Do you like peeking into other people’s letters?

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.

As ever,


11 thoughts on “Do you like peeking into other people’s letters?”

  1. Over the years I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a Roman Catholic, but I could never quite cross the Tiber. I’ve more than enough baggage of my own. Still, that religion was undoubtedly an improvement on whatever pagan barbarism was in vogue when Augustine arrived in England.

      1. The “pagan barbarism” in place now, some 1,400 years after his arrival, may be the worst of all. Canterbury (or any parish) will not see his like again, nor a populace open to such ideas.

    1. I have Catholic friends as well as a priest friend who is in the Western Rite of Orthodoxy who has shown me the ideas of beauty and truth. I have yet to decided whether the Tiber or the Bosporus is the way. I ask for God’s gudance. We should do well to hear the wisdom of the Church for we certainly are not getting it from the hordes of politicians who torment us.

      1. Out of interest, to which side of the Bosphorus do you think you might cross? Hope not to the Asian side, which is solidly Muslim. Jokes aside, Orthodoxy is seductive in many ways, and I can understand the attraction. That’s not the case with any form of Protestantism. There the attraction escapes me.

  2. The early Christians believed that the Old Testament was a signpost to the life and teachings of Jesus. E.g., Abraham’s near sacrifice foreshadowing God’s. Moses, Adam, the ram in the thicket which God was to accept as a sacrifice instead of Isaac, as the later thorn crowned Christ, etc.
    Reading the Old Testament, at times I have a hard time seeing the Christianity in it.
    I’m digressing, but Abraham tries to deceive his cherished son who asks about the object of the sacrifice. ‘God will provide the lamb my son’. Or are we to believe modern biblical scholarship which places a period after ‘provide’, and comma after ‘lamb’?: “God will provide. The lamb, my son.”

  3. As I understand it, the difference between the Roman Catholic faith and Protestantism is the former holds to the traditions of the Church and the later the Holy Scriptures, (New Covenant). I changed from the Roman platform to the Gospel Train because the former has a history of introducing non-Biblical teachings, particularly those concerning Mary, the mother of Jesus; her perpetual virginity, her Assumption into heaven, prayers to her etc. There are numerous other teachings such as Priests not allowed to marry, prayers to the dead and Purgatory… these are just a few examples of why Protestantism has, in a way, a more historical firmer base. It goes back to the gospel without the ‘extras’.

    1. Ah, the wayward path of “sola scriptura”. This is not the space for a theological debate, but I’ll ask a few questions.

      Where in the New Testament is it written, “Only believe what is written in the New Testament”? The tradition and Magisterium of the Church are important. As stated above by the author, the totality of Jesus’ speech in the New testament is 1.5 hours. What else might He have said in His three years of ministry? Perhaps the authors wrote down what was important (to them, at that time) and left out things that were more obvious (again, to them, at that point in time)? The Bible is not a textbook. See Matthew 13 (Jesus speaks in parables).

      What do most proponents of “sola scriptura” make of John’s account of the teaching at Capernaum (6:47-61) regarding the flesh and blood? A “hard teaching” that most Protestants tend to skip over.

      What were early Christians supposed to follow before the invention of the printing press? Or before the four Gospels were in any written form?

      Of course, with “sola scriptura” comes the idea that every man must interpret scripture on his own – there must be no authority. Surely that is problematic? By some counts there are over 40,000 Protestant denominations, all interpreting scripture as they see fit. (For one extreme example of self-interpretation, see Alex’s fondness for the Bible in “A Clockwork Orange” – based on the violence he read there.)

      Reading the Bible is good for us, but there is more to Christianity. Find a Catholic parish with a reverent Mass and join us. “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.”

      1. Christians are the Bride of Christ despite which rain shelter they may attend. There is no disputing His divine authority, however, we can all see the waywardness of mere mortals. Leaders of flocks, denominations or orders are prone to stumble. The Christian faith is centered in the Lord. The authority of His few words trumps the quantity of post-Biblical writings. Biblical writings are loaded in symbols; are you born-again?

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