Monday, August 26, 2013

Bottum, Zmirak and the battle of Verdun

French Gen. Robert Nivelle

If Joseph Bottum’s 6,000-word Commonweal ramble, “The Things We Share,” doesn’t read or feel like a structured argument for Catholic acceptance of same-sex marriages, that’s because it’s not — the subtitle (“A Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage”) notwithstanding. Rather, it’s the erstwhile First Things editor’s story of how and why he came to strike the flag of opposition. Some of his statements of fact are so wrong, you can’t help but howl with either rage or laughter. But you can’t fault as an argument that which never pretended to be an argument.

In fact, if there were just one fault (there are more, I promise), it’s precisely that it is Bottum’s personal conversion story, as it were, and not a real case against further resistance. For by the time he actually gets down to the meat of his contentions, he’s lost half his audience through lack of interest. In the combox for Matthew J. Franck’s rather impatient takedown in First Things, “Joseph Bottum, Weary and Wearisome,” at least two or three people admit they couldn’t get all the way through it.

Sorry, Jody, either your life or the way you wrote about it is just not that gripping. Next time, cut to the chase.

Moreover, throughout Bottum’s essay you can pick up strains that tell us he isn’t comfortable with the idea of surrender. For instance, in discussing David Blankenhorn’s New York Times flip-flop,  Bottum muses that it’s “not enough for a Catholic to say that legal fairness and social niceness compel us.” And of the anti-Christian element who use SSM as a stick to bash the Church with, he snarls, “if that’s what the same-sex marriage movement is really about … then to hell with it.”

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dennis Moore and a tale of two mothers

If you’re a computer nerd of a certain age, you’ll remember Dennis Moore.

If you’re not, here goes: Dennis Moore is the central figure of a skit from the third season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Moore, played by John Cleese, is an 18th-century highwayman who models himself after Robin Hood, although his redistribution of wealth eventually backfires. You see, having defined one group as “rich” (and therefore to be robbed from) and another as “poor” (and therefore to be given to), he continues to transfer goods from one set to the other until the Fred Tomlinson Singers, who sing his theme song, startle him by changing the last two lines:

He robs from the poor, and gives to the rich.
Stupid b****!

The last scene of the episode shows Moore, having completely lost sight of his mission, stopping a carriage and forcing the passengers to swap various pieces of wealth with each other to make them equal. His crusade against economic injustice has devolved into an obsessively fussy Redistributionism.

Karla A. Erickson’s guest opinion in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, “Explaining why, next time, I won’t breastfeed”, reminds me very much of that final scene. How so? Because her rationale for bottle-feeding her next child is to correct an apparent inequity of parental attachment that breastfeeding her firstborn supposedly created. Simply put, her son prefers her to her husband for many things; Erickson, an associate professor of — wait for it! — sociology at Grinnell College, will not tolerate any form of gender inequality in her life.

Sometimes we have to do a runaround our bodies to ensure equity. Sometimes we have to do some social engineering to help dislodge our social aspirations from the dictates of our glands and gonads.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

What’s wrong with “What’s Wrong with Distributism”?—UPDATED

The nice thing is, David Deavel has some good things to say about distributism … in a previous post. However, Deavel’s understanding of distributism stops at about 1927.

Specifically, Deavel identifies four “areas of thought” where distributists’ critiques of the capitalist model strike tellingly: 1) the divorce of economics and ethics, 2) the collusion of large business and government and the resultant concentration of power, 3) the effect of the concentration of capital (Deavel says “wealth”, which is not the same thing) on entrepreneurship, and 4) the effect of the welfare state on the citizen’s relationship to the government. “Sadly,” Deavel moans, “distributist thinkers don’t stop at these solid insights. They offer concrete solutions to these social problems — solutions which betray grave misunderstandings of economics and even theology.”

From such a statement, you would expect at minimum a detailed economic critique illustrating distributist assumptions and contrasting them with How the Real World Works. On the theological side, Deavel, an associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, might be expected to have an equally sound understanding of distributists’ reference to Catholic social theory.

What Deavel gives us, however, is a collection of straw men, attributing beliefs and statements (“Distributists like to say that …”) without pulling direct quotes to support his claims, and even stooping to smear tactics by implying admiration for fascism. The farthest Deavel goes toward naming names is to mention G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Arthur J. Penty, men long dead, while saying nothing of living distributists such as John C. Médaille, Thomas Storck and Race Matthews. It’s as if one were to critique modern psychiatry by analyzing only the works of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and B. F. Skinner.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

An angel in Missouri — UPDATED

Until you watch the news footage on the “mystery priest” incident, you don’t really realize how improbable the story is.



Rural Catholicism means driving long distances for Mass and religious instruction. In some parts of Texas, one priest will have charge of three or four parishes, and will spend more time in his car than any place else except — maybe — his bed.

The only Catholic church in Center, Missouri is on the National Register of Historic Places but not on the Diocese of Jefferson City’s list of active parishes; it’s an eight-mile drive to St. Stephen in Indian Creek near Monroe City. There’s no active parish in New London, just up State Highway 19 from Center; the closest parish, Holy Family in Hannibal, is almost ten miles in the opposite direction from Center. Sacred Heart in Vandalia is over twenty miles south of Highway 19.

That stretch of Highway 19, where all you can see from horizon to horizon are farmsteads and long rows of corn, is where an (allegedly) drunk driver plowed into 19-year-old Katie Lentz’s older-model Mercedes convertible. To intensify the improbability, first responders had blocked off access by road to the scene. So it’s not as though some Blackie Ryan-like character innocuously emerged from, and melted back into, a crowd of urban gawkers who had all inconveniently misplaced their iPhones or had them focused elsewhere; it was just Katie and the New London Fire Department — and lots and lots of cornfields.

And yet, there he was.