Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays

Michael P. Foley’s Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything has some distinct similarities in tone and content to Thomas Woods’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilisation. It is the good news and (with the odd minor exception) only the good news about Catholicism and being Catholic. It is concerned with pointing out Catholic contributions to just about everything, particularly in the US, where Catholicism long laboured under the suspicion of not being compatible with the American Revolution and loyalty to the US: out of 44 US Presidents*, only one has been Catholic. (Though the current Chief Justice and a majority of the Supreme Court⎯Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito⎯are Catholic: two Jews, an Episcopalian and a generic Protestant make up the rest.)

That being said, the book is full of delightful historical trivia, many of them delightful medieval historical trivia. It also has some Catholic apologetics, so it is quite a painless exposition to various Catholic doctrines (the author is a Doctor of Theology). There is even a “more Catholic than the Pope” moment (p.165) when he reports in somewhat disturbed tones that JPII adopted an adjusted Nietzschean construction—though he assures us in a footnote that he is not really criticising the Pope.

The book is divided into subject areas. The chapters are lists of examples with short explanations, very easy to read. It is amusing to discover, for example, that Cardinal Richelieu had the points of his table knives filed off so his dinner guests couldn’t pick their teeth with them (p.23). Or that tempura was actually brought to Japan via Iberian missionaries (p.32). That John Wycliff was condemned by the Church for condemning universities as a source of vain heathenism (p.115)—the more things change, the more things stay the same!
Foley credits St Augustine with having founded the genre of autobiography and damns Rousseau for deliberately subverting and reversing the original Augustinian form (p.45). He obviously enjoys the speculation that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic (p.48) and has a nice quote from Pope Gregory the Great about images in Churches:
pictures are used in churches so that those who do not know their letters may be a least by looking at the walls read what they cannot read in books (p.49).
The red of the Cardinals was decreed by Pope Paul II who loved pomp and persisted after the Papal garments changed to white when the Dominican Pius V preferred the colour of his Order (p.108). The original title of Los Angeles was El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Le Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula or Los Angeles for short (0.126). St Augustine Florida is oldest permanent European settlement in North America and the oldest continually inhabited city in the US (p.128). We owe the modern concept of integrity to Sir Thomas More (p.146). Drat! is yet another shortened blasphemy (short for God rot!) (p.156). There are many, many more—a book load, in fact.

Some of his examples I found thought-provoking, such as his discussion (p.49 et al) of iconoclasm: the abomination of graven images in deference to the superiority of the Word. It struck me that it was a movement in a literate empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) that was expressed in a new form after the development of printing in a time of greatly increased literacy (the Reformation) and is basic to a religion founded around a sacred text dictated straight from God.

Foley argues that civil law, due to its Roman origins, is a convert to Christianity but common law was Christian from birth (p.138). With some nice snippets of English legal history, such as that equity was taken over by the royal Chancery in 1349 and ecclesiastical courts abolished in 1534 (p.139).

Some of the Catholic quotes are the sort of thing just likely to encourage Protestant prejudices, such as St Augustine’s:
I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not determine me to (p.169).
Which is not as bad as it sounds when put in the context—as Foley does—of the deciding of what books were or were not part of Scripture. Remembering the importance put on Apostolic succession (which which Foley explicates quite well elsewhere [p.158]) helps too.

The “good gloss” on Catholicism gets amusing at times. So jazz kept more African elements than blues because Catholic slave owners were less concerned to wipe out all vestiges of African custom and gave their slaves more free time (p.59). And it was Mary Queen of Scots faith and bloodline which cost her, her head (p.68), not a bit of conspiring to murder her cousin and host. He notes that New York was named after the future James II, Duke of York before he converted to Catholicism (p.125) which led to civil war and his eventual exile. The former is true, the latter overlooks the way James proved impossible to deal with.

The Post-Catholic usages section in the second last chapter is where Foley gets most trembly about modern trends. Clearly, he regards the secularisation of such terms as charity, compassion, confession, hierarchy, charismatic, iconoclast, cult, dogmatic, epiphany as diminutions in meaning and understanding when often it is just the natural product of dealing with other cultures and religions. But if Catholic=true & good then any move away is a lessening. Which leads to the lack of any sense that there might be good reasons for such shifts or criticisms (though he does grant [p.158] that Papal excesses helped motivate a “backlash” which ended up denying Papal authority).

In his introduction, Foley refers to Greeley’s notion of the Catholic view of the universe as “enchanted” as stretching back to the early days of the Church. Secularisation is thus a process of dis-enchantment.

Not that all his complaints are unfounded. He does manage some nice skewerings of Rousseau, always a worthy project. Foley’s discussion (following that of Allan Bloom) of Rousseau’s reworking of compassion so it shifts from fellow feeling to beneficence conveying a sense of superiority is very apposite about where the conspicuous compassion of our time had its origins.

The “only the good news” gets a bit teeth-gritting at times. But overall, it is a fun book with lots of engaging snippets of historical trivia.

* Out of 44 US Presidents, 42 have been Protestant males of Northern European descent plus one Catholic male of Northern European descent and one Protestant male of East African descent. (Descent being counted in the patrilineal sense.)

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