A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Christmas with Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century. His works have sold millions of copies and been made into award-winning films which introduced many people living decades after Tolkien’s death, myself included, to his wonderful world. Those who are more familiar with his personal life, and particularly with his letters, will also know that not only was he an exceptional artist and brilliant scholar, but he was also a devout and even mystical Catholic. Along with experiencing an epiphanous vision of the Eucharist,[1] he also delivered one of the most beautiful explications of the Eucharist in history:


Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.[2]


However, the connection between Tolkien and Christmas would not be an automatic connection even for many fans of Tolkien. Besides his Letters from Father Christmas, beautiful and thoughtful letters he wrote to his children, Christmas is not mentioned in any of his other works – or is it? In fact, there is a rather explicit and fascinating reference to the Birth of Our Lord in Tolkien’s famous essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’. In this essay, which in itself includes some of Tolkien’s deepest theological insights and should also be required reading for all aspiring artists, particularly writers of fantasy fiction, Tolkien explains his original concept of eucatastrophe. Derived from Greek, Tolkien’s construction essentially means what he calls the “sudden joyous ‘turn’”,[3] that climactic moment in stories (most of all in fairy-stories, the “Consolation of the Happy Ending… its highest function”)[4] throughout history when all appears to be lost, when the good seems defeated and evil triumphant, but suddenly an unexpected “turn” occurs when the good achieves victory from a surprising source. As Tolkien explains, the eucatastrophe is deeply satisfying precisely because it points to the ultimate hope of “final victory”[5] – when Jesus’s enemies will be made His footstool (Mt 22:44 DRA), when death will be defeated at last and the world will be brought to justice and eternal joy by the promised salvation of God, the “Joy beyond the walls of the world” - the Evangelium.[6]


The connection with Christmas comes in during Tolkien’s discussion of this concept. Specifically, Tolkien states that “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”[7] Using Tolkien’s definition for his coined term, this would mean that Christmas, the Birth of Christ, is the “sudden joyous turn” in the story of the human history – with victory coming from the “surprising source” of Christ Himself, the Son of God. Those familiar with the Gospel accounts of the Annunciation and the subsequent events of Jesus’s life during the pregnancy of the Blessed Virgin will see how Tolkien could make this statement. Jesus’s unborn life, like that of many children in our own time, was filled with many difficulties, as well as joys, from the sheer mystery and power of the Annunciation itself, when Mary “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19), to the dilemma of St. Joseph, who thought “to put her away privately” (Mt 1:19) before the angel revealed to him the truth of Mary’s pregnancy, then to the joy of the Visitation when Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her unborn child, St. John the Baptist, recognized the royalty of Mary and the divinity of Christ even before His birth, and finally in the ultimate climax of the arduous journey to Bethlehem, during which any number of dangers could have been met by the Holy Family, and then discovering that the time of Jesus’s birth was at hand, being forced to deliver Him in a cave used to keep animals and resting Him in a feeding trough. Yet, even through all this, the story which could have ended in tragedy instead revealed the fulfillment of the desires of all humanity for God to draw near to us, to wage war against the evils of the world through His divine and omnipotent love.


Tolkien, however, did not say only that the Nativity of Christ was the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation begun at the Annunciation – though that is true as well. Rather, he said that Christmas is the eucatastrophe of human history as a whole. Tolkien understood, like the Magi at Epiphany, that the coming of Christ meant not only the arrival of the prophesied Hebrew Messiah but the advent of Emmanuel, God With Us. This abridgement of the severance between God and humanity caused by sin was the longing not only of ancient Judaism, but of all world religions and of the deepest desires of the human heart. Enslaved to our passions and trapped within the inevitability of death and the loss of all that we treasure, humanity has known even before it became civilized that God alone can rescue us, that through reunion with Him “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:4)


Even beyond this connection, and leading from it, there is another and perhaps even more profound link between ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and Christmas. In Tolkien’s essay, he also introduces another largely original concept, namely sub-creation. Tolkien explains that all human art, the goal of which is to create something truly new and to do so out of love for the sake of the thing made – and of the things used to make, for “a good craftsman loves his materials”[8] - is an imitation of and participation in the divine creativity of God. As Tolkien explained, “we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[9] Because humans are made in the image of God, with a rational nature, we have the power to rearrange the materials of God’s Creation out of “delight[] with the work of [our] hands”,[10] just as God created ex nihilo and “saw that it was good” (Gn 1:10), and to do so in both a self-expressive and fundamentally gratuitous way, making purely out of love for the thing made and not for our own benefit. This is Art; however, Tolkien gives to it a new name, “sub-creation”, and by this he means that while our artistry is imitative of God’s creativity, we make only in a derivative way, using materials we did not make ourselves, whereas God’s Creation was wholly original and unprecedented, nor was any personal need or utility involved in God’s act of Creation and so it was even more so a work of pure love.


Using the perspective of subcreation, the connection with Christmas comes in when we see that God is analogous to an artist and Creation to a work of art. From Tolkien’s literary perspective, God can also be seen as the Divine Author of the great Story of Creation. A great difference exists, however, in the power of God to give to His world the capacity for secondary causality, for creatures to be truly autonomous and to act according to their own individualities and natures while still operating within God’s Providence, the overarching plot of the Story. This is even more clearly seen in humans, to whom God gave free will and a rational nature in image of His own nature as pure intellectual spirit (Jn 4:24). Because of this freedom, humans also have the power to reject God in preference for temporal goods and our own wills, and so the Fall took place in the Garden of Eden, when humanity closed itself to the love of God.


The true magnitude of the Fall has yet to be fully explored even through millennia of Judeo-Christian religion, but from the standpoint of sub-creation, we can see that, because humans are characters within the created story of history, what is essentially God’s “sub-created” world (meaning a Creation distinct from and beneath the reality of His own Being, just as our art is inferior to ourselves as artists), it is impossible for us to ever cross the divide between ourselves and God through our own power. After the Fall, when the ladder dropped by God’s grace from Heaven into His world was burned down by our sin, we as characters can no longer reach our Author by ourselves. Because of this, it was necessary for us that God as Author should enter His own story in order to fulfill our deepest longings and to accomplish his providential plan for us: to know our place in the Story, to know that we are made intentionally and lovingly by a personal Author, and to be raised up to union with Him. In Tolkien’s immortal words,


 There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.[11]


In the light of Tolkien’s concepts of eucatastrophe and sub-creation, we can see Christmas from a new angle. Not only was Christmas the answer to all the prophetic hopes of the Hebrew people, as well as the spiritual longings for a Savior to rescue us from death, sin and the prospect of a potentially meaningless existence felt by all human persons, Christmas was and is still the accomplishment of an impossible miracle: the meeting between characters in a story and their own Author. No longer need we fear that the stories of our lives are simply disconnected series of coincidences resulting from a cosmic accident and the random confluence of human actions driven entirely by animalistic impulses. Now we can live in the certain hope that what we have all known to be true throughout history – that we are actors in a divine play, agents whose spirits reach beyond this world and can only be made whole by union with that which is greater than ourselves or anything we experience, the signs that express the One from whom all things come – is proclaimed to all the world.  

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (eds), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Letter 89.

[2] Tolkien, Letters, Letter 43.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), 86.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 85.

[5] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 86.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 86.

[7] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 88-89.

[8] 78.

[9] 75.

[10] 83.

[11] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 89.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Motives and Aftermath of Vatican II

    After the Council of Trent was convened in the sixteenth century to address the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation, the Church continued to meet the challenges brought up both from within the Church and from the outside world over the proceeding centuries. Magisterial documents such as the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, the establishment of Catholic social teaching by Pope Leo XIII, the documents of the First Vatican Council, and the declarations against both Communism and Fascism by Pope Pius XII during WWII and its aftermath answered the problems of their times with authority and clarity. In the same vein, the widespread social and political changes occurring in the early 1960s which heralded the beginnings of a cultural revolution were recognized by the Magisterium of the Church. Like their predecessors, the pope and bishops sought to answer these challenges preemptively, to give Catholics and non-Catholics alike the spiritual foundations necessary to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of fundamental changes to the traditions and worldview of society. To accomplish this, Pope St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, an enormous undertaking comprising over twenty-five hundred bishops, priests, theologians and others over a span of four years, from 1962-1965, that would be finished by the succeeding pope, St. Paul VI. The interpretation and implementation of the documents produced by the Council have taken many forms and extremes, often with little knowledge of the Council documents themselves, in the decades since the Council concluded. To properly understand the Second Vatican Council, the motivations which inspired its convention and the effects that resulted from its application, both positive and negative, must be carefully examined.

    Two predominant forces were at work in causing the Council to be called: the pre-conciliar conditions of the Church including multiple strains of theological interpretation, and the issues which arose in the wake of the Second World War and were only just coming to fruition in the early 1960s prior to the cultural revolution of the late 60s and 70s. The first cause involved the converging of Catholic schools of thought which had been in conflict for some time, specifically between the “modernists” whose primary goal was to address and if possible integrate the prevalent ideas of modern society with Catholic doctrine, and the “neo-Scholastics” who held to the traditional Thomistic system advocated by the Church since the Middle Ages and had been explicitly encouraged by papal encyclicals and the First Vatican Council during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While the modernists wished to openly consider the ideas popular in their time, such as secularism, Protestantism, relativism, and the propositions of modern science, and to adjust Catholic doctrine to accommodate anything in them which could be deemed fitting, as well as a “return” to the use of Scripture and the early Church Fathers as the highest standards, the neo-Scholastics held that the Magisterial doctrine founded on Thomism gave it a central status as a kind of hermeneutical standard in Catholic teaching and that the tradition of the Church, particularly in biblical interpretation and liturgical practice, should be firmly maintained. Violation of these traditions, they believed, would indicate to the Faithful a breach in the integrity of Catholic doctrine by denying that which the Church had officially approved and practiced for centuries. As R├ęginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., explained in a 1946 article,

How then can the reader evade the conclusion, namely that, since it is no longer current, the theology of St. Thomas is a false theology? ... Further, how can 'an unchanging truth' maintain itself if the two notions united by the verb to be, are essentially variable or changeable?[1]

The Council Fathers hoped to address the concerns of both strains of thought and to reconcile them while remaining faithful to Catholic Tradition.

    Secondly, the Council Fathers hoped to answer some of the growing issues in society at large. Many of these issues had already been addressed by Church teaching since the days of the early Church, such as the immorality of abortion and fornication, and at the beginning of the Council these were not as generally approved in society, but others, including contraception and divorce, had only become acceptable in general society after the Second World War, and so required a fresh explanation and doctrinal statement to address them. The Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s and 70s, as well as the growth of socialism in Western nations and the concerns of environmentalism, overpopulation and the conditions of a just war, were only hinted at when the Council began, yet the foresight of the Fathers recognized these issues and sought to answer them as well.

    The conclusion of the Council, which had been one of the largest in history, included almost a total consensus on all of the documents composed, and was the first Council in history to be recorded and reported on in great detail by the popular media. The aftermath of the Council and its application by the Church has been met with varied reactions, often to opposite extremes. As Pope Benedict XVI explained, “No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult.”[2] The effects of the Council can be categorized according to two distinct ways of interpreting the Council including, on the one hand, “an interpretation that I would call a ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’… On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given us.”[3]

    The first of these categories, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”, essentially “asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council.”[4] The proponents of this school believe that the Council clung to many ideas and practices which are now obsolete and must be discarded for the full innovation of the Council to be realized. This ideology can be seen as the continuation of the pure modernist school of thought which the Council hoped to answer. As Pope Benedict says, however, this hermeneutic “risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.”[5] It can be said that the denial of Church dogma by many post-conciliar Catholic theologians and laypeople alike may be attributed to this erroneous hermeneutic which, despite having been condemned repeatedly by the Magisterium since the Council, lingers to this day, as evidenced by the ideas of many modern Catholic scholars, politicians and others which verge on heresy. Similarly, the rise of so-called “traditionalist” Catholicism can be seen as a reaction against this movement; while Traditionalism has led to a growth in the study of Thomistic and other pre-conciliar Catholic writings and practices, most notably the Tridentine or Latin Mass, it has also spawned a sect in the Church which denies the validity of the Second Vatican Council, the popes during and subsequent to the Council and even the saints canonized by those popes. This extreme traditionalism, like the modernism against which it is a reaction, has also been condemned by the Magisterium of the Church, while its positive elements have been endorsed by popes, as in the encouragement of Thomism by Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et ratio, and of the “Extraordinary Form” or Latin Mass by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Summorum pontificum.

    The other category, one less endorsed by the popular media or recognized by the extreme reactions to the Council mentioned in the preceding paragraph, is what Pope Benedict calls “the hermeneutic of reform.” This interpretation of the Council, as expressed by Pope St. John XXIII, is a combination of the desire “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion” with the Church’s mission “to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us.”[6] Remaining faithful to Catholic doctrine and tradition while working to faithfully apply the teachings of the Council to the issues and needs of the contemporary age, incorporating what is valid in them while rejecting what is erroneous, is, according to this hermeneutic, the true purpose of the Council. It can be said that this way of understanding the Council has guided the documents of the Magisterium and the activity of the popes since the Council and has inspired many new avenues of scholarship and relation with the modern world, evidenced by the proliferation of evangelical activity in Africa and Asia, with the “New Evangelization” heralded by John Paul II, in the boom of Catholic biblical studies by scholars such as Drs. Brant Pitre and Scott Hahn, and the amending of ecumenical bonds with many separated Christian groups, most clearly seen in the Anglican Ordinariate and the lifting of the almost millennium-long mutual excommunication of the Great Schism by Pope St. Paul VI and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1964.  

    It has also been said by many scholars since the time of the Council that a distinction needs to be made between the actual doctrinal texts of the Council, which as magisterial documents of an ecumenical council cannot be denied and simply represent what St. John Henry Newman described as 'doctrinal development', retaining continuity with fundamental dogma while also addressing the questions of the time; and the "pastoral strategy"[7] employed by the Church during and after the Council. This pastoral strategy can be summarized as: to make the world like the Church, we must make the Church like the world. Following this strategy, not only were contemporary issues answered, but it was felt that, for the Church to be open to new converts from the modern world, it must become like the modern world, removing or "deemphasizing"[8] those practices which might pose an obstacle to conversion. One clear example of this strategy can be seen in the new liturgical rite of St. Pope Paul VI, called the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form, which, alongside the blatant and subtle abuses that have remained commonplace in its practice since its implementation in the years following the Council (often contrary to its own rubrics and the liturgical principles of Vatican II), also reflects the belief that those things which might offend Protestants must be "deemphasized", i.e. abandoned, in order to make the Church more "welcoming" for them.

    In the end, it must be admitted that not only is this strategy incorrect, since the truth of Catholic doctrine and the history of the Church with its attendant traditions, devotions and philosophies cannot be denied and to do so leaves Catholic evangelization impoverished and incapable of truly fulfilling the desires of those to whom it is addressed, as can be seen in the virtual absence of evangelization of Muslims in modern times by the Church, but it has also been an abject failure since the time of the Council. Despite the growth inspired by the principles of the Council itself, the orthodoxy, culture and relevance of the Church in society, particularly in the historic Western nations of Christendom, have disintegrated and, with the help of multiple scandals, have left the Church either irrelevant to modern society or as an object of ridicule and scorn. Not only is the Church in modern times attacked from outside, but it is also rotting from within as heresies, abuses, liturgical irregularities and an overarching desire to 'fit in' with the outside world are allowed to run rampant by a hierarchy that seems either unable or unwilling to correct it, often discouraging the faithful to the point of despair and abandonment of the Church established by Christ as the fullness of truth and the means of salvation on Earth.

    The Second Vatican Council, like many Church councils before it, was convened with the sole purpose of addressing the issues of the time, those raised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Like its predecessors, the Council was a long and arduous process and led to a great deal of misunderstanding and misappropriation by both Catholics and non-Catholics in its aftermath. As with many other instances of challenging and delicately balanced dispensing of wisdom by the Church across the ages, extremism followed in the Council’s wake, whether its ideas were seen as too traditional or too innovative for the interpreter’s preferences. However, if the Council and its documents are understood properly according to the hermeneutic advocated by the Council Fathers and by the Magisterium since its conclusion, and if its pastoral strategy can be modified or outright abandoned in favor of one which recognizes the necessity of tradition for evangelization, its teachings can be applied to great benefit for the Church and the world; these benefits can already be seen today and will continue to grow as the seed is cultivated by those who remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the mission to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19 RSVCE) for which he charged all those who believe in him.  

[1] R├ęginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where Is The New Theology Leading Us?”, Catholic Family News Report 309 (1998), 1.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia (22 December 2005).

[3] Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia.

[4] Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia

[5] Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia

[6] Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia.

[7] Matt Fradd and Ralph Martin, “A Church in Crisis w/ Ralph Martin,” at YouTube, www.youtube.com.

[8] Fradd and Martin, “A Church in Crisis.”