In his classic text After Virtue
, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre lamented, not so much the immorality that runs rampant in our contemporary society, but something more fundamental and in the long run more dangerous; namely, that we are no longer even capable of having a real argument about moral matters. The assumptions that once undergirded any coherent conversation about ethics, he said, are no longer taken for granted or universally shared. The result is that, in regard to questions of what is right and wrong, we simply talk past one another, or more often, scream at each other.
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.”
Just in advance of Christmas, the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
appeared. As I and many other commentators have pointed out, Tolkien’s great story, like its more substantive successor The Lord of the Rings
, is replete with Catholic themes. On Christmas day itself, another film adaptation of a well-known book debuted, namely Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables
. Though Hugo had a less than perfectly benign view of the Catholic Church, his masterpiece is, from beginning to end, conditioned by a profoundly Christian worldview. It is most important that, amidst all of the “Les Miz” hoopla, the spiritual heart of Hugo’s narrative not be lost.
Like Star Wars
, The Divine Comedy
, and Moby Dick
, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
is the story of a hero's journey. This helps to explain, of course, why, like those other narratives, it has proved so perennially compelling.
Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Accordingly, there has been a good deal of commentary from historians, theologians and even from the handful of bishops and experts who actually participated in the Council five decades ago. I was particularly struck by an observation made by Fr. John O’Malley, the Jesuit historian who penned, some years ago, an influential book called What Happened at Vatican II?
The Second Vatican Council, he said, was the largest meeting in the history of the world. Indeed, some 2,600 people—bishops, theologians, observers and advisors—gathered for months-long sessions between 1962 and 1965; they were setting agendas, debating, arguing, voting and resolving. In a word, they did all the things that people typically do at business meetings.