Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Great Transofrmations

I was reading an article on the G20 – but for what I have to say it could have been about almost anything – when I was hit by a reference to the "great transformations of the Nineties". Mind me, nothing conspicuous about it, it was just that it stirred in me an unfavorable recollection.

To speak about the accelerated transformation of present day society is a common place of our times.

Hard to die. Nobody noticing that we have been saying that since I don't know when, so marking our society with an unchanging character.

I must say, as student of cultural anthropology, that I didn't draw from it a lesson of relativism. I did learn from it to relativise myself as man of my time; but this was rather a stimulus to look for constants in human affairs, and discover how, in spite of all seeming evidence to the contrary, men have not changed in their nature. Save of course for the change brought by divine grace through Jesus Christ: a change, though, that non tollit sed perficit naturam.

The unfavorable stir in my memory provoked by that article, brought back to the surface the "wind of the Sixties", of which I spoke some time ago. We were really convinced that a new era was dawning. Unfortunately we find traces of the cultural mood of that time also in the Second Vatican Council: in what now appears to me its soft spot, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in today's world Gaudium and spes.

There I read: "Humanity lives today a new period of her history, characterized by profound and quick changes that are progressively extended to the whole universe" (GS n° 4).

Did they, the Council fathers, really believe that?


Monday, September 28, 2009

When the Pope Gets Back...

I'll be posting a lengthy recap of the Pope's speeches, homilies, etc.

Until then, bear with me.

Things have been slow, I know, but they will pick up.

HP, thanks for holding the fort!


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Are conservatism and liberalism opposite ideologies?

I say

I like the word, adjective and noun, conservative. It implies that there was good in our past and that it needs preserving.

I also like, though, the adjective and noun liberal. It evokes liberty and liberality, the generosity of a free man.

I dislike them both when they become labels for set political positions, well defined ideologies, opposing models of what social life is all about.

Actually, I should say that also the word ideology didn't always have a bad ring. This was given to it by Karl Marx, when he used it to brand his philosophical and political adversaries, and was later on taken up by these to retort the same blame on him: in an ongoing "you are an ideologist", calling for "ideologist are you".

Ideology, literally taken, is analyzable into the classical -logy of many words designating a science (e.g. geology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology) and ideas. It's a good word then: it would be nothing less than the science of ideas.

How could become then the name par excellence of the wrong way of thinking, anti-science?

The trouble is that ideas alone don't make knowledge: this requires also the impact of reality. As for a physicist, who to formulate a theory needs two things irreducible the one to the other: mathematical equations and experiments, so to account with the first for the latter.

The temptation, on the contrary, is to want to transfer our ideas onto reality (or also to make them emerge from reality, which is just the reverse). Giving in to this temptation gave to "ideology" its bad reputation.

Another thing is to be able, instead, to perceive ideas in reality, as what makes reality intelligible. Need I to add that this is the way of science, be it physical or political?


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Neo-cons, cons and liberals

Irving Kristol died Friday night, aged 89. He was godfather, so to speak, of neoconservatism.

The label of "neoconservative" was disparagingly given to him in 1973 by a political adversary, but he liked it and made it his own.

Here there is a subtle terminological question. The prefix "neo" was supposed to distinguish him from those who defined themselves "conservative" by a staunch ideological defense of the free market as capable of self regulation, in opposition to "liberals" who thought necessary a more or less strong State intervention to regulate it.

I'd like to advert the American reader of a peculiar difference between the Italian and the English use of the word liberal: "liberali" were in fact called in Italy those who in the States are called "conservative" in the ideological sense I just signaled. Keeping this in mind, that between conservatives and liberals there is a dispute internal to liberalism, that ideologically doesn't go beyond the temporal range of the Nineteenth and the Twentieth century.

Both appear to grant, as a matter of fact, the primacy of the economy.

Not so Kristol: more than the economy, he stressed the importance of culture and tradition. He was in this a true conservative, in the meaning of the word that I like, i.e. of one who wants to keep what is worth keeping. But he was also a true liberal, if we give to the word the meaning that it has when we speak of a "liberal (i.e. non servile) education".

In any case, neoconservatism culturally permeated American politics, so that even its adversaries took from it. Such is the case of President Obama. We can well say that if he hadn't adopted some neocon themes, he would have never been elected.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two key words

I want to be outrageous:

To tell the difference between Islam and Christianity in a nutshell. In two words, literally: the two key words that name them.

Islam, Christ.

What do they mean?

Islam means submission: the image it evokes is that of a sovereign, under whom stand all people as his subjects.

Christ means anointed: the image it evokes requires a few words more of explanation.

In the Old Testament the kings of Israel were anointed with perfumed oil, which made them brilliant and smelling of good. Anointment, chrisma, was then the sign of election by the only sovereign to represent him among the people.

To call Jesus Christos was to proclaim him king.

Now, his followers are called Christians, but they are actually themselves christoi: at baptism, in fact, and again at confirmation, they receive the chrisma.

The image then is not of people commanded to submit themselves to the sovereign, but called by him to share of his sovereign kingship.


Why women?

I realize that the other day I left something out. In facing the question of Islam and apostasy, I didn't deal with the fact that the news concerned women.

The numbers are frightful. Der Spiegel reports that in Germany at least fifty women have been killed because of the relations they entertained (friendship or love) with non Muslims. I also read that for London the number is of a least twelve a year. Not to mention are the cases of girls who are for the same reason pushed to suicide by the family. On the whole, in Europe are counted thousands of Muslim girls who disappear, having allegedly left for a journey abroad, never to be seen again. And so on, with a sequel of horror stories.

The question then is: why women?

To give an exact answer from the Muslim point of view, one should be an expert of sharia, the Islamic law (fixed in its main schools around the year 1200) that defines for them the religious meaning of Islam.

I am not such an expert. I am, though, quite knowledgeable in comparative anthropology, and I'll try to give an answer on the basis of this.

We are used to think of men and women simply as male and female specimens of the human species. At least, this is the official doctrine of our egalitarian society. As matter of fact, things go rather differently. We always recognize the where from of the people we meet, by their somatic characteristics and still more by the way they speak, dress, behave: so, they are always men and women of a certain country and class, or tribe, clan and family.

We discern differences among people, marked by borders that separate those we are more or less familiar with, from those we are more or less at odds with. And we all know how tense things can become when we cross those borders.

No matter how loose our family ties have become, marriage still requires, for the taboo of incest, the crossing of a threshold. In theory, this simply requires in our system of kinship that we abstain from having sexual intercourse with our most close relatives, essentially, today, father or mother, brother or sister; every other man or woman would be allowed. In practice, however, we have always known that it is not a good idea to go too far to find a mate, otherwise we could run into trouble.

Actually we run into trouble today also with those who are apparently close enough! This may well owe itself to the fact that we want culturally to ignore the dangers inherent to the crossing of thresholds, reducing all Christian precepts in sexual matters to morality, while not seeing that they indicate precisely the way to avoid tensions and hence troubles.

At the opposite pole of the spectrum from the indifference commanded by today's lassitude in sexual mores, stand Muslims, who, even when living in the Western world, are very jealous of their women.

The eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas suggested, in some books of hers published more than thirty-five years ago – Purity and danger and Natural symbols – a possible way for understanding why. She showed, on the basis of a large comparative evidence, that the tension between people separated by a certain border represent a fear of defilement, i.e. to be polluted.

The position of women in this regard is peculiar: they are in fact the ones through whom new life enters into the society of men, defined by visible or invisible borders. For the same reason, if they have sexual intercourse with people across the border, they can be seen as vehicle of defilement for the society to which they belong.

Something of the kind can be certainly said of the strictly endogamic southern society d'antan, where the border was marked by race. The difference with Muslims is that in this case, if a negro was suspected of having looked at a white woman, he risked to be lynched. With Muslims it's true the reverse: if their women are suspected of getting close to non Muslim men, it's they who risk being killed.

The great divide is here between inside and outside the umma, the community of those who have accepted submission (Islam, literally) to Allah.

But this is a religious reason, it could be objected, not to be confused with a racial one.

In the face of such an objection, I would answer: perhaps; do not then, however, come to tell me anymore that religion is a system of beliefs, that can change while leaving everything else untouched


Friday, September 18, 2009

Great Discussion...

About Catholic universities and the right way to conduct the debate over Catholic identity, over at Matthew Warner's Fallible Blogma.

Matt's place is one at which one will often find opposing views being discussed with great civility.


Thursday, September 17, 2009


I just read of a Ohio girl of 17 running away from her Muslim family for fear of being killed because of her conversion to Christianity.

It might be a coincidence, but today I also heard on the news that here in Italy a girl of 18 was killed by her father because she was dating a catholic Italian boy.

It's not the first time that a thing of this kind happened here. Like the case of an year ago of the two sisters killed by their Egyptian father in Texas for the same motive.

Are these just cases of fanatic deviance, or have something to do with the very nature of Islam, so that it is rather the opposite case of tolerance to be against the rule?

Apostasy is the worst crime for Muslims, I hear, and these facts seem to confirm it.

I wondered why it is so, so that Islam can conceive only of a one way conversion, i.e. to itself, and never from itself.

I answered myself that probably it has to do with the idea that all people are Islamic by nature, they know it or not. Converting to Islam, then, would be like coming to know one's true nature. Hence turning away from it should mean becoming nothing.

Not just that: apostates are a scandalous nothing, that needs to be suppressed.

Isn't it time that we start rethinking our superficial way of looking at religion as belief with no real import in life?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Know the Joy of a Madman!

When MoDo smelled racism in the Hon. Joe Wilson's pitiable display, I simply shrugged and said to myself, "Sure, Mo, that's about right from you, isn't it?" even as I wondered how many it took for her to get there, and how early she started that day (I'm not judging mind you - not this blogger, and certainly not about that). Hers was truly an envelope-pushing experiment in cross-breeding: what do you get when you combine unutterable brazenness with the most abject and irrecuperable paranoia?

Then President Carter upped the ante.

A blissfully ignorant Charles Gibson blithely suggested the ACORN scandal might be "one for the cables" on the day the Senate of the United States voted 83-7 to defund the organization.

Indeed, the sanest statement I've heard all week came from President Obama, himself, and it was made OTR, regarding an obnoxious postar.

Well-said, Mr. President. Well said, indeed.



Thursday, September 10, 2009


There is an Italian word that should alert on who is a king.

But, before telling it, I must remind the reader of one of the main contributions of cultural anthropology to social thinking: the rediscovery of the importance of gift giving as a socio-cultural constant, to be found among all people.

We give and receive gifts, and any accepted gift obliges to reciprocate, so to give thanks for the good things we were given. We don't need to give back to the same people from whom we received, but we can pass on the good received to others, who in turn will pass it on, with the hope that eventually what we have given will return to us.

So, the good we receive can be seen as a return for the good we gave, and vice versa, the good we give as a return for that we received.

Now, in Italian the most used word for gift is regalo: from the same root of rex, it makes of any gift something royal.

That's because the king is at the center of a generalized circulation of goods. Ideally, he doesn't retain anything for himself, but lets all goods flow from him; on the other side, all people honor him as king by bringing back to him their gifts in thanks for what they received. So the goods scattered from him are again recollected in him, and so on, again scattered and recollected in an unceasing cycle.

In gift exchange any man is like a king, at the center of the give and take that makes him a pole of attraction and distribution of good – and of life.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Which do you pick?

Pertinent for religion in the public place.

There are two ways of understanding America, as two different modes of the presence of Europe in America.

It's the same as saying that there are two wys of understanding democracy.

By democracy we can mean that there are no kings, or, instead, that everybody is called to be king.

Which do you pick?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Truth is Out There: in plain sight, as a matter of fact

The title of this LD post is also the title of a post at the blog, On Pilgrimage, which has this entry dealing with the re-emergence of JP I conspiracy theories.

Hat tip to Clayton at The Weight of Glory.


Go See Fr. Longenecker's...

For a terribly funny, "Out of the mouths of babes" take on, "The 'new' Nuns," click here...

Friday, September 04, 2009

The wind of the sixties

It is hard to understand what happened in the sixth decade of last century, inside and outside the Church.

It was undoubtedly a cultural revolution. But why?

We were all swept away by a wave of optimism, which soon turned into bitter disappointment.

Speaking of the Church: Vatican II, instead of the hoped for renewal of Spirit, uniting all Christians in charity, opened the door to the spirit of disunion of a house torn inside by strife.

Outside of the Church, the catchword of the time, "make love not war", came to mean a liberation of sexuality which turned love into a private war.

Of course I exaggerate. But one thing is sure. Publically, we are not able to say any more why a man should love a woman, and vice versa. Our democratic ideology has declared man and woman equal, so that anybody can love anybody, their respective sex making no difference.

By the way, also in San Paul we can find a statement of this tenor, where all differences disappear, and there is no man and woman. But it is only so because they are equal… in Christ: i.e., in the capability of overcoming their limits by the reciprocal gift of life. Which is fecund of new life, thanks to their difference.

That's it: a scientist friend of mine pointed out for me that only there is life in nature where there is difference. Whoever has some notion of physics knows this as the second law of thermodynamics. The beauty of it, is that in such a description of the order of things we can recognize a prescription of how to keep things in order… among ourselves. All bodily differences, of sex and age, become meaningful for our participation in life.

Here you have the sense of natural law, destroyed in the abstract affirmation of all people's equality, indifferent to the things of the body.

Eric Voegelin (mentioned with a long quotation by Lazy Disciple in a previous post) branded all the evil of our time "Gnosticism". I can follow his lead, and recall that one of the main marks of Gnosticism (a religious movement of the early Christian centuries antagonistic to orthodox Christianity) was precisely the demeaning of the body. To which it could be objected that it is right the opposite of what we do, because we don't demean the body, but rather exalt it. But are we sure that that is what we really do? No, I don't think so. The body we appreciate is that, so to speak, of fitness, of fashion and sports magazines. So that all that makes unfit can be a good reason to keep from birth or to accelerate death.

Usually our time is accused of materialism. I'd like to try a different qualification: it not so much materialism that plagues us, but superspiritualism, non identification with one's own body, as way of prticipating to the body politic. It just remains as a kind of biological property, one feels free of using as he pleases.

Superspiritualism was the wind that swept the Sixties.

To say so can help perhaps to understand how come Vatican II had such an unexpected aftermath.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Go Vote "No!" to this Silliness

Fr. Zuhlsdorf alerted me to this:

It seems the bishop of Cincinnati has dismissed a woman religious (described, it would seem, inaccurately, as a "nun" - a term for cloistered religious women, if I am not mistaken) from her teaching duties because she refused to renounce her position in favor of the ordination of women, a position that is directly repugnant to the ordinary magisterium of Holy Mother Church, as the Servant of God, John Paul II recently expressed in Ordinatio sacerdotalis.

The Church does not ordain women because the Church cannot ordain women - the Church has not power to do so, because the priesthood is conferred on males of the species, exclusively, by order of Divine positive law. She has not authority, no competence to change the Divine dispositions.

Go vote "no!"