Monday, March 12, 2018

What Would an Ecclesiocentric Society Look Like?

For the past several centuries, Western man has been constructing bit by bit an anthropocentric society, in opposition to the theocentric society of the Middle Ages—that period when the mystery of the Incarnation permeated the intellectual, cultural, and social fabric as fully as it is ever likely to do short of the Parousia. Pope Leo XIII memorably described this Christian phase of the West in his encyclical letter Immortale Dei of 1885:
There was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. Then it was that the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society. Then, too, the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, established firmly in befitting dignity, flourished everywhere, by the favor of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates; and Church and State were happily united in concord and friendly interchange of good offices. The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits important beyond all expectation, whose remembrance is still, and always will be, in renown, witnessed to as they are by countless proofs which can never be blotted out or ever obscured by any craft of any enemies. Christian Europe has subdued barbarous nations, and changed them from a savage to a civilized condition, from superstition to true worship. It victoriously rolled back the tide of Mohammedan conquest; retained the headship of civilization; stood forth in the front rank as the leader and teacher of all, in every branch of national culture; bestowed on the world the gift of true and many-sided liberty; and most wisely founded very numerous institutions for the solace of human suffering. And if we inquire how it was able to bring about so altered a condition of things, the answer is, beyond all question, in large measure through religion, under whose auspices so many great undertakings were set on foot, through whose aid they were brought to completion. (n. 21)
Leo XIII goes on to say that this state of affairs could have peacefully continued if the two powers, the civil and the ecclesiastical, “kingdom and priesthood,” had continued to cooperate towards the common good, both natural and supernatural. Yet rebellion is always possible in beings with free will, whom God does not compel to stand in the blessings they have, but who, like Lucifer and Adam, may throw away their glory out of disordered self-love:
But that harmful and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth century threw first of all into confusion the Christian religion, and next, by natural sequence, invaded the precincts of philosophy, whence it spread amongst all classes of society. From this source, as from a fountainhead, burst forth all those later tenets of unbridled license which, in the midst of the terrible upheavals of the last century, were wildly conceived and boldly proclaimed as the principles and foundation of that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law. (n. 23)
To use a phrase of Max Picard, the “flight from God” had begun: the ecclesial order, the political order, the moral order, the very order of reason—each would be compromised and corrupted as the West drifted ever further from its foundational principles. Several major decisions of the US Supreme Court may be taken as symbolic of this descent into madness: Roe vs. Wade, Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, Obergefell vs. Hodges. Is my description exaggerated? Let’s see: if a human being is not a human being just because of its age and location, if everyone has the right to make up reality, and if a man may marry a man or a woman a woman, then I think, if anything, that my description suffers from drastic understatement.

I was thinking about these things while perusing specimens of Austrian Notgeld sent to my son by an old family friend. During and after World War I, Austria was in an economic crisis. The metal out of which coins would have been made had been dedicated to the war effort, where it was more needed. To remedy the lack of currency, bank notes were printed both by the state and by individual towns in the period from ca. 1914–1922. Many towns thus ended up printing their own currency, called Notgeld, “emergency money” or “necessity money.” Although mostly printed on paper, some Notgeld was made out of leather, linen, aluminum foil, wood, compressed coal dust, even porcelain.

Of the hundred or so in my son’s collection, a surprisingly high proportion depict the town center with its Catholic church and prominent steeple, or other religious imagery. Here, in artifacts less than a century old, we find vivid testimonies of a Catholic society—one still attuned to the centrality of the Church and her Faith, and, in more subtle ways, attuned to the primacy of order, nature, and beauty. This highly practical item, a piece of paper currency, nevertheless bore witness to the transcendent realities that nourished the people beyond food and drink. Even in that which was practical and ephemeral, Austrians wanted to pay homage to what was primary and eternal.

I shall present a number of striking examples here, and more at the end.

There is a lesson for us in these colorful bits of paper money. As the English artist Eric Gill frequently pointed out, we have grown accustomed not only to a complete separation of the sacred from the secular, but also to a complete separation of the beautiful from the useful. We expect secular items to be absolutely secular, with no hint of the spiritual; the idea of Christian symbols on kitchen utensils, plates, or aprons, let alone paper money, would strike many as odd, if not actually immoral. Similarly, the useful items we make are generally plain and unremarkable if not positively ugly; seldom, if ever, do they make reference to God or to higher ideals. Efficiency, cheapness, interchangeability are the new ideals—and they are a poor substitute for the old ones. Not surprisingly, the realm of the beautiful has shrunk so that it now seems an ethereal exception, a quirky eccentricity, a luxury.

As Joseph Ratzinger often lamented, this spirit of thoroughgoing utilitarianism together with a skepticism towards the beautiful has crept into the arena of the liturgy, too. We want to “get done with Mass” as quickly as possible. We want things that are “affordable.” We spend enormous amounts on ourselves but count pennies when it comes to churches, furnishings, vestments, music books, musicians, and other necessities. That a pastor would place the category of beauty at the top of his list of priorities for a parish is almost unheard-of. Yet the cultivation of liturgical excellence and serving the poor are the two most pleasing things we can do for the Lord—the one for His sake, just because of Who He is and what He deserves, the other for men made in His image, which also redounds to His glory. Hence, the omission of the former is not merely a regrettable oversight, but is the epitome of practical atheism, the infallible indicator of “religion without religion.”

St. Josemaría Escrivá wrote these apposite words in The Way:
That woman in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany, anointing the Master’s head with precious ointment, reminds us of the duty to be generous in the worship of God. All the richness, majesty, and beauty possible would seem too little to me. And against those who attack the richness of sacred vessels, of vestments and altars, we hear the praise given by Jesus: opus enim bonum operata est in me—“she has done me a good turn.” (#527)
All of this was going through my mind when I read the following verses from Haggai the prophet, a little book that packs a punch for modern utilitarians busy about their commerce:
 2 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: This people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD."
 3 Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet,
 4 "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
 5 Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
 6 You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages earns wages to put them into a bag with holes.
 7 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
 8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory, says the LORD.
 9 You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves each with his own house.
 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.
 11 And I have called for a drought upon the land and the hills, upon the grain, the new wine, the oil, upon what the ground brings forth, upon men and cattle, and upon all their labors." (Hag 1:2-11 RSV)
Many examples of Austrian Notgeld may be found in the following images.

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