Tag Archives: Catholicism

From Venus to Virgin

“Lustrous among the cloudbanks,” the goddess Venus descended into the grove of oak trees, telling her son, Aeneas, that her gifts were of divine origin, forged by the fires of her husband, Vulcan. Venus embraced Aeneas as she offered him the weaponry and armor. He, amazed, looks each piece over, one by one, unsure whether to be more shocked that his mother was a goddess or that she had defied her own father to aid him.

He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,

turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,

the terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire

the sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,

blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed

by the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens.

Then the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,

The spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,

No words can tell its power.

For there, upon the shield, was the entire story of Rome, its past, its present, and its future, for Vulcan possessed the power of the seer, and directed by his wife, he had written it all.

Armed by his mother’s confidence and gifts, the half-god Aeneas of the destroyed city of Troy conquered his Latin foes, creating a new people that would rule the Mediterranean for over a millennium.

As Socrates awaited his execution by the hands and vote of the Athenian people in 399BC, a “woman in white” appeared to him in a dream, assuring him that in three days, he would spend eternity with his people and the gods in the land of Phthia. Socrates found more comfort in this dream, than in all of his own logic or the reassurances of his best friend, Crito.

When two Lakota warriors—the first representatives of their people—traveled onto the Great Plains of North America, they encountered a vision of the Great Buffalo Woman, a being shrouded in white light. One of the Lakota could not see passed her beauty and immediately felt lust in his heart. The other, though, saw her for what she really was, the lawgiver. The Great Buffalo Woman destroyed the lustful one, but she rewarded the other with the laws to govern his people, the laws by which all good Lakota would live.

At the moment a young Celtic man needed a tangible sign to unify his warring peoples, the Lady of the Lake emerged to offer him the sword, Excalibur, to unite and lead his people into virtuous victory. So armed, Arthur created a brotherhood the ushered in a Kingdom of Summer. . . for a while.

At Princeton, an eager and enthusiastic young student asked T.S. Eliot just why were there three leopards in his poem of conversion, Ash Wednesday, and who was the lady?

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. 

To which, Eliot replied, is it not enough that the lady honors the Virgin? Pagan or not, does she not point to the Blessed Mother of God, and, thus, to God? It is more than enough, Eliot assured his audience.

When another frustrated king, an Anglo-Saxon who would one day be known as Alfred the Great, begged of God aid in his battle against the heathen Danes, not God, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to him.  As Chesterton recorded it:

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,

More than the doors of doom,

I call the muster of Wessex men

From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,

To break and be broken, God knows when,

But I have seen for whom.

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God

Like a little word come I;

For I go gathering Christian men

From sunken paving and ford and fen,

To die in a battle, God knows when,

By God, but I know why.

And, yet, like most of us, Alfred craved sureity.  If he put his faith in Mary and in God, would he be rewarded.

And this is the word of Mary,

The word of the world’s desire

No more of comfort shall yet get,

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

Then silence sank.

Venus might promise victory, but Mary, rightly, only offers hope.  Yet, it is a hope that breaks the bounds of the world, and shows us eternity.

Pieper on the 7 Virtues

How the virtues all tie together:

“First, the Christian is one who, in faith, becomes aware of the reality of the triune God.  Second: the Christian strives, in hope, for the total fulfillment of his being in eternal life.  Third: the Christian directs himself, in the divine virtue of love, to an affirmation of God and neighbor that surpasses the power of any natural love.  Fourth: the Christian is prudent; namely, he does not allow his view on reality to be controlled by the Yes or No of his will, but rather he makes this Yes or No of the will dependent upon the truth of things.  Fifth: the Christian is just; that is, he is able to live “with the other” in truth; he sees himself as a member among members of the Church, of the people, and of any community.  Sixth: the Christian is brave, that is, he is prepared to suffer injury and, if need be, death for the truth and for the realization of justice.  Seventh: the Christian is temperate; namely, he does not permit his desire to possess and his desire for pleasure to become destructive and inimical to his being.”

–Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius, 1991), 10-11.

Bellarmine and Jefferson, Part II

[Original source: “Bellarmine and Jefferson,” Cincinnati (OH) Catholic Telegraph Register (August 31, 1945), pg. 3.]

The similarity of the ideas of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence and those found in the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine forms the subject of a long article in a recent issue of the Vatican’sOsservatore Romano. This resemblance has often been pointed out, some Catholics even going to far as to declare that the saint, an Italian Cardinal who died more than 150 years before the Declaration of Independence, was Jefferson’s chief inspiration when he wrote the historic document. While the Osservatorearticle is more restrained in its claims, it nevertheless points out several interesting parallels, not only in thought but also in expression, between the Cardinal’s writings and the Declaration of Independence.

Bellarmine wrote that ‘In a free state all men are born free and equal by nature.’ The Declaration of Independence proclaims that ‘All men are created equal.’

Bellarmine wrote, ‘It depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, consuls, or other magistrates shall exercise authority over them.’ Jefferson wrote, ‘Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

Bellarmine wrote, ‘The people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, an aristocracy into a democracy.’ The Declaration of Independence says, ‘whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.’

Although the similarity between the ideas of the Cardinal and those of Jefferson is evident, the degree of the influence of the former on the latter is not clear. The American intelligentsia of the period of the War of Independence had some knowledge of the Cardinal’s teachings, but for the most part only indirectly, through the writings of non-Catholic philosophers, some of whom quoted Bellarmine only to reject his theories. Jefferson himself possessed such a book that summarized Bellarmine’s theory of government. He was also familiar with the writings of philosophers who may have been influenced by the Cardinal, and he was acquainted with the Carrolls of Maryland, a Catholic family whose sons were educated in European Catholic schools and who were probably conversant with Bellarmine’s works. But whether the American statesman read and discussed the Catholic philosopher’s ideas to any great extent before he wrote the Declaration of Independence cannot be proved, especially since Jefferson was only 33 in 1776. 

But there is no need to establish a direct connection between Jefferson and Cardinal Bellarmine to prove that fundamental American democracy is supported by Catholic teaching. Whether the founding fathers were influenced by Bellarmine or not, it is certain that the Cardinal, who died the year the Mayflower landed in New England, taught the ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence a century and a half later. Nor did Bellarmine’s teachings rise full grown from an arid soil. The doctrine he taught, perhaps with more specific details than anyone before him, was a logical conclusion of the philosophical system of the medieval schoolmen, which in turn was the philosophical expression of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

did bellarmine whisper to jefferson?

[Original source: Catholic Information, “Did Bellarmine Whisper to Thomas Jefferson?” in The Brookfield (Missouri) Argus (October 17, 1947), page 3.  Reprinted in dozens of papers over the next several years.]

Nearly two centuries apart they lived—Robert Bellarmine, Catholic theologian, and Thomas Jefferson, an American patriot. Yet their pens inked out philosophies so similarly sound and God-like that we wonder, we Catholics, whether at least a whisper from the great theologian did not reach the ear of the great statesman as he pondered and wrote his historic document. Read the extracts below from the Declaration of Independence, 1776 and from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, 1576:

“All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” (Declaration)

“All men are equal, not in wisdom or in grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind.” “Political right is from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man.” (Bellarmine)

“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” (Declaration)

“It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish.” (Bellarmine)

“Governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Declaration)

“It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is indeed from God but vested in a particular ruler by the council and election of men.” (Bellarmine)

“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute a new government. . . . Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.” (Declaration)

“For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa.” “The people never transfers its power to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power.” (Bellarmine)

“Government by consent of the governed” has been Catholic teaching down the ages. The 16th century doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings” was, and is, as repellent to the Catholic as it is to the American and when one is both Catholic and American, it is just twice as repellent. So here’s to Cardinal Bellarmine and Statesman Jefferson! May their philosophies ever govern our land and may they conquer those poor lands where ‘kings still can do no wrong’ and where no man dare say them “nay”!

Christopher Dawson: Preparing to Fight Modernity

Too sickly to fight in the Great War, Christopher Dawson volunteered for civilian duty and spent roughly fourteen years reading and drawing up ideas to prepare for a career in writing.  He had received a profound mystical vision on Easter, 1909, while visiting Rome.  In that vision, the nineteen-year old Anglo-Welshman believed God had commanded him to record the entire history of the world, showing him all times and all peoples at once.  Determined to live up to what God had asked him, he began building upon an already solid liberal education.

During these years, he kept extensive notes and journals influential writings included in his notes came from the significant historians, anthropologists, and thinkers from every school of thought from his day.  Generally, he took notes in the same language as the original texts, and he delved deeply into Plato’s Laws and the various writings by Aristotle, Xenophon, and Heraclitus.  In his journals, now residing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, one can see vividly that Dawson readily moved through a variety of languages including English, French, Greek, and Latin.[1]  

In the same notebook, presumably after reading the above authors, Dawson concluded tellingly: “All the events of the last years have convinced me what a fragile thing civilization is and how near we are to losing the whole inheritance which our age might have acquired [sic] enjoyed.”

In addition to his voluminous academic and scholarly reading, he also devoured wht works of Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, P.J. Wodehouse, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, R.H. Benson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a huge selection of science fiction, historical fiction, American westerns, and English detective stories.[2]  G.K. Chesterton, especially, influenced Dawson, as the latter regarded him as “one of the greatest champions of Christian culture in our time.”[3]  Chesterton’s most influential work on Dawson was his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse [read from this?].  This poem, perhaps the most significant call to arms for twentieth-century Christian Humanists, equally inspired C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Russell Kirk.

[Please continue reading on page 2]

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.  

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

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Beyond Tenebrae Now Available

My latest book, Beyond Tenebrae: Christianity Humanism in the Twilight of the West, is now out from Angelico Press. In it, I consider not the end of the West, but the twilight of the West and the individuals who have done so much to struggle against its demise.

Guardini on God as Creator

“But the Christian God needs no world in order that He might be; subsisting alone He is sufficient until Himself.  The doctrine of creation most decisively reveals the power of God, the Infinite Sovereign.  The world was created out of nothing by the freedom of the Almighty Whose commanding Word gives to all things being and nature; of itself that world lacks any trace of internal necessity or external possibility.  This created universe is found only in the Bible.  Elsewhere the origin of the universe was always thought to have been mythical; either some formless chaos had evolved into the world or some divine power had fashioned it from an equally formless chaos.  The Revelation of Scripture contradicted all such myth: the world is created by a God Who does not have to create in order that He might be, nor does He need the elements of the world in order that He might create.” 

–Romano Guardini, THE END OF THE MODERN WORLD