When debate becomes “intolerant”

When debate becomes “intolerant”

To paraphrase Fulton Sheen, the modern world is not suffering from intolerance. It is suffering from tolerance. In a turn of events which is as bizarre as it is predictable (thanks George Orwell!), tolerance is now shutting down debate.

In today’s Daily Telegraph, Miranda Devine enumerates some recent attempts to stifle debate about same-sex ‘marriage.’

The intimidation and silencing of contrary voices in the same sex marriage debate is despicable and desperate.

The forced resignation of Mozilla’s CEO Brendan Eich after he was discovered to have once donated $1,000 to a political campaign against same-sex marriage is a case in point.

So is the taxpayer funded SBS’ refusal to run a gentle 30-second advertisement in favour of traditional marriage during its Mardi Gras coverage.

And the compulsory mediation Toowoomba physician David van Gend was forced to attend after he wrote an article saying a baby deserves both a mother and a father.

The latest targets of militant gay thought police are the Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who told an Italian magazine this month: “The only family is the traditional one.”

The condemnation was immediate, with an outraged Sir Elton John calling for a boycott.

It takes gay people to come out and say what straight people are too intimidated to say.

On Facebook last week, I posted a couple of lines on the Dolce & Gabbana media storm which elicited quite an impassioned, and increasingly tedious, comment thread.

For the most part, the online ‘debate’ was civil. There were a small number of comments which were mildly offensive, but instead of starting a flame war, the aggrieved parties protested and got on with their lives. In the world of Facebook and Twitter, that’s a real gift!

Nonetheless, I terminated the whole thread when one commenter started accusing another commenter of homophobia. I happen to know that the alleged ‘homophobe’ is a gay man, who lives with his boyfriend, and sympathises with some but not all of the queer agenda. His accuser is a heterosexual who apparently sympathises with much more of the queer agenda. This is what ‘tolerance’ has come to. Straight people calling gay people ‘homophobes’ because they are not sufficiently radical.

The good news in all of this is that I received many private Facebook messengers from participants and onlookers both. These private dialogues were much more constructive and, I must say, also more interesting, than the public thread.

The lesson I learnt from this? Although the public debate I started occasionally strayed into the offensive, and often strayed from the rational, people apparently noticed that my contributions were neither offensive nor irrational. Moreover, my remarks, which related nothing more than long-standing and sound Catholic doctrine, elicited surprise and curiosity. That’s the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. It may not be universally acclaimed — much less accepted — but it is always intriguing.

I don’t like polemics. Which is to say I do like polemics — because who doesn’t? — but I don’t like that polemics can harden people against ideas. I’ve dedicated my life to not only serving the Truth, but also sharing the Truth, so I avoid polemics. But I think I should be less wary of provocative debate. In fact I think the need for the latter is growing.

Down with tolerance. Long live debate!

Heart of God; foot of the cross

Heart of God; foot of the cross

One of my parishes is building a new parish school.

One task before the principal is to furnish the school with Christian images and symbols.

He advises that the Establishment has moved away from crucifixes because it distresses some children.

Many schools have an image of the risen Jesus sort of floating in front of the cross:



Neither of us were very keen on that idea because it too obviously sanitises one of the most important parts of our faith. We’ll probably end up with images of Jesus the Good Shepherd, or maybe the Holy Family.

That conversation raises something interesting though. The crucifix is perhaps the preeminent image in our Catholic tradition. Most of us would have a crucifix in the home. The crucifix certainly has a prominent place in this church, and in every Catholic church.

Why the crucifix? Why not the resurrection? 

I think today’s Gospel answers that question. It starts with some Greek-speaking visitors to Jerusalem who would like to meet Jesus. The Lord’s response to this request is unexpected.

He could have said, “Sure, introduce us.” But instead he launches into a long discourse about the hour of the Son of Man. It comes across as an elaborate refusal. The visitors, it seems, are rebuffed — until we get to his conclusion:

“And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I shall draw all men to myself.”

So in the end, the Lord is actually granting their request to see him. Jesus in fact wants everyone to find him; to know him and love him on the cross.

It’s no accident that the crucifix looms so large in Catholic imagery. It’s in direct response to today’s Gospel. The crucifix is the great revelation of the heart of God. It exposes a heart blazing with so much love that it is pierced for our sake; it stops beating for our sake. God dies for our sake.

The Lord wants us to approach him on the cross. It is from there that he draws us to himself. Some time or other, you fill find yourself there, at the foot of the cross.

It is desolate, but it is not peaceful. It resembles the eye of a diabolical storm. You might be conscious of hellish howls; frightful thoughts; violent passions. But the predominant feature of Calvary is an oppressive absence of God. Abandonment. The foot of the cross is dark. There is no light; no warmth; no reprieve. 

You will pray to God, and to the saints, for the saints are there, surrounding Our Lady, and St John, and St Mary Magdalene. But the more you pray to them for help, the more they will lift and press you into that cross, against its splinters and sharp edges. You may cry out in pain, but they are apparently indifferent.

Why does it happen? Because Jesus is on that cross, and they are lifting you up towards him.

“When I am lifted up from the earth,
I shall draw all men to myself.”

This is a great privilege he gives us: to share his cross. But it is as painful for us as it was for him.

It is a shame that the crucifix is increasingly banished from many Catholic schools (not to mention Catholic hospitals). However, I think the reasons for it are substantial.

There are some students who might be distressed by the image of Jesus, nailed to the cross. I’m conscious that there are some little ones who are very wary — even frightened — by the two angels in our church hall!

The fact is, in most of my parish schools, there is a large crucifix in a prominent position at the school entrance. But it’s also a fact that for some of our students, school is the only place where they find safety and stability.

Warmth, security, affection — these are precisely the qualities our Church should provide, because these are the qualities of the heart of God. The heart we see on the cross.

Unconditional love;
conditional mercy

Unconditional love; conditional mercy

A friend of mine shared this story, but my friend is a lawyer, so I’ll leave it to you to judge how true it is. (With apologies to any lawyers reading.)

My friend is a lawyer in Sydney; an expert in family law. One day an elderly couple visited his office — both were in their 80s, and they were married nearly 60 years. They wanted to divorce. My friend was startled. Why divorce now, after so many years?

The couple explained. Divorce would only formalise a long-standing reality. There was no animosity. Just a gradual drifting apart after the children left home. They lived in the same house, but they lived separately. They had separate bedrooms. They prepared their meals separately. They ate separately. They could go days without even seeing each other.

My friend agreed to assist them on one condition. For one month, they must not cook for themselves, or clean their own dishes, or even make themselves a cup of tea. When they prepared a meal or a snack, it must be for the other person. When they made a cup of tea, it must be for the other person.

A month passed, but the couple did not return. Several years later, my friend ran into the wife at a shopping centre. (He had forgotten about the case, but she recognised him and approached him.)

After introductions, he asked how her husband was. “He died last year,” she replied. “But if he was here, he would thank you. Our final years resembled our first years — doing everything for each other, and nothing for ourselves. We changed our minds about the divorce. Your advice revived our marriage.”


Not every marriage is so easily salvaged. Not every divorce is so simply diverted.

Remember, too, that divorce is not always and everywhere sinful. Technically speaking, in the Catholic view of things there’s no such thing as divorce. Marriage is a permanent union, which only death can terminate. But there are many valid reasons for a couple to separate. Physical violence is one reason. Emotional violence is another. There’s a long list. Jesus prohibits remarriage, but he doesn’t condemn separation, which is often a necessary remedy. Divorce is an evil — it’s a terrible scourge, that causes a lot of suffering — but that doesn’t imply divorcees are bad.

I would hate for anyone to be offended by the story I just told. I’d hate for anyone to feel judged for not persevering in an unhappy marriage.

The purpose of the story is not to offer a quick fix to divorce. The purpose of the story is to illustrate the foundation of the marriage covenant: a radical spirit of service — doing everything for someone else, even at personal cost. That’s not just a working definition of the marriage covenant. It’s a comprehensive definition of love: “To love is to will the good of another.”

Love is not a business transaction: “I give to you so that you give to me.” Love is one way: “I give because I give.” Every single one of us is called to live this spirit of service.

“Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; love your neighbor as yourself.”

But I’ve honed in on marriage because marriage is a sacramental relationship. The spirit of service between a husband and wife is an embodiment of Christ’s love for the Church; God’s love for humanity. Holy marriage lives out what we hear in today’s Readings.

  • In the Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” Giving, without an expectation of receiving.
  • In the Second Reading: “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy . . . It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God.” Giving, without an expectation of receiving.
  • Even in the First Reading, which describes not just God’s mercy, but God’s wrath: “The Lord roused the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation” which restored the Promised Land. Giving, without an expectation of receiving.

All of this can be described as the unconditional love of God. God’s love is unconditional. It’s good for us to repeat that to ourselves. Paul labours the point. We can’t earn God’s love. It is a free gift, given to us because, “We are God’s work of art.

God perfects what we really struggle to imitate. All of us resemble that old couple, who at one point did nothing for each other, but who rediscovered happiness when they did everything for the other without expectation of return. I think this is “the good life” Paul refers to in the Second Reading.

But about the wrath of God described in the First Reading? And what about our Lord’s ominous words in the Gospel?

“Whoever refuses to believe is condemned . . . Men have shown they prefer darkness to the light . . . everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it.”

That light is the mercy of God. God’s love is unconditional; God’s mercy is not. There is one condition attached to God’s mercy: our assent. We have to be willing to step into the light. We’re free to stay in the darkness; to wallow in our sins.

Pope Francis has just announced a Holy Year of Mercy which will begin this November. He has framed his entire pontificate around mercy. He wants the world to know that the Lord’s mercy is attractive! The light is painful for a moment when we emerge form darkness, but only for a moment. Then the light is something we can bask in.

Let’s pray for the success of this project. Let’s pray for ourselves; that we will bask in the Lord’s mercy. That we are people who live in the light, and that by word and deed, we invite others into the light.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

Righteous anger versus wrath

Righteous anger versus wrath

When a man applies to join the seminary, one of the hoops he jumps through is a psychological assessment. The Church doesn’t want anyone too strange becoming a priest. Which is ironic, because the psychologist I saw was one of the strangest men I’ve ever met.

My appointment was at 2pm, and I rang the doorbell right on the dot, but the psychologist was surprised to see me! He said I was due at 2:30. I later learned that the other seminarians went through the same thing. I think he wanted to know how we’d react to a socially awkward situation.

After I apologised for the “mix up,” I was left in his study while he tidied up in the kitchen. I was left waiting for about ten minutes. Again, I later learned that all the other seminarians went through the same thing. I like to imagine that he had a peephole built into the eyes of an oil painting, so that he could watch what I did while I waited. When he returned, he observed me for a while, and then he said, “You have a young-looking face. Even when you are 60, you’ll look 20 years younger than you are.” What are you supposed to say to something like that??

The psychological assessment took an hour. First there was an ink blot test. Then I was shown photos of people from the 1950s, and asked to indicate if they were ugly, average, or good-looking. Then he read out phrases, and I had to reply with the first thing that came to mind.

Eventually, he declared that I was “boringly normal.” But he did add that I have a volcanic temper. “You don’t lose your temper often,” he said, “but when you do, you blow your stack.” I’d never experienced that before. I didn’t agree with him. But I thanked him, went on my way, and obviously I was accepted into the seminary.

About 2 years later, the psychologist was completely vindicated. Something happened which filled me with white hot rage. I didn’t get violent, but I struggled to sleep at night. I struggled to concentrate during the day. Anger clouded my vision and monopolised my thoughts.

I consulted a priest — as you do. He was excellent. As I told my story, he didn’t interrupt, and he never told me to calm down. I was so angry I swore — which I never did, especially in the company of a priest! But he didn’t flinch.

At the end of my spiel, the first thing he spoke of was “righteous anger.” He invoked today’s Gospel. Jesus “is like us in all things but sin.” And yet in the cleansing of the Temple we see him angry. Violently angry. That demonstrates that anger is not, in itself, sinful. It’s easy to forget that. People often confess anger as though it’s a sin. But it’s not always. Righteous anger is a thing. Sometimes, justice compels us to be angry. Certainly, it compelled our Lord.

When I hear or read today’s Gospel, my mind always goes back to that conversation with a good priest in the midst of my anger. What he said next is also important. Having identified the righteousness of my anger, he also identified wrath: one of the seven deadly sins. And with that, he donned a purple stole, and declared it was time for confession.

I had to pause a moment and examine my conscience. What is the difference between righteous anger, which even Jesus exercised, and wrath, which is a deadly sin? With the Holy Spirit’s help, I discerned the answer, because when we approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation in good faith, the Holy Spirit will always assist us. (Guaranteed!)

Righteous anger is godly; it derives from justice. Wrath is ungodly; it excludes mercy. And there is the crux. In God, we find infinite Justice and infinite Mercy. There’s tension between them, but they’re not opposed. On the contrary: in God, justice and mercy are perfectly united; two sides to the one coin. But in our human frailty, justice and mercy can be opposed. And wrath is just one example of what that opposition looks like.

There’s a reason wrath is called a deadly sin. Its fruits are toxic. In my case, it caused inestimable damage to several relationships. Years later, those relationships are salvaged, but scarred. Nonetheless, despite its lasting damage, I don’t regret that terrible experience. Which brings me to today’s Second Reading — one of my favourites. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul describes Christ crucified as “an obstacle” to the Jewish mind and “madness” to the pagan mind. But to the Christian mind, the crucifixion is “the power and the wisdom of God.”

In his second letter to the same, St Paul elaborates on what he wrote in his first letter: God’s power is made perfect in our weakness; when we are weak, then God is strong.

The wrath which afflicted me — the deadly sin which I committed — diminished me. It hurt people I love, and it cut me off from God’s friendship. But in confession, I was reconciled with God. And the grace that flowed from that helped me to repudiate the spirit of wrath, forgive my friends, and enable them to forgive me. That healing, unlike the absolution it flowed from, wasn’t instantaneous. It happened slowly, painfully, but inexorably.

Many years later, there are still scars, because grave sins always leave scars. They aren’t healed in this life — some things have to wait for the next. But in the meantime these scars we all carry are assets. Paul even suggests we boast of them, because in these God’s power is made perfect.

In my case, that terrible, unforgettable experience gives me insight into other people’s struggles with wrath and unforgiveness. And I have insight into righteous anger too, and how to discern that from wrath. All of which helps me to counsel others as I was once counselled. But most importantly, it keeps me humble. I know that I have to struggle to be like the Lord: slow to anger, rich in mercy.

This is just one example of how weakness — even sinfulness — can strengthen us. Not automatically! It’s never automatic. We have to pray through our weakness. We have to approach Christ, on his cross, and suffer with him. But when we do that, our wounds become fountains of grace. In and through the cross, we’re able to bless the people around us. And we can say with St Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Fr Henry Nickel, RIP

Fr Henry Nickel, RIP

Please pray for Fr Henry Nickel, SVD, who died this morning.

Fr Henry is one of the priests who loomed large in my childhood. He was never in my own parish in Ballarat East, but he moved to the cathedral when I was nine years old, so he was a familiar priestly presence.

I long identified him with Pope John Paul II. They shared a close physical resemblance — at least to my child’s eye — and they were both Polish. Their accents, though, were very different. Fr Henry was much harder to understand. Perhaps because of that, I listened closely at his Masses.

Fr Henry always prefaced ex tempore remarks with, “My dear people,” and his homilies were liberally peppered with the same. When he preached he exhorted, so even at a young age I differentiated him from most other priests, who tended not to exhort but to instruct. Popes exhort too. Another resemblance between Fr Henry and his compatriot!

In the first month of my priesthood, I lived and worked at the Ballarat cathedral. The first weeks after priestly ordination are filled with wonder and awe. Fr Henry dined late at night, and I would often share a drink with him, which allowed me to debrief. Those conversations demonstrated his great love for the priesthood, but this was even more evident in his spirit of service and his generosity.

I would add, too, that Fr Henry was a man who “thought with the mind of the Church.” That’s not easy, because the mind of the Church is really the mind of God, and our human minds naturally settle for narrower horizons.

When Fr Henry departed Australia last year, Fr Gary Jones — another priest I remember as a child, who did live in my parish! — wrote a warm tribute. It is timely.

Evelyn Waugh and Fr John Hardon

Evelyn Waugh and Fr John Hardon

Why, an astute readers asks, does Fr John Hardon nominate A Handful of Dust as one of Evelyn Waugh’s specially recommended works?

This is a good question, especially since Waugh’s later, explicitly Catholic Sword of Honour trilogy, is not included in Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan. What’s going on here?

First, I think it’s fair to consider what Fr Hardon has to say about Evelyn Waugh. My copy of The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan finally arrived, and I think everybody should track down a copy. It is so much more than a list of books, as I think his treatment of Waugh shows. Fr Hardon writes:

Most of Evelyn Waugh’s writing was done after his conversion in 1930. By his own estimate, Brideshead Revisited is his best book. This is the story of a great British Catholic family through the decades between the two world wars. When critics found fault with the novel’s strong religious atmosphere, Waugh admitted that some people would be outraged “at God being introduced into my story. I believe you can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.” Modern novelists “try to represent the whole human mind and soul, and yet omit its determining character — that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style; and the attempt to represent man more fully — which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.”

Fr Hardon then turns his attention to Waugh’s biographies, which are nearly as good as his novels, before concluding:

Evelyn Waugh’s writings reveal an author who had a deep sense of history. But he also had keen foresight. His books show every promise of being ‘relevant’ beyond the twentieth century.

Specially recommended:

  • Brideshead Revisited
  • A Handful of Dust
  • Edmund Campion

It’s perhaps worth noting that although Waugh considered Brideshead Revisited his masterpiece for several decades, in his final years he was embarrassed by its excess, and settled on Helena as his greatest novel.

Helena is an historical novel, focused on St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Helen was no mystic, and was afflicted with the sort of character defects and bad habits which Waugh identified in himself (and which you and I see too, when we gaze at the proverbial mirror). But Helen is a canonised saint because of her work in the Holy Land. She devoted much or her life, and her wealth, locating the places which were significant in the life of Christ, and recovering relics like the true cross. Helen’s was a “practical faith,” which recognised that Christianity is incarnational. Helena an interesting study of sacramentality and holiness. But it’s not as good as Brideshead, or Sword of Honour, or A Handful of Dust, so not many people share Waugh’s appraisal that it’s his masterpiece.

Back to Fr Hardon’s appraisal. It’s good to remember that his Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan includes a comprehensive biography, which includes all the works in print and in English written by the 104 authors he profiles. So the book list I have prepared, which derives from Fr Hardon’s Reading Plan, is not only minimalist, but also arbitrary — perhaps unfairly so. Fr Hardon’s list is really a list of authors whom he writes about, not book titles.

It’s telling that his entry on Waugh is so focused on the religiosity of Waugh’s novels. It’s no wonder he “specially recommends” Brideshead Revisited. I’m very surprised Fr Hardon does not include the Sword of Honour trilogy, which in some ways is a more successful study of “man in his relation to God.”

But apart from all that, why does Fr Hardon include A Handful of Dust in a Catholic reading plan? My theory is this: although A Handful of Dust is not explicitly Christian, and really a study of humanism, not religion, it is nonetheless a brilliant and profound study of morality. I didn’t mention this in my previous post because you can’t mention everything, but this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Indeed, this is part of Waugh’s unique genius. But that’s another post. Maybe for tomorrow.


Depressing and hilarious all at once

Depressing and hilarious all at once

A Handful of Dust lived up to my expectations of mirth. You may recall that I laughed out loud reading the first page, and there are many more such moments.

But I can also add that Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is one of — if not the — most distressing book I’ve ever read. An alternative title might be, The Death of a Marriage.

The first part of the novel describes the grim detail of marital infidelity. I’m not talking about sex scenes. Waugh’s a better author than that. I’m talking about the passive-aggressive manipulation which confuses the innocent party, and the rationalisation and self-deception which afflicts the traitorous party. It is a compelling and excruciating portrait of infidelity, even in the midst of comic hilarity.

Halfway through this novel I realised it is probably semi-autobiographical. Evelyn Waugh’s wife and his best friend had an affair which most of his circle learned about before he did. In fact, he learned of the affair only when his wife left him. I think the suffering and humiliation Waugh endured is given masterful expression in A Handful of Dust. (In the aftermath, depressed and overwhelmed, Waugh swam out to sea one night intending not to return. But his suicide attempt was thwarted by a stinging jellyfish attack which forced him back to shore. Is it any wonder Waugh is a master of black humour?)

Nonetheless, although the death of the protagonist’s marriage is harrowing, the plot actually gets even more depressing. Waugh kills off one of the novel’s most attractive characters, and he subjects another to a torturous fate worse than death. Again, all in the midst of comic hilarity!

As every reader knows, the measure of a good book is the feeling which comes when you finish it. If you’re sorry that it’s ended, and wish there was more, and wander around desolate for a while, then you know you’ve read a good book. In the case of A Handful of Dust, I was glad it was finished, wished I’d never read it, and resolved to recommend it to nobody.

And yet, in the days since I’ve finished A Handful of Dust, my thoughts have returned again and again to the book’s characters and themes. That’s not the measure of a good book. That’s the measure of a great book — the sort of book you can and will re-read every decade or so.

So in the end I do recommend A Handful of Dust, whole-heartedly. I concur with its popular recognition as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. But I completely reject the suggestion that it is Waugh’s masterpiece. Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy eclipse it.

The three titles have a great deal in common. They document and critique the decline of western culture and the rise of modernity in all its banality and viciousness. But where Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour extol Catholicism as a glowing exception, a bastion of order holding out against chaos, A Handful of Dust barely mentions religion. Its focus is secular humanism of the noblest kind — the kind exemplified in Charles Dickens. Nonetheless, this humanism is no bastion: it is exposed as deficient and unworthy. A Handful of Dust endorses the Christian tradition, but only implicitly.

I can understand why the secular reader would prefer A Handful of Dust. It shares many themes with Brideshead Revisited and A Sword of Honour, and the economy and richness of Waugh’s prose is a joy. Moreover, it makes no demands on the reader’s faith, or their view of the Catholic religion.

Yet what Waugh achieves in A Handful of Dust is perfected in his later novels, where the negative gives way to the positive. So I can’t imagine a Catholic reader anywhere who would prefer A Handful of Dust to his explicitly Catholic novels. But perhaps I’m wrong. I’d like to hear it if I am.


Incidentally, there is a film adaption you can view online, but as one YouTube commenter remarks, it’s “dead boring.” Moreover, it’s probably inscrutable to anyone who hasn’t read the book first.