Barak Obama: King of Fools

Mike Ness, leader of the punk band Social Distortion, once wrote a song called King of Fools. The chorus goes like this:

King of fools

King of fools

When it comes around to love

I always lose

Ever since Barak Obama’s infamously impotent “red line” remark on Syria, I hear this refrain in my head every time he steps up to the microphone to discuss some international issue of great import, only the words are changed:

King of fools

King of fools

When it comes to foreign policy

I always lose

Now, facing the first major international crisis of his tenure (the map of Europe potentially changing for the first time since 1945), our illustrious president has finally put on the last article of the fool’s garb. Putin moved into Crimea and Obama donned his fool’s cap. He is now a fully vested clown, except he’s a Pagliacci rather than a Bozo. Obama does not elicit laughs. When he appears before the press arrayed in the foolish outfit of his intellectual aloofness, no one laughs. Rather, we avert our eyes and look away uncomfortably, hoping it will all be over soon. Or, to stay with the cuckold analogy, think of Obama as Menelaus to Putin’s Paris. The Crimean peninsula is Helen, but Obama has been cuckolded even worse than Menelaus because Putin did not steal away this precious peninsula while its avowed protector was away. Yet, unlike Menelaus, Obama is helpless to do anything to right the wrong. He has no Agamemnon to provide the muscled leadership he lacks, no band of loyal Danaans who will board the black ships to bring the point of justice to the trembling throats of the Trojans. With a few phone calls, Putin lifted Lady Crimea over the bulwarks of the Good Ship Russia while our illustrious leader watched, issuing banal statements from the press room; statement he intended as serious threats. The rest of the world yawned. Putin scratched his behind and gave the order to move his troops. Obama was left alone, the biggest chump of the new millenium, a cuckold with a blunted horn; a Menelaus without a wife or well situated siblings.

Meanwhile, China is biding its time, enjoying the entertainment while the administration bumbles around like Charlie Chaplin in the cabin scene of The Gold Rush, satisfying itself with its vote on the Security Council at the U.N. and staying stoically reticent; building its muscle more and more every year with a standing army of 2 million men and a sleek new line of warships recently unveiled and sent into the East China Sea to take a spin around the Japanese neighborhood. Obama’s brilliant Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, exuding all the astuteness of Rip Van Winkle recently awakened from a decades long dream (droopy eyelids and all), appeared before Congress to inform the nation that America must shrink its military because it is unlikely our nation will ever become entrenched on two majors warfronts. It’s as though he fell asleep during WWII and woke up in peacetime, thereby concluding a robust and well trained military is no longer necessary. Who, pray tell, will engage those 2 million Chinese foot soldiers arriving on the golden shores of our west coast should it come to that? Let’s not kid ourselves. There is only one nation for China to surpass. If you think the Chinese military would not welcome the opportunity to lock horns with American might, take a look at the video of the Georgetown basketball game debacle against the Chinese military team a couple of years ago. It’s chilling. And, it is telling in regard to what the Chinese army is being trained to do. One can only look with stunned incredulity at what is happening in the hallowed chambers of the Oval Office. Between Obama, Biden, and Hagel, it’s like the Three Stooges are drafting U.S. foreign policy, only with far less cleverness. The Stooges at least knew what was good material and what wasn’t. That sound you hear akin to the crumpling of an aluminum micro-brew beer can is the confidence of the nation in this administration’s ability to lead us through the tempestuous and unpredictable waters of foreign relations. For this president, foreign policy seems to mean free trips to exotic locations where one drinks mojitos and snaps selfies with other famous people. Meanwhile, the Chinese have also done their bit to offer viable and lucrative economic options for Latin America, a region with which they had no meaningful contact until the period of the current administration. China is now the largest lender to Latin America in the world, investing $20 billion annually. Latin America has traditionally been more closely associated with the U.S. and Western Europe. Now, oil giants like Petrobras, the Brazilian state oil company, have an eager and viable option in China. Obama watches helplessly from the parapet of Castle Fantasy.

The Crimean crisis has revealed the total impotence of this president. Putin has out-maneuvered Obama at every turn. Putin has shown himself to be a vastly superior strategist to Obama. The Russian president knows the mind of the American people better than the American president. The only iceberg Putin must avoid is direct military conflict and he knows that, in this, he has American public opinion on his side. So does Obama. Notice how subdued (i.e. facile) the president’s rhetoric has become since he infamously erased the red line he’d drawn across Syria. Putin will weather whatever economic storm comes his way as a result of his actions in the Crimea. In the Far East, Chinese president Xi Jinping guards his speech and holds his tongue like a desert sage. It has reached the point of embarrassment for all of us. Obama has no credibility anywhere in the world. Even the editorial board of The Washington Post has taken Obama to task for his ineptitude in foreign policy. One can debate the foreign policy decisions of the Bush administration, but at least the world feared him if they did not respect him. An American president can survive without the world’s respect, but without a bit of fear inspired by our leaders internationally, our entire country is jeopardized. Our friends and enemies understood that, right or wrong, when Bush made a decision, he meant it and he followed through. Obama is a speech maker, a straw man. The world now knows that his words are as substantive as smoke, his power as ponderous as a feather.

These are dangerous times. When our president loses on the international stage as many times as Obama now has, our country is endangered. Obama, and those who uncritically approve all he does, are on the march to folly. They think they can issue threats and pacify enemies with words. This thinking, at best, displays a woeful lack of understanding about the human heart. At worst, it is rampant arrogance thinly disguised as good will. It’s an egotistical position that says, “Surely, the other will recognize the soundness and reasonableness of my position and, thus, agree.” This was, in part, the tragic mistake Chamberlain made with Hitler.

Obama and his baffled administration better get their minds clear quickly. They would do well to stop issuing pointless and embarrassing warnings and craft a clear and substantive foreign policy that relates directly to the reality of the world in which we find ourselves, a world turning more and more away from globalism and toward a resurgent nationalism. A policy akin to Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy might be in order: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Or, in this case, stop speaking. Just carry the big stick.

Thank God for Arizona!

My home state, the place I was born and raised, the land of ineffably beautiful sunsets made me proud last week. House bill 2153 for religious freedom passed and is now on its way to Governor Brewer’s office. Brewer never shows her hand on pending legislation, but hopefully, she will sign the bill and make it law.

A cacophony of ignorant blather has flooded through Arizona once again from all over the country like foul-smelling rivers poisoned with noxious chemicals. The usual threatening predictions of economic doom have been duly issued from opponents to this bill, including one of my personal favorites, “Arizona will lose the Super Bowl because of this.” Oh dear.

We hear horror stories of poor, innocent homosexuals being turned away from restaurants simply because they like to have sex with someone whom nature never intended them to have sex with. Really? Such scenarios are the ideological plot lines of extremists who have no principled argument to make against such leadership as that shown by the Arizona state legislature. My great state is fast becoming one of the few that actually understands what principled leadership rooted in the Constitution means. While I do not always agree with the steps taken by this state’s leaders (e.g. education), I welcome this measure because it is rooted in the principles of individual liberty protected in our federal Constitution. The hypocrisy of the bill’s opponents is rampant. The issue stemmed from a photographer who was dragged to court because he preferred not to photograph two homosexuals getting “married.” I thought homosexuals were all about freedom of preference? No liberal balks at the civil liberties of a photographer being trampled because he doesn’t want to photograph a homosexual “marriage”. To hell with his rights,eh? So, the only civil liberties that matter are those deemed to be in the precious interests of homosexuals? That is the clear message sent by the opposition to this bill. The legislation in question is not about restaurants. It is about good people whose rights are being abrogated routinely by the federal judiciary which now acts like a school yard bully forcing everyone to accept the homosexual agenda, specifically where it concerns marriage. People have a right to oppose homosexual marriage and they have the constitutionally protected right to express their opposition. House bill 2153 is in fact a protective measure. People of faith need this protection because the ideologically driven homosexual agenda has found a friend in the federal judiciary. It is the homosexual agenda that has made this kind of bill necessary. They have no one to blame but themselves. Minority Leader Campbell said during the House debate that gays and lesbians across the country would get the message that they’re not welcome in Arizona. Did Campbell register the same criticism when New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that people who are pro-life and opposed to homosexual marriage are not welcome in New York? We all know the answer to that question. Campbell is playing at situational ethics and we all see through it.

The first right granted to citizens of this once great nation is the right of religious freedom. Those opposed to House bill 2153 need to understand that separation of church state is a notion meant to protect the church from interference by the state, not vice versa. Between Obama’s all out assault on this notion of separation through the HHS mandate and the federal judiciary’s political activism in advancing homosexual “marriage” (a social phenomenon that finds no support anywhere in history or nature), people of faith now understand that they are under attack. We not only have the constitutionally protected right, but also the moral responsibility, to fight back. We arm ourselves not with weapons, but with the sharp point of truth.

Quo Vadis, Historian?

There was recently a kerfuffle at my school regarding the content of a chapter in our history text. Some Muslim families were offended both by what was said and what was not said. The matter touches upon a crucial dilemma: How does an historian navigate the thorny intersection of religion and history, faith and fact? This question forms a metaphorical battleground in the culture wars, during which the reading of history itself has become collateral damage. We’ve all heard the phrase “revisionist history”. It is a method of historiography used by many secularist historians, but what many parents don’t know is that this distortion of truth has swept through their children’s history books like William the Conqueror’s army, led by his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, ravaging the southern coast of England in 1066. The old harangue about religion being the cause of violence and war is still lobbed feebly at the religious by tired, old baby-boomers who are utterly lost now that their rudder of anti-establishment has been retired to the dust bin of history since they have themselves become the establishment.  Yet, much like Augustine finding the heretics of his time useful, we need secularist historians today if for no other reason than to temper the pietistic blather of the nincompoops on the other side of the street who would have us believe that the Holy Roman Empire was the zenith and model of the City of God manifested on earth. I recall a poor waif of a girl in a Western Civ. class in college who tried to make the argument that modern society should return to the medieval model of social and political organization, with the Pope and Curia forming a sort of world government. When presented with some perspicacious arguments to the contrary, the poor thing ran out of the classroom in tears.

Those historians who subscribe to a religious tradition are often equally to blame for the bad history being promulgated today because underlying their historiography is an undisclosed, perhaps even unobserved, bias. Thus, we get books by Catholic historians lauding the merits of the Holy Roman Empire as though it were the pinnacle of just governance and, consequently, above scrutiny. So, we get books with titles like, “Those Terrible Middle Ages”, written by Catholics who bravely stare down those purportedly dark times and laugh at them. The sarcasm in such book titles reveals a prejudice within the author (or the publisher) before a single page is read. The Middle Ages were, in fact, pretty terrible in several respects. While it may have been the era of greatest influence for the Church, it was also a time when the Church was deeply corrupted by its entanglements in political intrigues. The Church was influenced by the nobles as much as it did any influencing itself. This is why we see the emergence of the mendicant orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans at this time. Those who write such books and those who read them uncritically are angered by secularists who claim that there was neither anything holy, nor Roman about this Medieval phenomenon; nor was it ever an empire. Whatever the motives of the secularists making such claims, an honest look at the historical record lends much credibility to their assertions. The inaugural Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne serves as a case in point. He was canonized on December 29, 1165 by Paschal III. The latter was not, in fact, the pope. Paschal was one of a series of anti-popes raised up by Charlemagne’s successor Frederick Barbarossa. The true pope at the time was Alexander III. The Holy Roman Empire over which Barbarossa ruled was divided between Ghibellines and Guelphs, those favoring the traditional privileges of the Emperor (including his personal selection of bishops) and those loyal to Rome asserting the Pontiff’s right to appoint bishops. Nevertheless, the canonization of Charlemagne has held down to our own times. Most recently, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, speaking as a private theologian and not as pope, upheld Charlemagne’s place among the saints based upon what he affirmed as a “cultus” that had developed around Charlemagne in parts of Germany, Belgium, and France. Nevertheless, an examination of Charlemagne’s exploits does not reveal a life of heroic virtue. While the Carolingian Renaissance he initiated served Europe and the Church well, Charlemagne also had multiple wives and mistresses, forced “conversions”, and he became known for his ruthlessness toward the Saxons in Germany against whom he waged a 30 year war culminating in his alleged order to decapitate 4,500 of them in what came to be known as the Massacre at Verden in 782. While nostalgic Catholics today may find in Charlemagne a model of ideal Christian leadership, we should remember that notable dictators such as Napoleon and Hitler also claimed Charlemagne as their model and inspiration.

Extremes generate bad scholarship. The two camps of historians described above, the secularists who trump up the excesses of religious fervor to deny religion’s positive role in the shaping of western civilization and the believers who gloss over the same excesses in order to create an erroneously pietistic image of their faith tradition, both camps utilize the same modus operandi: fear. Both camps fear the truth because, from their perspective, they both have something to lose. Yet, both groups of historians unwittingly find themselves forming one over-arching group. Together they form the contingent of those “watchful dragons” C.S. Lewis so pithily described. The offended families at my school are among the watchful dragons as well. They do not argue the historical accuracy of the content in our history text, they simply do not like the language used to describe the Muslim raids on the merchant caravans traveling between Mecca and Medina, led by Mohammed. Yet, one is hard-pressed to find a suitably inoffensive synonym for “raid.”

Whither then shall we go for a faithful, honest reading of history? Two men come to mind, one secular and one Catholic. The first is Jacques Barzun who is now, about 5 years after his death, generally described as a cultural historian. Barzun taught at Columbia University for 50 years. His life spanned more than a century. Throughout his work, he was able to maintain a level of admirable objectivity and he kept himself well insulated against the various popular methods of historiography whose adherents claimed theirs to be the only adequate method of historical inquiry. Barzun began his career at a time when he says one spoke of “reading history” rather than teaching it. Barzun was also not afraid to attack the downright stupidity of higher education in America today, the very institution that afforded him such a long and distinguished career. Barzun’s opus is From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present.

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 Christopher Dawson stands alone as a paragon of faithful, substantive, and intellectually honest historical scholarship informed by faith. A devoted Catholic, Dawson sees Catholicism and the Catholic Church as a kind of lynch-pin for the formation of Europe and, thus, modern western civilization. In Dawson’s view, the disintegration of European culture rooted in its religious beliefs was the result of secularization. This, in turn, led to a restructuring of European society, not around a commonly held belief in the Catholic creed, but in politically designated regions called nation states. It was this momentous shift from culture to nations that led Europe down the inevitable path of disunity and mistrust of one another. A return to its Catholic roots is the only path to authentic unity and a renewal of culture in Europe according to Dawson. In fact, Dawson sees religion generally as integral to the formation of culture. He develops this idea in his examination of the four great civilizations of the Middle Ages – Christendom, Islam, China, and India – in his book Christianity in East and West. Dawson wrote many books that should be on the reading list of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, such as The Making of Europe, The Crisis of Western Education, Progress and Religion, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Medieval Essays, and many others. An excellent compendium of Dawson’s work can be found in a book entitled The Dynamics of World History. The breadth and depth of Dawson’s intellect is truly astounding. His faithful yet balanced approach to history bridges the gap between the two camps of secularists and cheerleaders.

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Mention ought to be made here of Warren Carroll, the founder of Christendom College. Carroll bequeathed to us a very interesting six volume work called A History of Christendom. While Carroll makes no effort to hide his Christian approach to his work, he admits his prejudice at the outset. Carroll himself states that he wanted to look at the past 2000 years in light of the Incarnation. Presupposing this event to be true, Carroll then goes on to view history as the unfolding of God’s will through human events. But, this work is far from mere cheerleading or indoctrination. Each book is extensively researched with copious endnotes and extensive bibliographies. It is well worth one’s time to read these books.

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History is one of the front lines in the cultural wars. Religion is central to the formation of the civilization which we now inhabit. The loss of culture, Dawson would say, is proportionate to the loss of the religious sense. Thus, it is imperative that we Catholics not flinch when confronted with the more nefarious actions of those who claimed the name of Christian in the past. John Paul II recognized this when he made his grand apology to the world on behalf of the Church. The recovery of authentic culture is not possible without an honest assessment of ourselves and our shared history, good and bad, as Catholics. We inhabit two cities, that of God and man. Or, if one subscribes to Lewis’ view, we inhabit “enemy territory.” We must not allow ourselves, through fear, to be counted among those “watchful dragons.” We must instead forge paths around them, guided by the beacon of truth and reassured by our faith in the Lord’s guidance of His Church, despite the mistakes of her members.

In the Shadow of the Minarets

The Republic of Turkey is now 99% Muslim. How did this happen? This region, once known as Byzantium, had been a great cauldron of early Christian theology in which a swarming mixture of components bubbled and often boiled over. While Christianity was barely scratching the surface in places like Gaul and Britain under the esoteric paganism of Julian, the intense theological controversies that shaped and distilled the Faith were taking place in the foremost sees of Constantinople, Antioch, and Nicea. The way of the Church passes directly through Anatolia into the western world. There is now an orchestrated attempt underway in Turkey to erase this history.

Last July I traveled extensively through western Turkey visiting interesting sites from the classical past. Every step of the way history seemed to follow the same pattern.  First, the Hellenistic era left its footprint. Next, there was the larger Roman imprint. Shortly after that there came the Christian influence. So, in Aphrodisias, for example, one sees the remains of the beautiful temple first erected by the Hellenes for the worship of Aphrodite. The pillars, however, were later rearranged from the original plan by Christians who settled there and converted the pagan temple into a church with a long nave. It remained thus from 500 to 1200 A.D. when the Seljuks destroyed it. One sees early Christian symbolism in slabs of marble that have fallen to the ground.

Early Christian Stone Work, Aphrodisias

Early Christian Stone Work, Aphrodisias

Stopping one afternoon in Didyma for lunch, I ate a delicious chicken shish kabob at an outdoor table set up in the narrow street in the shadows of the minarets of an enormous mosque. The structure was new and seemed too big for the small town it dominated. St. John setteld in this area. There is still an enormous basilica here dedicated to him. I did not get to visit the basilica, but I did make sure to see the “Mary House.” The belief is that John and Mary lived here. I found it to be a beautifully peaceful place and a welcome reconnection with Catholic faith and tradition. There is good reason to believe that St. John brought Mary with him to this area. The first church in the world known to be dedicated to Mary was here. Further, the ecumenical council of 431 was held in this basilica. It was at this council that the dogma regarding the divine motherhood of Mary was developed. There is also the oral testimony of the villagers of Kirkince, the spiritual descendants of the Christians of Ephesus, in which they acclaim the Dormition of Mary here.

Mary House, Didyma

Mary House, Didyma

In Hieropolis, the big draw is the Plutonion. Here there is the black opening filled with noxious fumes, of which Strabo wrote, that leads into the dreaded Hades of ancient myth. There is also an impressive Roman theater with an elaborte skene erected under Roman Emperor Severinus in 60 A.D. The skene was collapsed by an earthquake but has since been almost completely restored. Yet, the point of intense interest for me was about 150 yards north of the theater. St. Phillip came here in the Roman period and established a church. It had long been believed that he died here, but his tomb had never been found until just a few months prior to my arrival. Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit this sacred ground because I was traveling in a group. But, I was struck emphatically once again, as I had been throughout this journey, by the juxtaposition of classical and Christian history. Although the Byzantine Empire remained intact and powerful for a millenium after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, it was here that Christianity found its legs and became a formidable force in the course of history; or, did it? Until Constantine’s Edict of Milan brought Christianity out of the shadows of their underground churches and cemeteries, the Church was a disparate collection of mostly unnoticed oddballs, particularly in the west. But, by the time Constantine’s son Constantius assumed control of the empire, Christians had suddenly found themselves not only free to practice their religion but also drawn into the incessantly ongoing political intrigues of the Roman government. As John Morris states in his interesting book The Age of Arthur

Yet the early Christians were ill-prepared for premature success. In 312, civil war made Constantine emperor of the west. As men realised that the new ruler was a devout Christian, bishops were bewildered by sudden promotion from the status of furtive sectaries to that of influential government advisors, and veteran confessors mistrusted the mass of new converts who embraced the emperor’s religon. The body of simple Christians was confused, for the rival partisans of innumerable discords within the empire, social, regional, and political, all learned to argue in a Christian idiom, and to discover that some older trend in Christian thought served their interest.

The influence of the emperor and political expediency did not diminish in the east when Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium and named it New Rome. In fact, it has been well established that Constantine himself was instrumental in organizing the first ecumenical council in 325 at Nicea. The emperor’s motives are still debated. But, the desire for unity was strong throughout the Byzantine world and the powers at work in the Roman governmental structure did not hestiate to use Christianity as a means of achieving that end. This is in part what allowed the Arian crisis to fester for so long. It became a matter of which team one supported within the Christian league. Thus, Arianism was fairly contained within the eastern dioceses of Asia Minor under Constantine who favored orthodoxy. His son, Constantius, however, favored the Arians and, though his brother Constans was able to keep Constantius out of the west for a time, this did not last and Constantius was able to make significant inroads in the west for the Arians.

By the time Islam, the red whirlwind of the desert,  swept through Anatolia it found Christianity to be nothing but a house of cards ready to be blown away. Whether the Christians of the early Middle Ages willed it or not, their religion had become inextricably intertwined with politics. The constant theological debates, excommunications, deposings, and intrigues made unity impossible and left Christians in the region confused. The Church overall was weakened by its disunity and could offer no meaningful response to the simple promises of one God, bread, and protection offered by Islam, which seemed a much simpler and more streamlined religion to many simple Christians. This should come as no surprise given Christ’s warnings about the vulnerabilty of “a house divided against itself.” One also has to question the depth of conversion that occurred among the average Christians in Asia Minor. Was their faith a barren fig tree? If Christianity had really taken root in the hearts of the Byzantines, one would expect to see a number of martyrs in Asia Minor in the 7th and 8th centuries that would dwarf the numbers of Christian martyrs during the persecutions of Roman emperors in earlier centuries. This was a time and a place and a people who were very used to assuming a subservient position to established authority, of which they had no part. If the emperor had become Christian, it was in one’s best interest to become one, too. The same was true for Islam.

As Catholics, we like to romanticize our past. We recall the great heroes of the faith from those early centuries such as Iraneus and Gregory of Nysa. I had taken it for granted that I would see inspiring evidence not only of Greeks and Romans, but also an enduring legacy of Christianity. After all, this massive peninsula was a crucial component to the spread of Christianity. Constantinople was the largest, most powerful city in the classical world, surpassing even Rome. The most influential sees of the early Church were here. How was it possible that this same region could also be so influential in the demise of Christianity and the burgeoning of Islam, now displaying virtually no evidence of its Christian past?

That question is a large one. Suffice it to consider only modern Turkey. Throughout the country I saw innumerable spires atop minarets thrusting upward into the sky like missiles. There are mosques everywhere and not a church to be seen. There were so many mosques present every where I went that it began to seem more than a manifestation of Turkish devotion to Islam. It seemed to be a statement. By analogy, one might think of the countless little churches throughout the Bible Belt of the U.S. However, the analogy breaks down because the mosques throughout Turkey are large; many are enormous. The funding needed to build these structures is more than local villagers could raise in the Turkish economy.The sheer number of mosques renders this an untenable explanation.  In Istanbul, there were huge mosques not more than 100 meters apart in some places. There had to be a reason. I found it when I was finally able to find a Catholic church and attend Sunday mass for the first time time in two weeks at St. Athony’s along Istiklal Street near Taksim Square, where the recent protests had taken place. A kindly Slovenian priest who had studied for a time in Chicago told me that the government, under the authoritarian leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan, is funding a mosque building campaign. This is why there are so many mosques all over the country now. Additionally, the imam at each mosque is on the government payroll. This would be like the U.S. government paying Catholic pastors at each parish. Of course, the minority religions like Judaism and Christianity do not receive any government funding. While I was speaking to this priest, he suddenly redirected the conversation. A few moments later he explained that a spy had come over near us to eavesdrop. Apparently, this is a regular occurance.

St. Athony's, Istanbul

St. Athony’s, Istanbul

Of Turkey’s 70,000,000 people, about  22,000 are Jewish and 100,000 are Christian; approximately 30,000 of these are Catholic. These Catholics continue to petition the government to return St. Paul’s Church to them for worship. St. Paul was born in Tarsus, part of modern Turkey. St. Paul’s was confiscated by the government in 1943 and now serves as a museum. There has been a great deal of property confiscated from Christians over the decades. Now that Turkey wants to be admitted to the EU, the latter is pressing Turkey to come up with some kind of legal framework for returning confiscated property to its rightful owners. Two Italian Catholic priests have been killed in the past 6 years in Turkey.

At the risk of sounding bigoted, I have to admit that as the miles rolled by on my long journey through Anatolia all those pointed minarets began to take on a menacing aspect. I began to feel angry, as though something had been robbed, corrupted. What had been robbed was the Christian heritage of this deeply fascinating region. What was corrupted was the whole story of Asia Minor, which includes Christianity. Those thousands of minarets seemed to threaten anyone who would dare to dig deeper to get beneath the current political landscape. The countless mosques with their government funding seemed just the most recent episode of government leaders getting into bed with religious leaders. What alternative do the Turkish people have? The mosques are a propaganda campaign meant to delete centuries of history from the common memory. The multitude of mosques also  provide the Prime Minister with handy evidence of his zeal in leading Turkey toward an Islamic form of government. This solidifies Erdogan’s position among the Sunni network of leaders that govern most of the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia which is a great benefactor of Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan, while presenting a democratic “progressive” face to the west, continues to tighten his grip within Turkey, controlling the media, brutally quashing the protests, imprisoning scholars, artists, and writers, and surreptitiously trying to incite Syria into war. The Turkish people are protesting, but what do they have to present as an alternative? They have based their protests on the twin mantras common to all popular protests now, free speech and human rights.Yet, because their Christian past has been buried and even denied, their protests are only a kind of political expression which is easily dismissed. Their movement, like that in Egypt, Syria, and Iran, lacks the teleological framework that provides the movement’s claims with an undeniable authenticity; a teleology found only in Christianity. While there is always hope in the cross, there are no solutions in the shadows of the minarets.

Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul

Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul

Papal Plug for Palestine

The U.N. General Assembly unanimously agreed in a vote on November 29 to bring Palestine, a landless people, into the fold of its hallowed halls. Against the wishes of Israel and the USA, the rest of the international comminity welcomed Palestinians into the U.N. with an observer status. Pope Benedict XVI was quick to laud the actions of this New York based barnacle on the hull of the civilized world. Like everyone else, except Benjamin Netanyahu and Susan Rice, the pope joined in on the virtual cocktail party celebrating the promotion of this….what shall I say? Nation? Palestine has a flag but no sovereign territory over which to fly it. Glasses clinked, surreptitious winks shot here and there and Palestinians took to the streets (the national past time in the Arab world). The USA sulked like Heracles refusing to board the Argo after losing Hylas. Israel pouted like the Hare after losing to the Tortoise.

Was Pope Benedict right in so quickly praising the vote? The next day he joined the chorus of international joy. He also said, truly, this vote was not a permanent solution, or any other kind of solution, to the problems that beleaguer the Holy Land like a plague. The Holy Father called for peace based on justice among those parties. Nothing new there. Popes and Presidents have been calling for peace and justice there for decades. Interestingly, the Pope also cited the UN resolution passed 60 years ago that called for a separate but equal, two-state arrangement between Israel and Palestine. The wandering Jews have found a home. The displaced Palestinians have not. However, what the Pope did not, perhaps could not, say is that this vote at the UN took place on the heels of yet another spark that threatened to become a conflagration given the current situation throughout the now dangerously unsettled Middle East; a situation that is, indeed, highly flammable at the moment. Netanyahu moved Israel’s troops north to the Lebonese border in preparation to launch a massive incursion into that country. They were after Hezbollah, the Palestinian terrorist group that had begun firing missiles into Israel again – missiles that now have the capability to hit Tel Aviv. The world pleaded with Netanyahu to pull back and he reluctantly did. Then came the UN vote.

Some say this action by the UN General Assembly strengthens the hand of Hezbollah and, thus, undermines legitimate diplomacy. It appears, some say, that it is now possible to bomb your way to the negotiating table. That is what Israel and the U.S. are saying. This is a legitimate concern. However, as a matter of equal justice the Pope is also right to refer to the UN resolution of sixty years ago. Why has Palestine not been granted a separate state while Israel has? Perhaps it is because Palestinian leadership has always been in bed with terrorists. If so, why the change now? No one has offered any serious plan for a Palestinian state except the Palestinians. But, this vote may issue in miscarriages of justice being perpetrated against Israel, and possibly the U.S., by way of the International Criminal Court.

The UN resolution passed last month gives Palestine a place in international negotiations at the UN, though it does not have a vote, and it gives the now internationally recognized Palestinian governing body access to the International Criminal Court. One could sensibly find cause for concern here. Will Hezbollah and other terroist groups now coming to power (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) be emboldened to press forward even more feverishly with their ideologically driven beliefs? How long will it be before an Israeli official is accused of war crimes before the International Court? And, suppose the Court does not reach what Hezbollah, or some other terrorist group, believes to be the “right” decision? The Court itself will become a target. Look what they did to Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004. These terrorist groups have proved they have long arms. Add to this element, the malaise of western culture, particularly in Europe, now nearly enslaved to a militant form of moral relativism. (If there is any doubt of this, recall that the European Union excised all mention of Christianity in its Constitution, even in merely historical terms.) Where will Israel or the U.S. find a friend when spurious accusations of injustice are brought before the International Court disguised as matters of international law and justice? The UN might have placed us upon a slippery slope in this regard.

The Pope is not a politician. His remarks were not, objectively, objectionable. He, like most of us, wants so much to see peace in this region. Pope Benedict’s deep respect for the Jewish people and their tradition is undeniable. And, maybe this will be a first step toward that bedraggled spectre called “a lasting peace;” that shape-shifting figure that occasionally casts its shadow but never shows its form. One hopes. Yet, one also can’t help feeling a bit uneasy about a Palestinian state having access to the International Criminal Court until there is a wide swath of unequivocal daylight between its government and Hezbollah. Can anyone imagine Sinn Fein being given this kind of recognition in the high days of the IRA? Maybe this will lead to a revisiting of the whole idea of an international court. That would not be a bad thing.

Hedge Schools and Classical Education in Ireland

To say that relations between Ireland and England have been strained throughout the centuries is like saying the Earps and Clantons didn’t quite get along. The troubles reached a brutal pitch in the middle of the 17th century. A generation after the Nine Years’ War, the Irish organized a large scale rebellion known as the rising of ’41 (1641). This rebellion went on for many years and by 1647, under the auspices of the Irish Catholic Confederation, an Irish Parliament independent of England seemed within reach. The Confederation found an ally in the English Royalists who had recently lost power to the Parliamentarians in the English Civil Wars. This hope, however, was short-lived.

In 1649, the Rump Parliament in England sent Cromwell across the Irish Sea into the Western Isle. Cromwell led his New Model Army into Ireland and crushed the rebels along with an enormous segment of the civilian population. Cromwell set out to kill every Catholic priest he could find. He gave his men complete freedom to loot and burn any Catholic church or monastery that Henry VIII didn’t get to first in his pogrom of the previous century. Cromwell’s soldiers were also given carte blanche to do as they wished with the Irish population at large. The results were barbaric. The Cromwellian war in Ireland lasted from 1649 – 1653, but it left bitter feelings among the Irish that are still felt today throughout the Gaeltacht, Irish speaking parts of Ireland. During this time, England, through the Irish Parliament, passed a code of laws called Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery, commonly known as the Penal Code. These laws functioned much like the apartheid laws of South Africa in the 20th century. Instead of being aimed a particular ethnic group, the Penal Laws were directed at the members of a particular religion and culture, Catholic and Irish. These laws struck deep into the political, economic, and personal life of Irish citizens. They were England’s most vicious attempt yet to break the spirit of these proud people.

War broke out again between William of Orange and Irish rebels who refused to accept the injustice of the Penal Code. These battles were known as the Williamite Wars. A treaty was signed in Limerick on October 3, 1691 that was to bring peace. Equally important for the Irish, the Limerick treaty stated that Irish Catholics would be “protected in the free and unfettered practice of their religion.”  Yet, in less than three years, England, through its control of the Anglo-Irish parliament in Dublin, would renege on its promises. The Irish parliament, controlled by London, passed its “Act for the Better Securing of the Government Against Papists.” This act made it illegal for any Irishman to own a weapon. It was just the beginning.

The Penal Laws were carefully crafted and comprehensive. British historian and sympathizer William Lecky, in his A History of Ireland in the 18th Century, wrote that the Punishment Laws had three objectives: to deprive Irish Catholics of all civil life; to deny Irish Catholics access to education; and, to separate them from the land. Of particular interest is the efforts made by the English government at this time to deprive the Irish of access to education in Ireland. It was no longer only Catholic bishops and priests with prices on their heads. Schoolmasters were now forced into hiding.

By the 17th century, there was a well-established commitment to classical education in Ireland dating back to ancient times. There are several references to Irish learning in the surviving texts of medieval continental historians. Within Ireland there is the tradition of the falling of the book satchels on the night Longarad died. Longarad was a bishop in the Irish midlands in the late 5th or early 6th century. He was known as a “master of study and jurisprudence, history, and poetry.” According to the tradition, another great Irish saint, Columbcille, visited Longarad and wanted to borrow some of his books. Longarad refused. In response, Columbcille cursed Longarad’s books saying, “May that as to which thou hast shown niggardliness be of no profit after thee.” There are two variants on the legend. On the night Longarad died, some say the satchel containing the books where Columbcille was fell to the floor. Others say the satchels containing books of learning fell from their hooks throughout Ireland that night. Thus, Columbcille knew Longarad had died. He said,

“Dead is Lon

Of Cell-garad-great the evil!

To Erin with her many homesteads

It is ruin of learning and schools.

Died hath Lon In Cell Garad-great the evil!

It is ruin of the learning and schools

Of Erin’s island over her border.”

At the end of the 16th century, English poet Edmund Spenser, no friend to Ireland, wrote a text entitled A View of the Present State of Ireland in which he imagines two Englishman in dialogue about that land of savages. Yet, even Spenser writes, “For it is certain that Ireland hath had the use of letters auntiently is nothing doubtful, for the Saxons of England are said to have their letters and learning, and learned men, from the Irish.” In the early middle ages, Ireland was well known for its wide range of learning in history, astronomy, and philosophy. By the 7th or 8th century, Ireland had a fully developed written language with an elaborate grammatical structure. Ireland had also become known as a bastion for classical learning, particularly Latin and Greek. How did Ireland become so advanced in classical learning? There are several factors. Regarding Latin and Greek, some believe these classical languages were brought to Ireland by learned people fleeing Gaul in the 5th century when barbarism was sweeping the continent. However Latin and Greek came to Ireland, they remained and were taught there for centuries long after these languages had fallen out of favor throughout the rest of Europe. Alongside ecclesiastical works in Ireland, one found works by classical authors as well. Pope Gregory the Great had no knowledge of Greek, yet knowledge of Greek among Irish scholars and priests was quite normal. As with all lands in medieval times, the masses of the Irish people remained mostly uneducated. Yet, if a person desired it, a solid classical education was possible in Ireland. A young person who said good-bye to family and home in pursuit of education was known as a Scolaire bocht, a poor scholar.

Greek was known by most school teachers in Ireland. Irish and Latin were the common languages. In The Story of the Irish Race, Seamus MacManus writes that “with the Latin language all the Irish scholars of those early days show almost a like familiarity that they do with their own Gaelic. They were experts in Latin literature.” MacManus also notes that there is a manuscript in the library of Laon, France written in the last half of the 9th century by an Irish scribe which contains “two glossaries of the Greek and Latin languages, some passages in Irish, and a Greek grammar.” There was a great Irish scholar-king who ruled Munster at the close of the 9th century. His name was Cormac MacCullinan. He was killed in a battle in 903 on the field of Bellach Mughna, but while he lived it was said that under his rule “public schools were established for the purpose of giving instruction in letters, law, and history.”

There had also developed throughout the middle ages a great body of Irish literature and lore. Much of it was lost during the Danish period of destruction when many Irish texts containing the literature and scholarship of Ireland’s early days were lost or taken to Scandinavia. But, the Irish memory is long. And, the tradition of scholarship remained an important part of Irish culture. Scholars and teachers were revered. Schoolmasters were welcomed into the homes of Irish families for as long they liked. That Ireland’s commitment to classical education was strong is evidenced by the fact that there are so many laws in the Penal Code attempting to quash it. Here is one law mandating that a Latin free school be kept in each diocese of Ireland.

Those cited acts of parliament which require every incumbent of each parish to keep a school to learn English, and provide that a public latin free school be constantly maintained within each diocese, (which acts have generally been kept, but have not had the desired effect, by reason of Irish popish schools being too much connived at), and all other statutes now in force concerning schools shall be strictly put in execution. 7 Will III c.4 (1695):

Here is another example from the Penal Code outlining the danger of the Irish youth being exposed to literature:

Whereas it has been found by experience that tolerating at papists keeping schools or instructing youth in literature is one great reason of many of the natives continuing ignorant of the principles of the true religion, and strangers to the scriptures, and of their neglecting to conform themselves to
the laws of this realm, and of their not using the English habit and language,
no person of the popish religion shall publicly teach school or instruct youth, or in private houses teach youth, except only the children of the master or mistress of the private house, upon pain of twenty pounds, and prison for three months for every such offence. 7 Will III c.4 (1695)

As for schoolmasters, they were now treated the same as priests under the Punishment Laws, which is to say they were treated like criminals.To encourage the “Popish” schoolmaster’s neighbors to turn him in, a reward would be given of “10 pounds for each popish schoolmaster, usher or assistant; said reward to be levied on the popish inhabitants of the county where found.” 8 Ann c.3 (1709)

Schoolmasters were also subject to transportation which meant being captured and banished to the West Indies. If they tried to return, they would be imprisoned indefinitely.

Any papist clergy or schoolmaster liable to transportation under these Acts shall within three months be transported to the common gaol of the next seaport town, to remain until transported. 8 Ann c.3 (1709)

Irish parents were also forbidden to send their child out of the country to be educated. They were forbidden to teach Irish or Latin. Parents were forbidden to send their child to a Catholic teacher or to hire a Catholic teacher to come to their home. Neither could parents, if Catholic, educate their own children at home. Yet, in true Irish fashion, the people of Ireland refused to accept these unjust laws and they were determined to keep classical education in their land. This quiet rebellion was called the hedge school.

A hedge school is literally what it sounds like. Lessons were conducted in secret by Irish teachers out in the country side, often behind hedges but sometimes behind large rocks or in barns. The students would take turns keeping watch for the authorities. Seamus MacManus describes it this way:

Throughout those dark days the hunted schoolmaster, with price upon his head, was hidden from house to house. And, in the summer time he gathereed his little class, hungering and thirsting for knowledge, behind a hedge in remote mountain glen – where, while in turn each tattered lad kept watch from the hilltop for the British soldiers, he fed to his eager pupils the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.

This is one of the most enduring images in 17th century Irish history, and for me one of the most endearing images from all of Irish history. Teachers were hunted like animals. They often had to sleep on the ground amidst the elements. Half-starved and constantly in danger, these men devoted their lives entirely to the continuation of classical education in Ireland. They kept their own language and literature alive in the minds and hearts of their pupils along with the classical languages. The parents of these hedgeschool students were also incredibly courageous to send their children out under these conditions. The pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty could have cost them everything they had. It is because of these courageous teachers and parents that it was often boasted throughout Ireland that in the mountains of Kerry cows were bought and sold in Greek.

The Penal Code, or Punishment Laws, of the 17th century were a systematic attempt by the English government to disenfranchise 3/4 of the population of Ireland, simply because they were Irish. The Code was rigorously enforced until the latter part of the 18th century. A Frenchman travelling in Ireland in 1796 named de Lotocnaye wrote of seeing the hedgeschools. He entered one such school and said it was like entering a cavern’s mouth. It was dark, smoky and smelly inside. But, when his eyes adjusted, he saw “twenty children sitting on stones, humming like hornets preparing to swarm. Every urchin had a scrap of paper or a leaf of a book in his hand.” In 1775, an English traveller named Twiss passed through Ireland and was saddened to see groups of boys along roadsides learning to write. He was not saddened by the conditions of their “school,” but rather because he thought it was “not judicious to teach the lower orders.” In 1776, a traveller named Arthur Young wrote that he witnessed schools being formed behind hedges all over Ireland. He added, “I might as well say ‘ditch’ for I have seen many a ditch full of scholars.” Yet, throughout these tyring times in Ireland, teachers and learners were held in high regard among their people. The Scolair bocht, or Poor Scholar, was honored and loved and housed free of charge wherever he went. An Irish scholar of modern times named Doheny wrote the following:

As late as 1820, there were in many counties classical schools in which the English tongue was never heard…Literary hospitality continued unimpaired. The ablest masters, classical and scientific, have taught thousands of students who for years were entertained with the most lavish kindness in the houses of the farmers in the districts around the schools, of late a barn or deserted dwelling of mudwall or thatched roof. In Tipperary, Waterford, and Limerick it was usual to have two of these scholars living (free) for four and five consectutive years with a family, and treated with extreme courtesy and tenderness. In the first cycle of this century there was scarcely a farmer of any competency who did not give one son or all of his sons, a classical education, without any reference to intended professions or pursuits.

The Punishment Laws passed by the Anglo-Irish parliament were so harmful to the Irish people that the Frenchman Montesquieu described them as “conceived by demons, written in blood, and registered in Hell.” By the close of the 1700s, more just minds began to influence the English government. In 1793, King George III actually used the word “Catholic” in a speech given from the throne of England. This was considered shocking. Throughout the Penal Code and in all official documentation, that word was never used. Catholicism was always “papism” and Catholics were always called “papists.” It wasn’t until 1829, however, under the Act of Catholic Emanicipation that the Punishment Laws were officially abolished and hedgeshools came to an end. The following is a poem honoring the Masters of the hedgeschools.

The Hedge Schoolmasters

When the night shall lift from Erins’ hills, ’twere shame if we forget                             One band of unsung heroes whom Freedom owes a debt.                                       When we brim high cups to brave ones then, their memory let us pledge                   Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge.

By stealth they met their pupils in the glen’s deep-hidden nook,                                  And taught them many a lesson was never in English book;                                     There was more than wordy logic shown to use in wise debate;                                   Nor amo was the only verb they gave to conjugate.

When hunted on the heathery hill and through the shadowy wood,                            They climbed the cliff, they dared the marsh, they stemmed the tumbling flood;          Their blanket was the clammy mist, their bed the wind-swept bent;                                In fitful sleep they dreamt the bay of blood-hounds on their scent.

Their lore was not the brightest, nor their store, mayhap, the best,                               But they fostered love, undying, in each young Irish breast;                                          And through the dread, dread night, and long, that steeped our island then,                 The lamps of hope and fires of faith were fed by these brave men.

The grass waves green above them; soft sleep is theirs for aye;                                   The hunt is over, and the cold; the hunger passed away.                                                O hold them high and holy! and their memory proudly pledge,                                      Who gathered their ragged classes behind a friendly hedge.

Seamus MacManus

‘scoileanna scairte’ Irish Hedge School

Just in Time for Independence Day

Just before Independence Day of last year, New York state granted homosexuals the “freedom” to “marry”. Like California, the judges in New York didn’t care that a majority of New Yorkers opposed this sanction through their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. From the city to the Sound, New Yorkers were wondering how to celebrate the victory of democracy in the face of blatant judicial despotism. After all, what’s the point of a right to vote if judges may peremptorily nullify the public will expressed through the free exercise of this right? The resistance to such a grave distortion of marriage is not a ropeless lynching of a particular group, as some ideologues would have us believe. It is supported by centuries of moral, social and legal precedent.  How has such a small group garnered such powerful sympathy?

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis posits that modernity is obsessed with one virtue: kindness. In America, it seems freedom and kindness are conflated. We are free only to the extent we are kind. If Lewis is correct and kindness and cruelty are the only moral categories recognized anymore, any belief deemed unkind (e.g. animals don’t have souls or homosexuals may not marry) is, by definition, cruel. Interestingly, proponents of this specious moral code usually apply it only to a narrowly circumscribed subset of the population. Kindness need not extend to the elderly or the unborn, but rather to those relatives and mothers who want to kill them because they represent an inconvenient truth. Yet,  Americans are cajoled into believing we ought to respond to denials of homosexual “rights” the same way Raskolnikov responds in his dream of the horridly brutal horse beating in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Every referendum vote against “homosexual marriage” is another cruel lash across the eyes of the helpless, innocent creature. The judiciary, which in many places views itself as executor of the new banal code of ethics outlined by Lewis, must be entreated to stop the cruelty and enforce kindness.

In The Broken Hearth, William Bennett suggested a nation’s laws ought to reflect its moral beliefs. This presupposes two things: first, that we do in fact hold morally defensible beliefs (contra nihilism); second, we are certain what those beliefs are. Homosexual ideologues have no uncertainty what they’re about. Consider this statement from Michaelangelo Signorile, a leading activist for “homosexual marriage”: “The most subversive action lesbians and gay men can undertake…is to transform the notion of ‘family’ entirely.”  Are we Catholics equally certain, and unafraid to say so, that one man and one woman exclusively bound to one another is the only morally acceptable understanding of marriage? If so, then we ought to demand legislation that codifies that, which means electing officials who will draft and pass such legislation.

Archbishop Charles Chaput commented on Zenit last year that we Catholics “need really to believe what we say we believe,” for the good of our culture and also for our own ultimate good, so that when “our accounting to the Lord” is upon us we will not be numbered among “those who compromised until there was nothing left of their convictions.”