernicus was a Catholic canon, Bruno a Dominican friar, Galileo a pious Catholic.
Pope Urban VIII was Galileo’s friend and patron, and he always took Galileo’s side in his disputes with the local church. The disputes were mainly caused by Galileo’s rudeness and combativeness, not so much his theories. No solid agreement on heliocentricity existed within the Church, although the majority opinion ran against it.
In the end, Galileo ungratefully and rudely turned against his friend the Pope. His punishment was to live out his days in a comfortable villa, which is risible by the standards of the atheist 20th century.
Bruno was active at the time when the Reformation threatened the survival of the Church, and a survival mechanism is built into any human organisation. Compared to his vicious attacks on the Church and its key figures, Galileo comes across as a charity worker. That’s why the Church reacted violently to Bruno’s heretical animadversions, which attacked Christian doctrine wantonly and stupidly.
Desperate times, dangerous measures and all that. The times were as desperate as they get, and the little pyre in Rome’s Campo di Fiori was the 16th century equivalent of the more recent executions for wartime treason, such as that of William Joyce in 1946.
The Church isn’t only a divine institution, but also a human one. And all human institutions make mistakes, sometimes commit crimes – we are all sinners. However, it takes a wilful deception not to see that the Church’s balance sheet of rights and wrongs is more positive than that of any other human institution I can think of, emphatically including modern democracy.
You are right that most voters can’t grasp nuanced arguments – hence politicians’ tendency to reduce the entire complexity of life to simplistic sound bites. However, between us boys, life doesn’t lend itself to such reduction, and neither does its political aspect.
A simplistic (as opposed to simple) idea is always wrong simply becuase it’s indeed simplistic. That’s why the people who win the masses with unsound and usually dishonest clichés are themselves powerful arguments against unchecked democracy run riot, the kind that’s not counterbalanced by other forms of power – and not the kind that Churchill knew.
He was a man of Edwardian, not to say Victorian, time, when the word ‘democracy’ meant something different from what it means today. In fact, in the 19th century it had no currency whatsoever. For example, American founding fathers never used it, and neither did Lincoln. (The word isn’t one of the almost 300 in his Gettisburg Address.)
That’s why Churchill’s much-quoted adage about democracy being better than anything else ever tried must be taken with a pinch of salt and, ideally, a shot of tequila. The man lived a long life, talking and writing throughout. He said many things, and many of them were mutually exclusive.
On the subject of democracy, I prefer another Churchillism: “The greatest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.”
This is roughly what you are saying too, isn’t it? That an average voter can’t grasp the complexity of the issues on which every election hinges? If that’s so, then it should be possible to subject democracy to critical analysis (I wrote one such in my book Democracy as a Neocon Trick) and go wherever it’ll take us, possibly all the way to finding our modern democracy systemically flawed.
All that explains why I could never seek a political office, and would reject one if it were miraculously offered. As another American politician put it, “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”
That in no way diminishes my admiration for the noble role UKIP played in getting Britain out of that abomination. But UKIP wasn’t so much a political party as a pressure group, thankfully an effective one. Its single issue was indeed beautifully binary: Yes or No, In or Out.
Alas, most problems of life aren’t like that, and popular appeal hardly ever coincides with truth. In fact, I’d say the Catholic Church between 500 and 1500 AD is one of the few examples of such an overlap.