Thursday, December 18, 2014

Is he solid?

There's a certain type of character you'll encounter if you spend enough time working with or for the Catholic Church. This character can be male or female, lay person, priest, religious, or bishop. They put in their 8 hours at the office. They do what's formally expected of them. But you get the impression that this is just a paycheck. They don't like discussing the faith after hours. They're just here to get things done, and they get irritated with "those people" who are al...ways complaining about irreverent liturgy here, or diocesan money supporting a pro-abortion company there. They find orthodoxy tiresome. Sometimes they actively undermine it because it's just too onerous for educated Americans who live a fast paced technological lifestyle, although they always furiously resent having their own orthodoxy questioned.

Religion is first and foremost about providing comfort to the people, then about doing charitable works. God is both our therapist and our cheerleader. They're glad, sometimes secretly, sometimes out loud, that Vatican II did away with all of that barbaric medieval nonsense about unbloody sacrifices, about sin, and hell, and demons, and any pretensions about the Catholic Church alone holding all necessary truths for salvation. That kind of talk would make us a laughing stock today. It's fine if a few reactionary fringes believe it privately, but they can't be allowed to become the public face of the Church.

That kind of character gets under my skin far more than any heretic, pagan, or Godless heathen ever could. They, at least, have the integrity to remain outside a Church whose tenets they don't believe. The Catholic who doesn't believe anymore but still collects a paycheck from the Church puts souls in danger of hell, most of all his or her own.

I've noticed that whenever Catholics meet a new priest, they always ask each other, "Is he solid?" What they mean is, is he orthodox and does he celebrate a reverent Mass? And I be over here like, "Shouldn't they all be like that? Shouldn't that be the bare minimum instead of a pleasant surprise?"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: The Generals, by Thomas E. Ricks

Ricks is one of my favorite commentators on the American military. His book Fiasco probably did as much to turn American public opinion against the Iraq war as the nightly casualty reports on the news. The comedy of errors that was our adventure in Iraq beggars belief when you really study the personalities and lack of planning involved, but Ricks set it all down in black and white. His latest work on American generalship isn't exclusively or primarily about the 2003 Iraq war, but he shows that the incompetence of our current brass is rooted in the mistakes and personalities of the past.

Ricks begins by describing the American military experience in World War II. Only serious history buffs can usually name any American generals from that time besides Eisenhower and Patton. George Marshall is the closest the modern American military has to a founding father. It was Marshall's system of promoting and firing officers that turned the American armed forces from a third rate backwater to the superpower it is today. Marshall worked hard at remaining cold and impersonal. He never met or chatted with the president socially. He was ruthless in his drive to identify and promote those who could hack it in combat and fire those who couldn't. Marshall and his protégé Eisenhower wanted cool, calm, collected, cooperative team players above all else but who still maintained streaks of optimism and aggression. Marshall relieved some officers who probably didn't deserve it, but back then being relieved of your command wasn't the kiss of death for your career that it is today. It was a sign that the system was working. Men who were relieved often got a second or third chance to prove themselves too.

Some men had trouble fitting into this new paradigm, mainly George Patton and Terry Allen. Douglas MacArthur was the polar opposite of George Marshall, a bombastic, pompous, and increasingly erratic figure who was finally fired by Harry Truman because the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn't know what to do with him anymore. Unfortunately, MacArthur poisoned civil-military relations for decades to come.

The Army failed in Vietnam because it waged World War II style warfare against a 4GW style opponent. William Westmoreland - probably the most unimaginative American officer to ever wear stars - wanted "search and destroy" missions. He failed to realize that in Vietnam the prize was the people, not the terrain or even destroying the North Vietnamese army. The Marines were somewhat more successful because they integrated themselves into villages, making friends, learning the people's routines and thus quickly being able to identify strangers who were Vietcong.

The Army nearly fell apart after Vietnam and was rebuilt from the ground up by William DePuy, Huba Wass de Czege, and William Richardson. DePuy greatly strengthened the Army's tactical proficiency while Wass de Czege and Richardson founded the School of Advanced Military Studies which focused on teaching officers slated for the higher ranks how to think as strategists. Unfortunately, DePuy didn't appreciate the other two or the school they founded. This is reflected in many modern American generals effectively being jumped up battalion commanders. They're great tacticians most of the time, but few of them really know how to think at the operational or strategic level. That's why General Tommy Franks of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan adventures could be asked, "What kind of war are we fighting?" and he responded by describing how to clear a cave. It was a fine answer for a sergeant. From a general, it was astonishing.

The Army is a big institution, and like all big institutions, it tends to put its own welfare first ahead of its ostensible mission. Since World War II, almost all generals who have been relieved have been relieved by civilians, not their brother officers. The rotation system in particular has stymied effective military operations. By the time the officers and men come to fully understand their new environments, they're rotated out. Incompetent officers are left in place because they'll be rotating out anyway, and why bother with all the paperwork? It undermines unit cohesion and sometimes leaves outright criminals unaccountable for their actions. Officers come to "punch their ticket" for a combat tour, and rotate out. This is opposed to World War II where the only way soldiers went home was through Tokyo and Berlin.

These days, officers are generally only relieved because of personal peccadilloes that become public. When careerism waxes and accountability wanes, soldiers get killed. Marshall understood that the career of an officer is not worth the lives of his men. It's unfortunate the Marshall system has broken down. We've returned to our Vietnam type, expecting that moar dakka will fix everything. I hope the Iraqis have tasty cuisine, because a massive influx of Iraqi restaurateurs and cab drivers will be the only thing we gain from our recent adventures.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Traditional readings, Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men. The Lord is nigh.
Be nothing solicitous; but in every thing, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
I'm always suspicious of Christians who go on and on about the joy of the Gospel. God wants us to be rich and successful and maniacally happy at all times, they tell us. Rejoice, celebrate, party hard, carry on! Those of us who are grim and reserved by nature, well we must be bad Christians then. The Gospel hasn't really taken hold of us. We lack faith. We make the little baby Jesus cry. The Joel Osteens of the world, they must not ever suffer or feel bad at all, so strong is their faith.

Scripture superficially supports the happy go lucky types. Today is also known as Gaudete Sunday, taken from today's epistle: Gaudete in Domino semper. Doesn't St. Paul himself tell us to rejoice always in the Lord? I think the words "rejoice" and "joy" are becoming as abused as the word "faith." Many people, even many Christians, believe that faith means to believe in something without any evidence at all to support it. The Church has never held to this definition of faith, going so far as to anathematize those who claim the existence of God cannot be proven through reason alone. The theological virtue of faith means accepting truths solely upon the authority of the God who has revealed them.

When St. Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, does that mean we should always be partying hard? Not necessarily. We may feel emotional joy in the fact of our baptism and being in a state of grace, but such emotions are generally gifts from God. We can't manufacture them at will. Everyone suffers and everyone feels bad from time to time, even and especially Catholics. The joy of the Gospel consists partly in rejoicing in our suffering. We have hope in God and hope for paradise where every tear will be wiped away and there will be no more death. As far as the Godless heathen is concerned, suffering is just one damned thing after another. The Christian suffers but he has faith that the God who loves us won't test us beyond our endurance.

John 1:19-28: And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who art thou? And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ.
And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No. They said therefore unto him: Who art thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself? He said: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias. And they that were sent, were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said to him: Why then dost thou baptize, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?
John answered them, saying: I baptize with water; but there hath stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not. The same is he that shall come after me, who is preferred before me: the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose. These things were done in Bethania, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 
Humility is one of the greatest of Christian virtues. Christ tells us, "Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart." Unfortunately, humility has a bad reputation these days. We think being humble means being a door mat. We think of the humble man as one who neurotically runs himself down, who never stands up for himself or speaks out when the situation warrants it. The humble man is the beta male, the runner up, the good sport who doesn't care about winning or losing. Sounds like a nerdy loser, right?

That's not how the saints understood humility. Humility means recognizing yourself for what you truly are. What are we compared to God? We are weak and sinful creatures. We are incapable of performing meritorious good works without the grace of God. It's God who leads us to prayer, to fasting, to all virtue and holiness. Humility means acknowledging that we are as nothing compared to God, and yet still he loves us and takes care of us. Because we are made in his image and likeness, no human life is worthless or useless. Our fallen nature often rebels at submitting to earthly authority, let alone the authority of God. The saints tamed their egos through mortification. Mortification can take many forms: fasting, abstaining from harmless goods, wearing hair shirts, keeping silent, forgiving injuries, etc. The idea behind mortification is to strengthen our will and our spirit to be more devoted to the things of God. We see the spirit of mortification live on in an increasingly secular world. How many people diet and subject their bodies to rigorous discipline because they want to look beautiful on the outside? Are we going to do less to look beautiful on the inside?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The torture report, or the seamless garment of death

One of the devil's greatest tricks is getting us to sin without ever giving us the thing we are willing to sin for. The torture report tells us that not only did we end up torturing innocent men (ice baths, 60+ hours of standing sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, etc.) but the bad guys didn't even give us actionable intelligence. The American Right, still in the thrall of neocons for whom it is always 1938 and everyone is Hitler, says the Democrats are at fault for handing our enemies a propaganda victory.

The Obama administration is reluctant to use the word "torture," and it's inconceivable that they will hold anyone in the torture regime responsible for their actions. So he's pro-abortion and pro-torture by default... a seamless garment of death.

I'm old enough to remember a time when you could think of the United States as basically a good nation that, for all its blunders, had its heart in the right place. I grew up with Ronald Reagan, the shining city on the hill, Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall, and so on. I remember when the Evil Empire dissolved on Christmas Day 1991 when the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. Nothing in this world is all together evil since our being is sustained by the God in whose image and likeness we are made. But the United States did serious evil under George W. Bush and it's unlikely Barack Obama or any future president will hold anyone accountable for that evil.

We like to think of ourselves as so much freer, smarter, more tolerant, more liberal, and just plain better than our savage ancestors. We like to tell ourselves that we've transcended the old superstitions and ideologies that led to the Holocaust or the Communist bloodbaths. It's a bad joke when we consider the bins of slaughtered infants or the dozens of men whom we subjected to torture. We haven't transcended the past. Transcendence can't happen without repentance.

Fake but accurate

Does anyone else remember the 2004 election when Dan Rather was busted for using fraudulent documents as the basis for a major story, and how he defended himself by claiming the documents were "fake but accurate?" We all had a good laugh at his expense and he ultimately lost his job.

With the UVA rape story turning out to be a hoax, Lena Dunham exposed as the white Tawana Brawley, and the media penning non-ironic editorials about how the truth and the facts don't matter because social justice, it turns out Rather was simply too far ahead of the curve. Sure, innocent men may have their lives ruined, but as another great Social Justice Warrior once said, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Monday, December 8, 2014

On the Immaculate Conception

Today is a Holy Day of Obligation, so Catholics need to go to Mass. The Novus Ordo readings include the account of Adam and Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit. God punishes the serpent thus:
Then the LORD God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this, you shall be banned
from all the animals
and from all the wild creatures;
on your belly shall you crawl,
and dirt shall you eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel.”
That is the New American Bible translation. The venerable Douay-Rheims puts it like this:
And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.
The Latin says "ipsa" and so is rendered "she" in English. Some of the Fathers read it as "ipsum," or "he." In the latter sense, it is the woman's seed, Jesus Christ, that will crush the serpent. In the former example, the woman, understood to be the Virgin Mary, is the one who crushes the serpent. It's an old chestnut of Protestant polemics that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary. Whatever virtues Mary possesses come from the unique graces she received from God. Whatever homage we pay to the Virgin Mary is reflected upon her son, Jesus Christ, from whom all virtue springs.

The way I describe the fall of the angels to children is thus: "God, in his infinite power and wisdom, showed his entire plan of salvation to his angels. Being of preternatural intelligence, angels understand everything at once as opposed to us natural human beings who learn things through linear progression. Lucifer was the most beautiful and powerful of the angels. When he heard that the angels were expected to be helpmates to human beings, when he saw that God would become incarnate and be born through a woman, he balked. 'You expect us magnificent angels to bow down before these... these filthy apes whom you've made from the mud and the slime?! Non serviam!' It was then that St. Michael the Archangel bellowed, 'Who is like God?!' The war in heaven ended when Michael grabbed the traitor Lucifer and power-bombed him spine first onto a fire hydrant so hard that he and his fellow rebels were sucked all the way down into the fiery pit where they remain to this day."

Tradition holds that what really ground Lucifer's gears was the idea that a human woman was to be the greatest of God's creatures. It was offensive enough to him that God was to become man, but to expect that he, Lucifer, would acknowledge a creature to be greater than himself was too much. Anecdotes from exorcists suggest that demons particularly hate invoking the intercession of Mary. She is the greatest of saints and her intercession is uniquely powerful among the saints. If you think loving Mary detracts from the love of God, remember that it's impossible for any of us to love her as much as her son Jesus Christ loved her. Catholics are not bound to believe private revelations, but when the Church hold that private revelations such as Fatima or Lourdes are "worthy of belief," the wise Catholic will listen to what Mary tells us.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Pope Bl. Pius IX's proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Today is also the 150th anniversary of that same pontiff's "Syllabus of Errors." The Syllabus isn't dogma, but one dearly wishes churchmen still talked like Pio Nono.

Seasons Beatings: Be There or Go to Hell!