February 22, 2008

A busy week here in Rome. In one week, I’ve been privileged to venerate: the bones of St. Agnes, relics of the Passion (the True Cross, the scourging post, nails and Crown of Thorns), the Sacred Steps from the palace of Pontius Pilate, and the remains of St. Paul the Apostle. All this, while writing freelance policy papers on immigration, meeting with students, editing a college guide, and keeping up with you, my dear readers.

Oh yes, I got to see, encased in a gold and glass reliquary, the finger of doubting Thomas“€”legend tells, the very finger he thrust into the wounds of Our Lord. It was brown and rather the worse for wear, and bore an inscription in Latin which I couldn’t make out. But I bet it said something like “€œBe careful what you ask for….”€

I took the survival of this relic as a warning against undue skepticism. Ask the wrong question and who knows”€”two thousand years from now, your tongue might be encased in glass for American pilgrims to squint at. And today I’m visiting the Holy Office at the Vatican, where I’m taking along inscribed copies of each of my Bad Catholic’s books“€”for a monsignor who will (I’m promised) hand them to the pope. So if a decree of excommunication comes out in the next couple months, you will know why.

Hence, just a brief note before a short weekend of long walks through Trastevere: I’ve just read a really marvelous book, which I can’t recommend too highly: Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies”€”And Why They Disappeared, by the family historian Allan C. Carlson.

The book is a quick and informative read, and a poignant one; it carries on Carlson’s running theme (also covered in his previous The American Way) of the attempt in the 20th century to raise the standard of the family as the basic unit of society”€”rather than the individual, the race, the Party or social class. In one chapter, Carlson does what I’ve never seen done before: He lays out the actual, positive program which was championed by “€œdistributist”€ thinkers Chesterton and Belloc, which was intended to rescue the market economy”€”during a decade when either fascism, socialism, or Communism seemed inevitable to most”€”by “€œdistributing”€ the means of production more widely throughout society. The goal was to reduce the number of men forced to labor for wages as employees, and build up the percentage of yeoman farmers, small business owners, craftsmen and entrepreneurs. Grounded in the perceptive writings of Leo XIII and Pius IX, this program was never quite as Quixotic as it has been made out to be by unsympathetic historians. Carlson shows how many of the more benevolent actions of the State in the U.S. and Europe”€”for instance, loans and policies designed to increase the number of homeowners rather than renters”€”were inspired by Distributism. Which is something I never knew….

Carlson also goes through a number of other worthy, if truncated political movements intended to dethrone the sovereign individual and restrain the struggle of social classes, including the high-minded “€œpeasant”€ parties that flourished briefly in interwar Europe, which strove to empower the vast majority of their citizens who were independent farmers. The failure of these parties”€”they just weren’t ruthless enough”€”left the field open successively to fascism, and after the war, Communism.

In Scandinavia and America, initiatives to preserve the family took different forms”€”primarily political and labor movements that promoted the “€œfamily wage”€”€”intended to guarantee working men a wage sufficient that their wives could bear and rear families. With the rise of feminism and bureaucratic mandates of “€œequal pay,”€ such programs were doomed, with results we can see today: empty cradles, across two continents.

Most poignant of all, however, is Carlson’s account of the rise and fall of Christian Democracy in Western Europe. Created by heroes who’d resisted Nazism”€”even in 1940, when Communists were still cooperating with the Gestapo at Stalin’s orders, and betraying partisans”€”these idealistic movements had their moment of glory. In the post-war period, they helped fend off the resurgent Communist parties in France and Italy, and led the “€œeconomic miracle”€ in West Germany, rebuilding a shattered continent on Christian principles updated by the study of economics and infused with a genuine spirit of ecumenism and liberty.

But all that went to Hell in 1968″€”which would require a book unto itself. But I have my own theory about why Western Europe has slid so completely into secularism: Among other factors, the very government programs which Christians supported in the name of “€œsecurity”€ and “€œsocial justice”€ helped remove one of the most important props of religious practice: A healthy fear of want. In the absence of a really generous welfare state, the economic insecurity which most of us experience at various points in our lives encourages any number of virtues: thrift, prudence, planning, and even prayer. I know that I never prayed so much or so often in my life as when I (and all my colleagues) were expelled from a magazine in an editorial coup… the day after I’d rented a pricey Manhattan apartment. As I watched my savings dwindle, and mailed off resumes, and paced the floor among my still unopened boxes, I felt my pride and sense of self-sufficiency drain away”€”and followed my feet to the nearest church, nearly every day. There’s nothing quite so primal, my friends, than kneeling down at an abandoned Slovak parish to pray for money. Not for career guidance, or inspiration, or even forgiveness”€”for money to buy the next package of Ramen noodles. It focuses the mind, and reminds you of your absolute dependence on a Higher Power, I can tell you.

I remember thinking at the time: “€œIf I could just go down to a government office, haggle with a bureaucrat, collect a stipend to which I felt somehow entitled, would I be praying now? Or sulking at the scantiness of my (all-provident) government’s check? The heading over to join some leftist street demonstration….”€ Indeed, I really think that the presence of a nanny state reduces the psychological need for a Father God. Which is why you can pretty much trace the decline of the birth rate and church attendance to the rise of what Belloc called the “€œServile State.”€ Enacting the programs of Christian Democracy helped produce today’s Pagan Bureaucracy. Be careful what you ask for.


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