Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hallowtide: The Window to Heaven and Hell

Halloween is an eminently Catholic holiday, but the average American would be forgiven for never realizing it.

Perhaps even we in the Church have not realized how this holds true even for the worst aspects of the modern bastardized holiday—the gluttony, the immodesty, the perverted iconography, and the adoration of death and the demonic. All of these are, in an odd way, as much a part of this liturgical season as the Saints.

Admittedly, the propers of Hallowtide are mostly concerned with the crowns of beatitude rather than the powers of hell. The latter make an appearance—but only in a few select places, and never for very long.

The Communion verse for the All Hallows Eve Mass has a glancing reference:

Justorum animae in manu Dei sunt, et non tanget illos tormentum malitiae—"The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of malice shall not touch them"
And the Office of Matins for All Souls' Day has the following excerpt from Venerable Bede on the life of the blessed:

There the devil will be no more an object of fear; there no evil spirits lie in wait; there, the dread of hell will be gone.
So the Church has not forgotten that there are evil spirits to be saved from. She remembers. She just does not dwell on the powers of hell during this season. We might well ask—why not, when everyone else is?

Because in Hallowtide, the Church is standing in contrast to the world.

She calls attention to what she represents, while the world calls attention to what it represents. She is the light, and it is the darkness. She stands with the angelic hosts, and it stands with the demonic legions. She boasts in the modesty of saints, and it boasts of the profligacy of the damned.

The world's freakish and ghoulish Halloween nightmares furnish us with a crucially important icon for meditation—they put on flagrant display the other half of the lesson that the Roman liturgy is tastefully circumspect about. At the end of October, Almighty God has allowed our enemy, perhaps even forced him unwillingly, to drop his mask and display his ultimate reality for everyone to see.

This world is the princedom of the devil. It is the antechamber to hell. If we ever doubt that, and tend toward daydreaming only of idyllic Arcadian glens and fairies dancing in sun-dappled forests, it will only take a 9-11 or an ISIS to wake us. In a puddle of our own blood.

All around us, right now, men and women are selling their souls to pride, to money, to power, to sex, to hatred, to any or all of the seven deadly sins. Some of them will be saved from that fate by the grace of God. But many...many...will not.

The Middle Ages had a keen sense of horror. Their art proves it. They showed a readiness to use ghoulish images and devices to make a theological point. They made the gate of hell a mouth—which frankly gets far closer to the devouring, insatiable nature of the demonic than an inanimate, static cave which a person can walk in and out of at will.

Yet the medievals were no nihilists. They saw both the transcendent splendor of love and the monstrous corruption of evil. Theirs was not a pastel, soft-focus Christianity but one in bold colors: bright golds, bloody crimsons, and pitch blacks.

We modern Catholics have lost much of their wisdom. We have rashly judged their world too primitive, too coarse, too folklorish to be credible in an age of science. But having lost the sense of the monstrous, the hideous, the hellish, having psychologized and explained away evil to a mere mistaken tendency or uninformed worldview, we have lost the truth of the world. We are in desperate need to behold evil once more as it truly is. As something unspeakably terrible and ugly.

And this is precisely where the world comes in, filling a liturgical mission it didn't even know it had.

During this sacred Triduum, the minions of hell will be crawling from the bowels of the earth to mark their own.

Decadent revelers will blacken their eye sockets, tear their skimpy clothes, and paint festering wounds on their flesh. Devotees of Santa Muerte will offer prayers at the blasphemous altars of Hades and invoke, supplicate, and adore the Negation of Life. Impenitent heretics—no accident the anniversary of their rebellion falls in this period—will exult in their brazen defiance of Christ's Church and train themselves to resist it to the end. Even respectable suburban homeowners will decorate their yards with horrors from Dante's Inferno. Not to warn or teach about the Last Things but purely for "fun"—apparently.

And Catholics? We see the harvest come in, the leaves fall, the nights grow long, and the world turn dark. And through it all we keep our eyes firmly fixed on heaven. We stand with our fellow sinners in repentant tears at the Calvary of the Mass. We invoke the saints for their aid and strive to dress ourselves in their clothes and virtues. We sacrifice and pray for the souls of our dearly departed, putting their needs above our own. And through it all we grow, little by little, in charity toward God and man.

The stark contrast between the Church and the world ought never, and least of all in this time of year, to be confused or muddled. There will be a time for the Church to speak forcefully about hell and the damned, but it is not during Hallowtide. This season is about two paths, and these paths must be laid out clearly and crisply, blazed everywhere along the way with reliable, unmistakable markers of their destinations. So that, in the end, not a single soul can pretend to be surprised at where they have arrived.

God has given us Hallowtide as a three-day window to the Last Judgment in all its bright glory and dark horror. It is an audition for our part in Eternity, a dress rehearsal for that Day of Wrath that lies before us all. The liturgy of the Church versus the revelry of the world.

All of us, whether we are inconstant friends of Christ, avowed enemies of God, or secular revelers seeking nothing more than a bit of amusement—all of us in these three days will be dressing up both literally and metaphorically. And we will all be preparing and training.

Just with very different vestments, and for very different ends.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Overloading Advent

Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful that Advent is even acknowledged at all in the commercial world. In the United States where we seem to have a preponderance of low-church Christians, the liturgical year is never as well emphasized as it could be.

The difficulty is that Advent is a time of penance and expected waiting, not celebration. Our kids have an Advent calendar courtesy of generous grandparents, but it's all simple things like crackers and candies, and they also got Bible verses to go along with every day, lest we forget what it is we're waiting for.

Companies haven't generally been quite that restrained. Advent has become big business. Pottery Barn has gotten into the fray, and now even Aldi has a wine calendar that is making the rounds.

Nunc est bibendum! Traditionally, the feast of St. John on December 27 was the big day for wine, but once again there seems to be an increasingly sloppy blurring of the two seasons.

Commercial outfits are motivated by and interested in one thing: moving product. There's nothing wrong with that.... our publishing company has a wonderful Advent book for this time of year:

Lynne's book is, though, more oriented toward making simple little crafts with prayers and devotions rather than moving stuff off of shelves. It's not wrong to encourage good solid Advent products like these, just to make gifts and treats the sole focus of Advent instead of tangible helps on the way to discovering what Advent really is.

Advent has a real danger of becoming overloaded with gifts, especially if we add in treats for St. Nicholas's feast, the ever-more popular "let's just exchange Christmas gifts now because we won't be seeing each other during the holidays", and even Hanukkah presents from our Jewish family and friends. Some of this can't be helped. But it seems like if we're not getting gifts, we're thinking about gifts, running around purchasing gifts, worrying about gifts, wrapping gifts.

No one described this pre=Christmas tension with better wit than the great C. S. Lewis, in "Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus."

Let's make sure we Niatirbians-in-spirit maintain a bit of restraint in this penitential season so we can show up with bright shining faces to Mass on December 25th.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Devotions for the Feast of St. Augustine

Since we will be celebrating the Feast of St. Augustine in a few days on August 28th, I'll be featuring a few lesser-known devotions to this great saint. This inaugural prayer is taken from a prayer-book published by an Irish Augustinian in 1885 and is recommended there for after Confession.


BEFORE thine eyes, O Lord, we bring our offences, and confess that the evil we have committed far outweighs what we suffer. We feel the punishment of sin, and yet we turn not from our wilfulness in sinning. If Thou waitest for our amendment, we are not corrected. If Thou chastiseth us, we are not patient. We confess our fault during our affliction, and forget our tears when the visitation is past. If Thou stretchest out thine arm, we proffer obedience; and if Thou suspendest the stroke, we forget our promise. If Thou punishest, we cry for mercy; and if Thou sparest, we provoke Thee again to strike. Behold, O Lord, we confess our guilt. Thy hand is not shortened that it cannot save. Neither is thine ear dull that it cannot hear. Thou hast shown us the manner we may come before Thee, requiring us to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly before Thee, and trust, finally, in the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification.

Remember not, O Lord, our offences, nor those of our parents, and take not vengeance on our sins.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Candace: A Christian Name from Nubia

Nubia was an extremely old civilization, with close cultural ties to Egypt that go all the way back to the dawn of Egyptian history. It even developed its own distinct adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics called Meroitic.

One of Nubia’s most visible contributions to Western Christianity is the name Candace. We get it from the New Testament Greek form Κανδακη and the Candacis of the Latin Vulgate, as it appears in the story of St. Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts of the Apostles:

"And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of queen Candace of Ethiopia, who was in charge of all her treasures, had come to Jerusalem to worship" -Acts 8:27
Candace ultimately comes from ktke, the word for "queen" or perhaps "queen mother" in the language of ancient Nubia. In the Meroitic script, it is rendered as follows:
The alphabetic hieroglyphs above are read from right to left. They are enclosed in an oval cartouche, indicating that they are part of a royal name; the three dots to the right are a word separator, and then the four symbols, reading towards the left, spell out k-t-k-e. The Greek transliteration is shown below.

This research will be featured in my forthcoming book "The Church for Our People: Studies in Afro-American Inculturation".

The Kisses that Killed Prejudice

On a cold January morning, in the year of Our Lord 1892, the Reverend Dr. Henry L. Phillips entered a Catholic Church and stayed to observe High Mass. He was not himself Catholic. In fact, he was rector of the Crucifixion Protestant Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. But he was a black minister serving a black congregation, and he was there for a special event: the Third Colored Catholic Congress, whose purpose was to gather black Catholic leaders across the United States. Its opening Mass was celebrated by the first recognized black priest in the nation: Father Augustus Tolton. And assisting Father Tolton that day were two white priests: Father John Burke as deacon, and Father John Griffin as subdeacon.

Two days later, Reverend Phillips had occasion to address the delegates to the congress. He said that during the Mass on Tuesday, he had been watching with the closest interest these two white priests at Father Tolton’s side. And what he saw there made a great impression on him. In no other denomination, he said, could such a thing be seen, or would it be permitted.

Because extensive changes to the Mass have taken place since that time, it is easy, perhaps, to miss the full significance of what Reverend Phillips saw that Tuesday morning in Philadelphia. We might simply assume that his remarks merely involve a black priest serving at the altar with white ones. Of course, this would indeed have been a remarkable image in an environment of widespread racial prejudice. But yet that alone doesn’t seem to entirely justify Phillips’ rather striking remarks. Would black and white ministers together really be unseen or unpermitted in any other denomination? Why would a few white priests sitting in on Father Tolton’s Mass be such cause for amazement?

Well, it’s not recorded what exactly Phillips saw that struck him at that Mass. But we can make an educated guess simply by placing the ceremony in its proper liturgical context.

Now if you have been to any traditional Latin High Mass, you’ve probably seen that it includes a number of kisses. These are known as the solita oscula. When the deacon and subdeacon hand an object to the priest or receive one from him, they kiss both the object and the hand of the celebrant. Also, the subdeacon kneels before the celebrant and kisses his hand after reading the Epistle. Then the deacon does the same thing before reading the Gospel. To anyone carefully watching the activity at the altar, these kisses are quite prominent, as are the many other places where the deacon and subdeacon act as humble servants to the celebrating priest.

But imagine these rubrics carried out at Tolton’s Mass on that winter morning in 1892. Two white priests publicly serving, kneeling before, and especially, and repeatedly, kissing the hands of a black priest.

That sight alone could well have been positively shocking in a country that was going through what some historians regard as the low point of American race relations. In that same year of 1892, the number of lynchings would reach a horrible peak of 230, never to be exceeded since. The supposedly “gay” nineties would see new state constitutions disenfranchising voters throughout the South, as well as the northern-dominated Supreme Court enshrining “separate but equal” in Plessy vs. Ferguson.

In his address to the Third Colored Catholic Congress, Dr. Phillips would go on to say that it was true, he knew, that at the altars of the Catholic Church there was no distinction as to color, and that Church has a lever possessed by none other to secure for the colored people the same rights in the workshops as it freely grants them in its sanctuaries. If it exerts its powerful influence to this end, he said, it will be scared by the rush of colored people to its fold and, as for himself, he would bid his three boys Godspeed if they desired to enter the ranks of that or any other Church which would secure for them their just rights.

As American Catholics we have not, sadly, always made use of that lever as well as we should, and our failings in that regard have undoubtedly been the reason that the rush of black Americans into the Catholic Church never quite materialized the way that Daniel Rudd and the other delegates had hoped. Liturgically, also, we seem to have lost all patience for these little gestures of service that undoubtedly so moved Reverend Phillips.

But it is worth remembering that in one of our country’s most shameful hours, an observant clergyman saw how justice and equality could flow out in torrents, if we could only learn to lower ourselves before the altar of God, to see Christ in every human being, and to kill every last prejudice with a kiss.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The North African Liturgical Calendar: a Church Reborn

The African Church once boasted 400 bishops, but after the Islamic invasion it was slowly starved of support until its distinct traditions were for the most part lost to Christendom.

But in 1632, Catholic missions were founded in Algeria, and two hundred years later, France's invasion of the country and eventual conquest allowed the Church greater liberty to operate. Algiers was named a diocese in 1838.

The idea of reviving the ancient African patrimony can already be seen in the work of the first two bishops of Algiers: Antoine-Adolphe Dupuch and his successor Louis-Antoine-Augustine Pavy. They produced for the new diocese a liturgical calendar that drew heavily from the African saints mentioned in the Roman Martyrology, though until then seldom actually commemorated at Mass:

October features a number of these distinctly African saints, including Felix and Cyprian; Agileus; Martinian, Saturnian and Maxima; Rogatian and Felicissimus; Quodvultdeus; Gaudiosus; and Deogratias.

The great Charles-Martial-Allemand Lavigerie became the third bishop of Algiers in 1867, and in 1884 he realized a lifelong dream of restoring the ancient See of Carthage. Continuing the work of his predecessors, he directed the development of a new Office that gave greater place to African saints, which was approved by Rome in 1883.

To this day, the liturgical calendar of North Africa bears the legacy of this restoration, though many of the dates have now been brought into line with the only ancient African liturgical document that survives: the Calendar of the Church of Carthage.

We sometimes come across the idea that these kinds of restoration projects outside of living memory are improper. That once a longstanding liturgical rite is dead, it ought to stay dead.

To be sure, at this point we've had our fill of archaeologism and the spectacularly bad manner in which supposed "ancient rituals" were yanked still warm from scholarly discussion and forcefully imposed on the entirety of Christendom with shockingly little humility. Never mind whether, like the canon of Hippolytus that went into Eucharistic Prayer #2, there were serious questions about accuracy and application, and let's not even get into the ways in which such restorations were merely a pretext for advancing the cause of modernism.

But however badly such revivals were carried out in the creation of the Novus Ordo Missae, I keep coming back to Benedict's language in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum:

“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”
I can't help but thinking that if the Babylonian Captivity of the ancient Roman Mass had endured much longer, and if, as almost happened, it was truly and completely extinguished from the face of the earth for a time, it would nonetheless be our solemn duty to revive it as best we can. The case of North Africa's liturgical calendar shows that even after centuries of obsolescence, restoration can be done, and done well.

What was sacred, is sacred. No generation has any right to rob another of its liturgical patrimony, and we would be fools to simply accede to an illegitimate suppression of external or internal forces.

And it would be well to remember Whom exactly we serve: a God of an empty tomb.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Cross That Can't Be Lost

Françoise Gonannhatenha was forced to mount the wooden scaffold upon which the Onondaga Iroquois tortured their enemies.

But quite an unusual enemy she made. She was an Onondaga by birth, and the ones who now stood poised to take her life were friends and relatives, including a sister who had handed her over to the elders for execution.

What did this woman do to merit such mistreatment from her own people?

Françoise had been baptized years before by Father Jacques Fremin on his visit to Onondaga. She had lived as an Iroquois Christian among her people, but persecution made her leave her homeland and join other Christian Iroquois at Sault St. Louis, where she was known for her modesty, piety, and above all charity to the poor.

The devout settlement at the Sault, though mainly Iroquois by blood and language, remained close allies of the French, and so their former countrymen declared them enemies of state.

In 1692, an Iroquois army apprehended Françoise, her husband and two friends in a canoe. They mercilessly killed her husband, and dragged the three women back to Iroquoia, pulling their fingernails out and burning the tips of their bloody fingers in pipe-bowls. The other two women were sent to two other Iroquois villages, and Françoise was remanded back to Onondaga, where she was condemned to death.

Yet she remained undaunted. Mounting the torture platform, she loudly declared to the crowd that she was a Christian, and was happy to die in her own village at the hands of her own nation. In this, she added, she was only following the example of the Lord Himself.

Her piety annoyed her relatives, and one of them tore away the crucifix that had been hanging around her neck. He then took a knife and carved a cross into her breast.

“There you see,” he mocked, “the cross which you esteemed so much and which prevented you from leaving the Sault, when I went to seek you there.”

“I thank you, my brother,” she replied. “I can lose that cross which you have taken away from me, but you have given me one which I will never lose, not even in death.”

Marked with the sign of salvation, Françoise boldly preached from the scaffold:

“As frightful are the torments which you condemned me to, do not believe that my fate is to be pitied. It is yours which requires pity and groans. This fire, which you have lit for my torture, will only burn me for a few hours, but another fire which is never extinguished is prepared for you in Hell. It is however still in your power to avoid it: follow my example, become Christians, live according to the Laws of the Religion as saints, and you will escape from the eternal flames. Moreover, I declare to you that I wish those no ill, who I see are ready to snatch my life. Not only do I pardon them for my death, but I pray the sovereign Master of Life to open their eyes to truth, to touch their hearts, to give them the grace of conversion and to die in the sentiments that now inspire me.”

These exhortations only increased the fury of her torturers. She was taken down, and for three days was dragged around the village, subjected to all manner of cruelties and insults. Then, on the fourth day they returned her to the scaffold to begin the hideous final act of her martyrdom. Tying Françoise to the stake, they burned her entire body with red hot firebrands and gun barrels for many hours. Under all this agony she did not cry out.

At last they scalped her, threw hot cinders upon her bleeding head, and untied her—expecting she would run about in agony the way so many other victims had done.

Instead the pious widow knelt down next to the stake, lifted her eyes, and offered her last breaths as a final sacrifice to God. They rained down upon her a shower of stones, and overwhelmed, this holy Christian Iroquois finally gave up her soul to God.

Salvation on a Stick

In the Year of Our Lord 1838, Fathers François Blanchet and Modeste Demers traveled to Fort Vancouver at the behest of the bishop of Quebec. The mission entrusted to these two priests was simple on its face, but it was also impossibly vast in its scope. They were to spread the message of the Gospel throughout the Pacific Northwest, in a region that stretched from California to Alaska.

The Fathers, clearly, would need help. They managed to get a few literate white men to serve as catechists for settlers, but this approach would not serve with the native tribes of the area. Each tribe had its own language, and though some were closely related, others were so different that they would have to be learned from scratch. There was the Chinook Jargon, which served as a sort of general inter-tribal language of the Northwest Coast, but it was only a simplified pidgin language useful primarily for trading scenarios, not for teaching theology.

Relying on interpreters, then, the missionaries began to observe how their interpreters very naturally used the native love for rhetoric and oratory to give “a new force and new weight” to Catholic doctrine—in languages that white men could only stammer in.

Blanchet and Demers thus determined that those best suited to catechize the Indians were Indians themselves. But how to transform a mere interpreter into a trained catechist, capable not only of understanding but also teaching the vagaries of doctrine? And how best to communicate theological truths to such catechists, when knowledge of their languages was still crude?

The answer came from an old tradition ingrained in native Northwestern culture itself. Catholicism would be achieved the way Indians had from time immemorial recorded the history of their families and tribes: on a totem.

“In looking for a plan,” Blanchet writes, “[I] imagined that by representing on a square stick, the forty centuries before Christ by 40 marks; the 33 years of our Lord by 33 points, followed by a cross: and the 18 centuries and 39 years since by 18 marks and 39 points, would pretty well answer [my] purpose, in giving [me] a chance to show the beginning of the world, the creation, the fall of the angels, of Adam; the promise of a Savior, the time of His birth, and His death upon the cross, as well as the mission of the apostles.”

This miniature Catholic totem pole was called the “Sahale” stick from the name for God in Chinook.

Abandoning theological abstraction for a straightforward historical narrative proved a masterful stroke of evangelization. Like a tribal or familial totem, the Sahale stick was a symbolic retelling of salvation history in visual terms the natives of the Northwest could readily understand.

All that remained was to put it to the test.

Blanchet had one carved for Tslalakum, a visiting chief of the Straits Salish. After a mere eight days of instruction Tsalakum had mastered the concepts engraved on the stick, and brought it back to his native land. As word spread to other tribes, Blanchet made and gave away eight more at Nisqually in 1839.

Hand-carving the four-foot sticks however, quickly proved too laborious for the burgeoning demand, so Blanchet and Demers switched to drawing the Sahale symbols on paper and calling these pictures “Catholic ladders.”

Almost a year after giving the first stick to Tslalakum, Blanchet was finally able to visit his tribal home on Whidbey Island, hoping to follow up on the chief’s visit with some basic catechesis.

Amazingly, he found a tribe already well familiar with the tenets of Christianity. Chief Tslalakum’s eight days of instruction had produced an entire tribe that not only knew the main points of the faith, but had also managed to learn some hymns as well. Tslalakum had given his first Sahale stick to another chief and made a copy for himself. And chiefs like Witskalatche, Netlam and Sehalapan had similar resounding successes in lands where no priest had ever stepped foot.

The Sahale stick, by successfully “baptizing” an ancient native practice of the Northwest Coast, had proved both a wonderfully ingenious way to teach the faith to the Indians, and also to enrich the cultural patrimony of the whole universal Church.

The Kateri Before Saint Kateri

In the Year of Our Lord 1654 an Iroquois army plunged into the Erie homeland, destroying their main villages of Gentaienton and Rigué. Erie survivors fled deep into the woods and disappeared thereafter from the pages of history, as the triumphant Iroquois returned home with spoils and captives. Among these latter was a young Erie woman named Gandeaktena—and it would later be said that the “misfortune of her country proved the blessing of the captive.”

Gandeaktena was adopted into the Oneida nation of the Iroquois, and was present in 1667 when the Jesuit Jacques Bruyas came to preach in their village. Moved intensely by the Gospel message, her husband Tonsahoten, a fellow captive of the Huron tribe and a Christian, encouraged her to follow her inclinations. She began meeting with Bruyas for instruction, helped him learn the Iroquois language and attended chapel regularly.

Her pagan relatives attempted unsuccessfully to dissuade her from Christianity, but they only served to increase Gandeaktena’s desire to leave the Oneida village and settle among the French where she could worship in freedom. So later in 1667 she assembled a little band of seven souls and journeyed to Montreal over the ice. Baptized by Bishop Laval, she took the name Catherine (or Kateri in Iroquois), and then moved with her husband to establish a brand new settlement near Montreal called La Prairie or Caughnawaga.

From these humble beginnings sprang the great Iroquois mission at Caughnawaga which became renowned for its piety and religiousness. “He has gone to La Prairie,” would become the Indians’ catchphrase for conversion.

Catherine Gandeaktena’s virtues played no small part in the reputation of the famous mission she founded. Called by the Indians the “Mother of the Poor”, the “Good Christian” and the “Pillar of the Faith”, her cabin was a haven for the poor and discontented, and she instructed and catechized many who lived in or passed through the village. So great a charity beat in her noble heart that her confessor had to prescribe limits to it—she was accustomed to “give the best of what she had, and in a quantity which was even excessive.” Catherine founded the Confraternity of the Holy Family, a group of very devout converts, who said as many as 20 rosaries per day and were the mainstay of the mission’s Catholic life.

After five years of devoted charity, Catherine convinced her husband to give away the last bit of wampum they owned, offering them first before the Blessed Sacrament:

“My God, four years ago, I gave to you my Body and soul, and the greater portion of my goods. Here is what remains to me; I present it to you with all my heart. What should I now ask of you after having given you my all, unless it be that, from this moment, you take me yourself, to place me near you?”

The very next day Catherine was struck by a headache and fever. She sensed with joy that the Lord had answered her prayer. Loved ones crowded around her bedside as her husband attended her needs, and the ministering priest had her pray for her own recovery. But she quickly added:

“It has been impossible for me to say from the heart what I have just uttered with the lips. Why ask to remain on earth, since God is calling me to heaven?”

Soon after receiving the last sacraments Catherine became delirious. Her husband continually exhorted everyone to say rosaries on her behalf, and after 8 days of their “unceasing prayer” she slipped into a final peaceful coma.

Catherine Gandeakteana died to this world on November 6, 1673. Her husband distributed all her remaining goods to the poor, asking only for prayers for her soul. It was generally believed however, by Black Robe and Indian alike, that her soul had attained the final bliss of heaven.

Only a few years later another Catherine, surnamed Tekakwitha, would seek refuge at Caughnawaga, and her own reputation would eclipse that even of her predecessor. But it was the holy example of Catherine Gandeaktena that prepared the seed-bed for Saint Kateri’s arrival, by founding a flourishing community of Christian Iroquois at Caughnawaga, the very soil in which the “Lily of the Mohawks” would bloom.

Intro to Tales from the Catholic Frontier

Way back in the days of newspapers (remember those?), I had put together a weekly column called "Tales from the Catholic Frontier" and was shopping it around to various Catholic papers.

The idea behind he column was that I would take about 700 words to tell a brief story from American Catholic history--typically ones that weren't well known. I figured I always had my shovel out anywyay digging up some old bit of church lore, so I might as well put what I found to good use.

So I wrote three sample columns and mailed out some packets. But though I got some positive comments on that proto-venture there were no commitments. So the three samples went back to sleep on my old Mac's hard drive, called up once in a while for nostalgia's sake only to be put back into electronic storage again.

Fast forward to today when, in yet another research foray after a shiny new bit of treasure, I found something that piqued my writing instinct. Soon I had yet another contribution to add to the mix, so I decided to wake the ol' guys out of their slumber and publish everything here.


Monday, May 22, 2017

The Linguistic Lie Behind Singular "They"

Recently I watched a confrontation between a student and University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson, who publicly took a stand against non-binary gender pronouns last year. The student kept stridently insisting Dr. Peterson was morally obligated to use the plural pronoun "they", claiming repeatedly and with absolute confidence that it was historically attested in English and went all the way back to Shakespeare.

Beyond the shocking rudeness with which this claim was asserted, it seemed a rather bizarre assertion to make, and I wondered where it came from. After a bit of digging, I was led, very unfortunately, to what seems to be the source of the claim: the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2015.

Here's the problem. The ADS's statement is shot through with an improper and apparently politically motivated conflation of two historically and grammatically distinct usages of singular "they":

1) an old, often contested but stubbornly enduring usage that was always restricted to a particular context--that I will continue to call "singular they" proper
2) a very new misapplication of the pronoun as an alternative to individuals who refuse to identify with either of the two biological sexes, that I will call "non-binary they"

Note well: I am not asserting that the ADS is unaware of the distinction. Their statements show that they are quite aware of it. What I am asserting, rather, is that the ADS and some of its members are deliberately obfuscating that distinction to advance a political agenda.

The statement the ADS released in 2016 mentions the non-binary aspect of singular "they" multiple times, and indeed that new definition is the entire focus of their decision. Some illustrative statements can be seen in the passages below (emphases mine):

• "They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she."
• "While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms."
• “In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Zimmer said.
In a purely descriptive sense, acknowledging the existence of this new usage is certainly well within the purview and mission of the ADS. The issue is not that non-binary "they" was discussed or even voted Word of the Year, but rather that the organization defended and promoted it with misleading statements. For example:

“While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”
Has "they" been part of the English language? Yes. Indisputably. But here's the catch: it has never been part of the language in the way that gender activists imply.

Historically, singular "they" occurred when an unspecified individual from a mixed sex group was being referred to, such as: "Each one of you needs to pick up their stuff". An editor who does not want to use a circumlocution has a couple of choices in such sentences: either use singular "their", or use the (binary!) construction "his or her". Although not every editor acknowledges the grammatical correctness of singular "they", practically speaking these are the two common options. In my own work, I have found that the clunkiness of "his or her" has tended to tip the scales in favor of "they", particularly when multiple pronouns are required.

How did a plural pronoun find itself continually intruding in this position, with a singular subject? I have not consulted any research on this, but I suspect that common speech has tended to support it because of the implicit plurality of the subject as one of a group and also because the plurality of genders of the referents. This is just a hypothesis; I may well be wrong. But whatever its origins and theoretical underpinnings, its usage over the centuries is crystal clear. Singular "they" has only ever appeared in a very limited set of cases, which have themselves been strongly contested by grammarians.

Outside these cases, it is dead wrong. There is absolutely no historical justification for grammatically barbaric sentences such as these, culled from an actual news story: "In Britain, 20-year-old Maria Munir made headlines when they came out as non-binary", and "In the US, an Oregon circuit court went much further, ruling in June that Portland resident Jamie Shupe could change their legal gender to non-binary."

Obviously, gender/sexual identification is the underlying driving issue here, so we need to look at the way English has handled this issue in the past. Cases of uncertain or intermediate sexual identity, of course, are nothing new, and have been known and discussed since antiquity.

The practice has generally been in those cases to simply assign a sexually ambiguous person to the closest of two of the three established genders: masculine or feminine. This assignment could draw from widely different observational parameters, from a mere glance to a medical examination. However, in all cases, the judgment was always made on the same assumed basis. A person's biological sex, as nearly as that could be ascertained, determined their grammatical gender.

To illustrate how forcefully this principle held, we can look at a couple of lectures (here and here) given by Dr. Hay Graham in 1835 at the Westminster School of Medicine on individuals of doubtful sex. Watch the pronouns Dr. Graham uses. Of Maria Pateca: "…she became a man. He afterwards married, but remained beardless." Of Germain Marie: "when she was fifteen years old...she suddenly found herself furnished with the parts of generation of a man...Cardinal Lenoncourt, after the necessary examination…ordered him to assume the habits of his sex." And "Jean Pierre was a woman from the waist upwards, and a man from the waist downwards; and in the centre was a woman on the right side and a man on the left; yet, in point of fact, he was neither one nor the other." Marie Derrier's sex was likewise unable to be agreed upon by medical experts: "Hufeland and Mursinna pronounced this individual a girl; Stark and Marteus, on the contrary, considered it a boy."

The two last cases mentioned—Jean Pierre and Marie Derrier—are precisely where we should expect to see the singular "they" of supposedly longstanding English precedent. But of course, we don't. And it's obvious why we don't. Graham could not have said "*Stark and Marteus, on the contrary, considered them a boy" because that construction would have been flagrantly ungrammatical in natural language. And still is.

If Graham gives us any justification for any non-binary pronoun, that would be "it"—and if that one seems jarringly cold and insulting, remember that we use it more commonly than you might realize at first. We are quite used to asking an expectant mother with absolutely no qualms whatsoever: "Do you know yet if it's a boy or a girl?" A co-worker may be complaining about being cut off in traffic, and you might mischievously inquire about the driver, "Was it a man or a woman?"

I have not reviewed the literature for pronoun use, but I have little reason to suspect that Graham's usage is anomalous. He sometimes presents us with a jarring switch between masculine and feminine pronouns following a medical event or diagnosis, and he sometimes gives us a constant pronoun throughout. But beyond the neuter "it", which for obvious reasons is employed for human beings only in quite limited circumstances, there is no gender outside of "he" and "she" to speak of, even in the most difficult cases of sexual identification. Not "they", not anything else.

As long as the sex of a person was known or was clarified from a previously indistinct or incorrect state, the language has always demanded that the corresponding binary gender—masculine or feminine—be applied. To be sure, in common social circles this application involves a practical, on-the-fly judgment that has worked in the favor of the gender activists: English speakers naturally find it insulting, demeaning, and rude to misgender people and call a man "she" or a woman "he". And since we do not, thank goodness, subject everyone we meet to a thorough anatomical and genetic panel, it has always been easiest to simply extend strangers the benefit of the doubt when visible markers tilted one way or the other. But it is foolish in the extreme to confuse that pragmatic application for a general underlying rule. No one's personal opinion, preference, or mindset has ever had anything to do with the assignment of gender in English. Biological sex dictates grammatical gender. Period. That is simply how English works.

So it's quite deceiving for the ADS to defend the current neologism with a statement so misleading as:

"The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen."

Note what that sentence does not say. It does not say that singular they was used for centuries in a non-binary sense. It admits that it merely "builds on" centuries of usage. Again, the ADS knows full well that non-binary "they" is a new coinage, explicitly acknowledged not only in the text of the statement but also by linguist and columnist Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS's new words committee, in an interview with Business Insider:

"It moves beyond the traditional binary of 'he' and 'she'," Zimmer told Business Insider.

"It feels like an opening up of the language, allowing for a greater possibility of what these pronouns can refer to."

So here's my question. If non-binary "they" is indeed a newly invented term, then what exactly is the purpose of mentioning "centuries of usage" in the first place? Are we explaining its appearance, or trying to justify its appearance? Are we describing language as it exists, or are we actively trying to make it something else?

Of course, language is not permanently fixed, and semantic categories can expand. But linguists have typically been preoccupied with watching words naturally expand to new semantic categories. They have not been typically been encouraging them, artificially, into those categories. And that for a good reason. Attempts to coerce linguistic change do not have a very good track record of achieving what they aim at.

University of Illinois Professor of English and linguistics Dennis Baron has compiled an extremely useful list in his "The Words that Failed: a chronology of early nonbinary pronouns".

What is immediately striking about these pronouns is their lack of consistency. There are over a hundred cited: strange invented combinations from academic and lay proposals, and a few obscure dialect variants. They are a thorough mishmash in terms of derivation, construction, and overall form. Baron is absolutely right to call these "words that failed" and contrast them with the comparatively successful singular "they"—and his thought process, linked on the ADS-L listserv in December of 2015, likely influenced the ultimate ADS decision.

But in another article "The politics of He. Literally", Baron strangely argues as follows:

Today, the literal politics of generic he is settled. As the second-wave feminist slogan puts it, “A woman’s place is in the House, and in the Senate.” And in the White House, as well. And the gender politics of the form is settled as well: all the major grammars, dictionaries, and style guides warn against generic he not because it’s bad grammar (which it is), but because it’s sexist (which it also is). The authorities don’t like the coordinate his or her, either: it’s wordy and awkward. The only options left are singular they or an invented pronoun. None of the 120 pronouns coined so far over the past couple of centuries has managed to catch on. And despite the fact that there are a few purists left who still object to it, it looks like singular they will win by default: it’s a centuries-old option for English speakers and writers, and it shows no sign of going away. Many of the style guides accept singular they; the others will just have to get over it if they want to maintain their credibility."

If you'll permit me to roll my eyes at the cheesy triumphalist progressivism that brackets this paragraph, I can address the essentials of his argument. Baron's logic behind preferring an existing pronoun to an invented one like thon is certainly understandable. It is a sound theoretical instinct, and if I were lobbying for a new pronoun I'd make the same case myself. But here we see the same sloppy conflation that underpins the ADS statement: singular "they" is indeed a centuries old option, but absolutely not for the use he is advocating.

And is it really any easier to force a pronoun into grammatically forbidden territory than to invent a whole new one? Baron characterizes the acceptance of "they" as so inevitable it will destroy the credibility of those who oppose it. Which "they" does he mean here? Singular, non-binary, both? We are left to guess—but while I may heartily agree that the prevailing winds are in favor the former and have set my editorial sails accordingly, I am utterly unable to imagine the latter doing anything but floating ignominiously in the doldrums of the Great Linguistic Garbage Patch. After all, Baron's own research shows that a desired expansion of the word "one"—advocated by quotes he collected from 1868, 1884, and 1888—failed just as badly as "thon" and the rest, despite a history of use much more solid than non-binary "they".

In a slide presentation, Baron gives two disadvantages to singular "they": first that it "drives the sticklers nuts", and second that "People aren’t so comfortable using singular they for specific, named, individuals, especially when the referent is in the same syntactic unit as the pronoun".

Aren't so comfortable??? For goodness' sake, that's admitting the entire point right there! People aren't comfortable with it because they know it isn't natural to the grammar they speak. The activists are blithely minimizing the objections of millions of Anglophones and are trying to impose an invented construction onto a public that does not want it or need it. The sticklers in this controversy are the gender activists, who have invented their own phony grammar for completely non-linguistic reasons and think they should be allowed to cram it down everyone else's throats without so much of a whimper of dissent. To object to their linguistic Jacobinism is not some prissy grammatical fetish—it is defending the good sense of the common folk against the insufferably imperious diktats of the Academy.

So here's the bottom line.

I cannot stand here in 2017, in the middle of the veritable graveyard of failed pronouns that Baron has so helpfully uncovered, and place the mantle of inevitability on a completely unnatural coinage invented by radical gender activists and obsequiously ratified by irresponsible academics and publishers. I am only one editor, but I will happily throw my lot in with Dr. Peterson on this. I will never ever acknowledge non-binary "they" as anything other than atrociously ungrammatical English. Period. But more importantly, the English-speaking world at large will never acknowledge it either. This linguistic hijacking is doomed to eventual failure because it is founded on fallacy, and there's not a stitch any activist can do to change that. Punto, e basta.

In the meantime, since it seems fashionably stylish to make demands on academics, I am calling on the American Dialect Society do three things.

First: retract its grossly misleading conflation of singular "they" and non-binary "they", and specify clearly that the latter has no grammatical precedent in the English language and is an entirely new coinage on par with many other failed prescriptivist proposals of the past.

Second: publicly correct the false claims made by gender activists on the historicity of non-binary "they".

Third: clarify more forcefully to parties outside and inside the society that the ADS only offers its Word of the Year in a descriptive sense, and that it is in no way a prescriptive ratification, approval, endorsement, or advocacy of the words in question.

Realistically, though, I am not expecting any of this to happen. Because we all know the climate of American academia is such that the "Social Justice Warriors" (there's a phrase for 2017) would then show up at the ADS's doors and dish out the same bullying treatment that they gave to Dr. Peterson. And given the plainly telegraphed views of some of those involved, I am not hopeful for any result besides continued capitulation to the hubris of the social engineers and their Babelian fantasies of piercing heaven with a tower of invented pronouns.