Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How then shall we live?

I've been involved in an interesting discussion in the last couple of days, which can be viewed here and here and in which it was my great pleasure to play the role of "gadfly".

It is one I enjoy enormously. There is little that bores and exasperates me faster than the usual inbox fare of these big Professional Catholic sites where someone writes an article that is meant to provoke discussion and receives a chorus of: "Great post Steve!" "Wow Steve! I've never heard it put that way before..." "I wish I were as eloquent as you are Steve, because you've really said what I've been thinking..."


Yes, and who really cares what you've been thinking, since it is clear you have nothing interesting to say about it.

It is commbox love-ins like these that makes the gadfly in me break out of his cocoon and make a beeline straight for any exposed flesh. Given that no one in our times has been taught how to have a friendly disagreement, I find it is quite a simple matter to make things more interesting. The plodding earnestness of the New Orthodox Catholics is just too easy a target, too juicy a bit of meat, to leave alone. The fact that they, mired as they are in their own private version of political correctness, can't abide the slightest dissent and have no sense of proportion or humour, really only adds to the fun.

(Long Aside: There was, of course, simply no way at all that I could have resisted the temptation of saying What I Really Think about breastfeeding in public. It's a fairly straightforward syllogism: I hate hippies and all of their pomps and works. Hippies started the whole "lets expose our private parts in public to shock our parents and then demand that society change its attitude towards our 'natural and beautiful' body parts" movement that I remember so well from childhood. One of the major themes of the early hippies was the demand to breastfeed in public. The hippies have, through these apparently small discrete incursions, destroyed nearly the entirety of the Christian social agreement that once sustained Western Civilisation. Therefore, I think women need to keep their clothes on in public in order to preserve Christendom. So when I saw a cluster of admiring NOCs congratulating Steve on how wonderfully he had come to the defense of the practise, using exactly the same rhetoric I remember only too well from the furry-armpitted, fright-haired harridans of my earliest memories ... well, it was just too much to expect me to resist. I was certain Steve wouldn't mind.

I will grant, perhaps, the excuse that most of the NOCs are too young to remember the hippie movement themselves, and were for the most part raised in safe middle class neighbourhoods in which they had no direct exposure to the filthy hippies and their Crusade for Indecency. It is perhaps somewhat understandable that they would not realise they were dutifully reciting and defending the hippie doctrines that have slithered quietly into every aspect of our lives and destroyed Western Civilisation. But take it from me who remembers well life on the hippie West Coast in the early 1970s and her mother's grubby, patchouli-doused friends talking about their plans: the determination to force the rest of the world to accept the "beautiful and natural" phenomenon of breastfeeding in public is a manifestation of the feminist hippie movement slithering into Christianity and I won't have it.

Also, breastfeeding involves bodily fluids. Anything that involves bodily fluids needs to be kept out of public view.)

Now, wait. What was I talking about?

Oh yes, the discussion at Steve's Inside Catholic column. Jeff Culbreath is someone whose blogging I have enjoyed for some years now and with whom I've discussed many of these kinds of issues in a list we used to belong to. I would say that most of the writing by Catholics, especially traditionalist Catholics, that I find interesting and important is focused on this question of how to live, knowing what we know, in a world that knows nothing of it.

I make light of it and poke my stick into the hornets' nest because the question is an important one that needs to be taken seriously. It can't be left to the mutual admiration societies that cluster into commboxes. Steve and I and a few others have been working on this, almost as the main background theme of all our writing in the last five years. Some of us believe that it is counter productive, not to mention more or less impossible, to remove oneself off to the woods or the country to attempt to re-create a Catholic utopia where all the ladies wear long skirts and all the kids can converse in Latin.

Others disagree.

But the bigger question is one that remains.

Just how do we live as Catholics in a situation like the one we have? What is the proper "balance" of living in but not of the world? How much of the world, and which particular bits, can we take in? What must we reject and of what may we say, "yes, this is part of the human endeavour of which I am naturally a part"?

How do we get the proper perspective on a culture in which we are ourselves completely steeped, to which we owe the very shape of our thoughts?

This raises other questions. Can we have friends "in the world"? Non-Catholic friends? Can we hope for the salvation of our non-Catholic loved-ones?

Do we set ourselves up as arbiters of who qualifies for membership in the Elect? If so, according to what criteria and by whose authority?

Does it matter that we are, while being systematically forced out of public life in the secular world, at the same time deliberately withdrawing ourselves from it? Is this exclusion and withdrawal a bad thing or a good thing? Should we fight it or help it?

There are all sorts of solutions, some better than others, but none The Right solution. Many retreat. Many give up the struggle. Many join groups that help them withdraw, like the SSPX. Some go out of their way to live near a place where there is some safety and the protection of something like a monastery or an Oratory. Some just try to go it alone.

Catholics in general, and traditionalist Catholics in particular, have a habit of looking to the past for precedent to figure out a way to cobble together a method of dealing with the problem.

Is there a precedent for our current situation? I think not an exact one. As someone said, although we are indeed returning to a variation on pre-Christian paganism, complete with child sacrifice, lawlessness and philosophical fatalism, there is a vast difference between a virgin and a divorcee. A Christendom that has spurned Christ in her maturity is not the same bride that was wooed in her innocence.

So, how are we to see our times? How are we to interact with our non-Catholic, paganised neighbours? Do we approach them with disdain? Do we not approach them at all?

Is it possible for a Christian to make use of the things of the pagan world that are, through the working of the Natural Law, still under the headship of Christ, though He is unknown?

Can we read Truman Capote? Do we dare laugh at the bawdy jokes on Boston Legal, or empathise with the moral struggles of Alan Shore? Can we see goodness in films and music that is not specifically Christian?

Did the early Christians read the Classical writers?

Augustine derided the pagan entertainments of his youth, but was he entirely right? (Terribly daring, I know, to question so venerable a Doctor).

The fact is, I do not know the answers to these questions. But I believe this is the essence of our task, having been stuck in these almost inconceivably dreadful times.

I'm a child of this civilisation. I'm even a child of the hippie generation, and I'm sure am also unconsciously greatly influenced by that movement. I want to know the world, not reject it. The world is full of human beings, and there is nothing so interesting and wonderful to a misanthrope like me as human beings.

I can't help it. I love the world.

And I understand that it was not entirely repugnant to the Father either.


Anonymous said...

Hi there. Nice to meet you. I've only been reading you for a couple of days, since the "discussion" began in the combox on insidecatholic.
I'm a 39 yr. old midwestern American Catholic, converted from nominal protestantism at 23, wife and mother of eight.
I appreciate and enjoy your humor, to a degree, as I had a wicked sense of humor in high school and college which has been beaten (or sucked) out of me by pregnancy, lactation, potty-training, pregnancy, lactation, potty-training ad nauseam for the last 17 years.
I am not funny any more. But I get a kick out of people who are.
I'll breastfeed when and where I need to and I don't care what you think, Missy (said in a loving way). Not to do so would certainly miss the point of God's plan in attaching our breasts to our bodies, thus making baby's nourishment portable, at the ready and always within reach! I mean, what idiot would sit there with her breasts full of milk, while holding her hungry, crying, increasingly frantic baby in a public place! "Sorry Sweetie, I'm so morbidly afraid of offending anyone by the sight of my baby nestled in my bosom that I'd rather let you scream yourself into a frenzy. Don't worry, after an hour or so you'll probably have exhausted yourself to the point that you should only be able to whimper faintly. The opinion of strangers is so much more important than your extreme distress, my darling. Suck it up (just an expression)." Brilliant.
If you think that one of the greatest achievements of Western Civilization is the suppression of public breastfeeding, I think you've been infected by the heresy of puritanism, plain & simple.
That said, I'm the furthest thing possible from a hippie and I have never felt comfortable nursing a child in mixed company or a public situation. If at all possible I have always sought privacy. But if it was not possible, I'd have no qualms about nursing my child.
I have much to say on many of your other questions. But I'm sure you've had enough of me for one day. Or the rest of your life.
Again, nice to meet you. I'll be reading you.
Denise K.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Sweetie, Darling, Missie

Just don't do it in front of me.

Anonymous said...

BTW: I hope you have worked out some kind of snappy patter for the moment when you tell your children that motherhood ruined your social skills. I'm sure it will be a special, bonding kind of moment.

I mean that in a "loving way" of course.

Lefdawg said...


I just would like you to clarify things about your opinion about breastfeeding in public. Would you be offended if you saw a mother sitting somewhere in public completely covered by a blanket? Or are you talking about the woman who just whips out her breast and puts her child on her breast without being discreet or covered?

I myself have breastfeed in public, only when my child is screaming and out of control but I always have covered myself and part of child with blanket. Also, I never breastfeed when we have mixed company even if I am covered. I find this to be too uncomfortable for me and I don't want to jeopardize a man's soul anyway. Sorry Denise if I sound to puritanish! Modesty is a virtue(or is it a fruit?) that all women should strive for, even when it comes to such a natural thing as breastfeeding!

With regards to living in the world but not of the world...goodness! I think that is a question that we must constantly be asking ourselves. God has created such things and I believe all has some good to it. But we should ask ourselves just how do we use it in our lives? Is it to help better us in loving and knowing God? Or does it create bad habits such as selvishism, pride, slothfulness?

I'm not sure how to answer it. Our family struggles all the time with it. Should we get ride of our T.V. or no?

Otherwise, I'll end on a boring note....Great blog! I really enjoyed reading it!

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Why does anyone care what I think?

Can we talk about something that matters?

or have I just blown into the Leathern-Winged Harpy Duck Call?

Anonymous said...

"Just don't do it in front of me."

But that's exactly the point. I most certainly would do it in front of you if necessary. Not for the purpose of offending. But because my duty is to my child, not your misguided Victorian sensibilities.

As to my social skills, you've taken quite a leap in assuming that I've lost them all simply because I claim not to be funny.

Ironically, I was hoping that you might find some of what I wrote to BE funny and/or interesting, since you had earlier written that you found it dull when commenters have no original thoughts or opposing views. However, it appears that was just blather, since you have attempted to humiliate me with your acerbic wit on our first meeting. I find it particularly strange that you mock me in reference to my own self-assessment which was meant to be self-deprecating! Perhaps you only find things funny or interesting if you yourself have written them.

On second thought, I think I would refrain from nursing in front of you; given your temper I would be afraid you might punch my baby in the mouth for daring to suckle in your presence.

"Why does anyone care what I think?" Umm, I don't. That's why I wrote in my comment, "I don't care what you think."

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Yep. Blew into it pretty hard.


Anonymous said...

You've riled the mommy-martyrs--they get off on whelping and assume the rest of the world must regard them as heroines and are deeply offended when you don't find their children as charming and all absorbing as they do. Can we also go back to 'seen but not heard'?

Anonymous said...

People seem to be trying to make a "Catholic culture" without every having experienced it. My fear is that such a culture will be very small and narrow as it is defined with a very small "us" against a very large "them" regarded with a perpetually squinchy-eyed gaze and plenty of horrified no!'s.

The tendency to look to the past for a ready blueprint won't work if the only time we look to the future it is with fear. Doesn't seem to be a very Catholic stance.

Joanne (also the mommy-martyr post above, sorry)

Anonymous said...

I have nothing to say about public breast-feeding (being now about 15 years past the necessity of doing any feeding which doesn't come off the cooker), but can advise that the virgin/divorcee analogy is from C.S.Lewis. It's part of the same essay where he says that whenever he hears someone saying that our civilisation is reverting to paganism, he has visions of MPs leaving their sandwiches for the dryads in Hyde Park, and watching the Prime Minister sacrifice a white bull at the opening of Parliament.

Note to new posters: Hilary doesn't do flattery.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Sue, I was pretty sure it was Uncle Jack. I've read so much of him in the last 33 years, I just can't remember which bits come from where.

Lefdawg said...

"Why does anyone care what I think?" H.J.W.

Ok, why do you write this blog? Obviously you want SOMEONE or SOMEBODY to care what you think!

The first time I met you I really thought of you as such a cool, very intellectual person I could learn from. I loved reading your blog after I found some years later. From our meeting in Chicago till now, I realize your life has changed quite a bit. Maybe your life hasn't turned out the way you want it to, but whatever. I won't read your blog anymore since you don't care to have anybody care what you think.


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Perhaps I wasn't clear.

I've already said what I have to say.

Take it or leave it.

J D Carriere said...

Chicago? When were you ever in Chicago?

Anyway I have to stay in the world because I hear the pizza in Combermere sucks.

Anonymous said...

I had to go waste fifteen minutes playing Tetris to figure out why this so angered me: "...given your temper I would be afraid you might punch my baby in the mouth for daring to suckle in your presence." Do you realize you resorted to the same tactic the left has used time and again to suppress opposition to their agendas foisted from above? "Any parent who spanks a child is on the way to child abuse." "How sad that people incite violence by opposing our right to sodomy." There is no rational or natural basis for such positions so they resort to fear, name calling, imputation of false motivations, insinuations, and marginalization.

Yes, you do have a duty to your child, but simple respect for others and mature discretion would suggest seeking out privacy.

Anonymous said...

Joanne, I think she *already* mentioned that she would seek privacy and only breastfeed her infant in front of others under necessity. You need to attend Hilary's logic class.

Note to new posters: Hilary doesn't do flattery.

Nor kindness, neiver, it seems.

Nuffink better than a good breastfeeding stoush!

I had to go waste fifteen minutes playing Tetris to figure out why this so angered me: "...given your temper I would be afraid you might punch my baby in the mouth for daring to suckle in your presence."

But it's so much more fun this way. Maybe someone needs to invent virtual mud wrestling pits.

Anonymous said...

I'm breastfeeding right now! - Karen

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Don't you need both hands for that?

Anonymous said...

Nope, I lie on my side and the baby lies facing me and I balance the laptop on my hip. - Karen

Anonymous said...

Hilary writes: "What is the proper "balance" of living in but not of the world?"

Indeed---something that is worth thinking about at greater length. Not that I have any solutions, mind you. Just something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Dymphna said...

Oh for the love God. I am so sick of the militant breast feeders. Okay, so you have a baby. Hooray for you and thank you for continuing civilization but why must you fling your breast out front of me while I eat dinner, attempt to watch a football game, or shop in the mall? Just beacuase you have a babe attached to your nipple doesn't mean anybody wants to see your exposed body part.

Breastfeeding is a bodily function, not a holy act. Get off of the high horse. Last year my mother in law had an impacted bowel. The day she was finally ablet to sit on the pot and relieve herself on her own was a wonderful day. I cheered. However,as grateful and happy as we were, neither I nor my MIL would've invited anybody but the nurse to watch.