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Definitions That Perplex: Catholic and Fascism

by John Aquino on 12/01/18

I was reading the November 16, 2018 issue of the (London) Times Literary Supplement (I'm a little behind in my reading) and was struck about how definitions of terms was a topic in a good number of the articles. The issue wasn't on definitions, but the topic was raised in unrelated essays, in general and specifically on the meaning of what is fascism and what it means to be Catholic. The fact that these are the terms that require a discussion of their meaning tells you a lot about the times we live in.


For example, in a back page essay, "J.C." notes that Ambrose Bierce's 1911 The Devil's Dictionary has been issued in a new edition. Some of Bierce's cynical definitions include "Egoist: A person of low taste more interested in himself than in me"; "Misfortune: The kind of fortune that never misses"; "Kilt: A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland"; "Lawyer: One skilled in the circumvention of the law"; and "Distress: "A disease incurred by exposure to the prosperity of a friend." Bierce's definitions may be cynical, but his targets are still recognizable. 

In a forum of essays convened by TLS to accompany a review of books on President Donald Trump, TLS asked a number of writers to address the questions, mostly at a distance of 4,300 miles from the U.S., what is fascism and is Trump a fascist? The very raising of the questions, and so bluntly, shocked me. While I can imagine some people I know asking themselves these things in their minds, I have never seen them in print on this side of the Atlantic. The writers write at length, seriously, and, seemingly, objectively. Mary Beard, an author and TLS editor, writes that the word "fascist" is used indiscriminately and obscures rather than reveals. Richard J. Evans, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge, notes similarities between Hitler and Mussolini and Trump--intemperate language that fosters prejudice and violence and a lack or regard for the democratic process--and differences--the two dictators mobilized troops for conquest while Trump uses the internet. Mary Fulbrook, a professor of German history at the University College London, also notes similarities but concludes that fascism isn't just about the personality of the leader but about the circumstances under which power can be gained and sustained. On this side of the pond, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University,  writes that Trump uses far-right slogans from the 1930s ("America First") and Nazi slogans such as "fake news" or the "lying press," which in German is "l├╝ggenpresse," a word that Trump supporters shouted during October 2016 rallies. Hopefully, they did not know they were quoting the Nazis. I emerged from this exercise still shaken. But if the terms are being tossed about, it's good to have considered them objectively.

As Lewis Carroll playfully suggested in Alice in Wonderland, words are living things. They have they their own histories and personalities, they can hurt or help other living things, and it takes effort to understand them. 

What it means to be a Catholic is also in the minds of many in these days where we are focused on the scandal concerning pedophile priests and the coverup. In a TLS article in that issue on the existence (or non-existence) of hell, Joseph Farrell raises the question of what makes someone a "lapsed Catholic," something he considers himself to be. I always thought a lapsed Catholic was someone raised in the faith who, for whatever reason, no longer goes to church regularly, often because of issues with the church hierarchy. Many today say they are disillusioned in the church because of the pedophile scandal and coverup. Farrell defines a lapsed Catholic as neither an atheist nor an agnostic but as someone with the lingering doubt that there may indeed be a grand system of order in the universe with God at the top and Satan at the bottom, someone who can't shake off the fear of hell and who, when he or she is at death's door, "would call a priest as an insurance policy." That's an interesting, lingering thought.

In that essay on the last page of the TLS, J.C. asks the question, where are the Catholic writers of the 21st century, noting, in contrast, these of the 20th: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Sparks, and Anthony Burgess. This brings up the question, what is a Catholic writer? J.C. doesn't mention that Greene hated the label because he felt it discouraged over half of the book-buying public from purchasing his books. I think that being a Catholic doesn't make a writer a Catholic writer. Greene was a Catholic convert, but what may make people think of him as a Catholic writer is that many of his characters are riddled by what some would call Catholic guilt at what they consider their own imperfection. Farrell in that  separate article on the belief (or lack of it) that hell exists discusses the character Scobie in Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter who out of guilt about his adulterous affair kills himself, something he said earlier he couldn't imagine doing because it would mean he would go to hell. Farrell notes that, when Scobie is finally driven to take his own life and dies, he utters the words, "My God, I love...", but Greene wouldn't let him finish the sentence, leaving it unclear as to whether he would have said, "My God, I love you," which would suggest he would go to heaven, or "I love Helen," his mistress, which would mean that he was unrepentant about his sin of adultery and he would go to hell. I fondly remember Greene's novel The Comedians and the 1967 film version with Richard Burton and Alec Guinness, particularly the scene where the character Jones, having become an enemy of the Haitian state, is being brought out of the country by Brown. The scene between Burton and Guinness in the movie has them waiting until dawn in a cemetery with its crosses looming and Jones (Guinness) confessing how he is a braggart and a military fraud while Jones (Burton), a man who has become disillusioned and who says he has "no faith in faith," finds himself playing father-confessor to Jones and even speaks the priest's words of absolution as if in a confession. Some of Greene's works strongly evidence his Catholicism, some less so. Like Greene, I'm leery about labeling author as "Catholic" or "Jewish" because it limits them. In answer to J.C.'s question of where are the Catholic writers of today, it could well be that the lesser emphasis on Catholic rituals as a result of the 1963-64 Vatican Council and perhaps now the recent scandal may have diluted that identification.

Ambrose Bierce defined "learning" as "The kind of ignorance that distinguishes the studious." I hope he's wrong and that we spend more time on the meaning of  words before we use them and when we read others who use them.

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino

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