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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Habemus Papam!

(Reprinted from the issue of July 19, 2007)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo for Habemus Papam!The tears I wept when Pope John Paul II died have all been wiped away by Benedict XVI. By the time you read this, you will know more than I do tonight about the Holy Father’s plangent declaration of what we already knew, but so badly needed to hear reaffirmed: the primacy and authority of the True Church. The angels are singing! (The Protestants, of course, are protesting.)

“What’s new?” is the question journalists are obsessed by. This Pope tells us what’s old or, more to the point, what’s eternal. The restoration of the Latin Mass based on the 1962 Missal — the healing of a terrible wound in Catholic life (over the objections of some Jewish groups, for whom Catholicism equals anti-Semitism) — would be a great enough achievement for one papacy; but not content with that, Benedict has, only days later, served notice to the world that the Second Vatican Council was in no way what some have tried to make it, a reverse of the miracle of Cana — the transformation of the wine of Catholicism into the water of liberalism.

One is stunned, electrified, speechless with joy and gratitude, as if witnessing a miracle indeed. Can this really be happening?

Yes, this is still the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church into which I was joyfully received at my own Baptism on an August Sunday in 1961, at age 15. A few years later I was assured, to my inexpressible horror and sorrow, that the Old Church had been in effect abolished — or, as the optimists liked to put it, suitably updated to adapt her to the modern world.

Thank God I knew her as she was before Progress struck. Why would anyone think she needed “adapting”? The new liturgy seemed to me as vulgar, ridiculous, and superfluous as those renditions of Shakespeare into modern English for dopey college students. This was an improvement? Even now my lips yearn to make the old responses: Et cum spiritu tuo ... Domine, non sum dignus. And I pity those who are too young to remember them. They have been cruelly disinherited.

By a lovely coincidence, as I pondered these things, I happened to see Alfred Hitchcock’s film I Confess, a little-known masterpiece from 1953 about a priest (brilliantly played by the peerless Montgomery Clift) who is framed for a murder by the murderer himself, when the latter uses the seal of the confessional to silence him. Hitchcock’s own Catholicism, with his genius, makes this a beautiful and moving film, in which suspense is fused with piety.

Can the faith ever again become what it was in those days? I no longer doubt it.

The Party from Hell

To turn from the divine to the sordid, the walls are finally closing in on the wretched Bush administration, which is in panic over collapsing support for its war. Republicans in Congress, while voicing reservations, still oppose an immediate withdrawal of American troops, but one more electoral thrashing ought to finish the job. The collapse of John McCain’s presidential campaign is a hopeful symptom.

Receive Joe Sobran's columns by e-mail.Maybe it’s all to the good that the GOP insists on learning so slowly, the hard way: Next year, please Heaven, may give us a new party to replace them. As Lenin used to say, the worse, the better. Let them nominate Rudy Giuliani and flame out forever. Who would miss them, besides the Zionists?

By the way, if you want refreshing straight talk about the Middle East and Zionism, from a Jew, you may want to read Philip Weiss’s excellent blog, mondoweiss. I’ve loved this man since I discovered him ten years ago.

Dr. Johnson’s Cure

Deprived of my library for the foreseeable future, I’ve at least managed to recover a beloved piece of it: James Boswell’s classic, The Life of Samuel Johnson, one of the great treasures of the English language, given to me by a kind young friend. What an antidote to loneliness, among other things!

It’s not really a biography, but then, neither are the Gospels. It’s the record of a long friendship and of one of the world’s most brilliant conversationalists, a staunch Tory and Anglican with powerful “papist” leanings and a mortal enemy of cant and nonsense. I’ve read it many times, but never with more pleasure than now. Dr. Johnson’s wit, warmth, piety, generosity, and depth of insight have made both him and his young friend vivid and immortal companions to millions of readers.

We go to Dr. Johnson (1709–1784) first because he has amusing opinions on almost every subject under the sun. “Amusing” is not the first word one would use to describe Dr. Johnson’s essays, which are serious, solemn, and Latinate to a degree; but his conversation is quite a different matter: colloquial, colorful, biting, playful. But in either key, he expresses himself with wondrous precision.

Though he wrote poems, essays, criticism, biography, drama, and fiction (he dashed off a remarkably popular little novel in one week!), and also edited the plays of Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson’s greatest literary work was his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a tremendous feat of learning and eloquence that has lost its utility as a reference book but remains a joy to read, stamped with the huge personality of its author.

Space precludes dealing here with Dr. Johnson’s deep spiritual wisdom, but I may mention that his fluency in conversation astounded noted scholars: I mean his fluency in conversing in Latin. It was extremely hard for an Englishman to convert to Catholicism in his day, but few men of his race did more to counteract heresy. He was, as it were, instinctively orthodox. What a great Catholic he would have made! He and Benedict were made for each other.

One word you won’t find in his great dictionary is “nonjudgmental.” Dr. Johnson is one of the most gloriously judgmental men who ever lived.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission
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