Politics & Policy

Off the Shelf: Deception in Life, Religion, and Politics

(Paulgrecaud/Dreamstime)
A book about how the European Union was created through fraud, and why won’t the Vatican say whether the pope denied that hell exists?

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

I’ve been reading The Great Deception, by Christopher Booker and Richard North. Its basic thesis is that the European Union was created with a deliberate campaign of fraud and . . . deception. Fun reading during the interminable Brexit negotiations.

There’s much more to say about this book, perhaps next week. But in my eyes, the British villain of the story is Edward Heath, who unexpectedly became prime minister in 1970, when only 15 percent of the British people were in favor of joining the Common Market. It wasn’t even really a campaign issue. But within three years, the deal was done. “There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty,” he said. “These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified”

What Booker and North show is that Health was lying.

Heath gave that reassurance above long after he had been briefed that the plan was to institute a single currency, and quickly. His own government reported to him that the Europeans were enacting a

plan for economic and monetary union (EMU) [that] has revolutionary long-term implications, both economic and political. It could imply the ultimate creation of a European federal state with a single currency. . . . All the basic instruments of national economic management (fiscal, monetary, incomes and regional policies) would ultimately be handed over to the central federal authorities. The Werner report suggests this radical transformation of the present communities should be accomplished within a decade.

Booker and North add that the briefs Heath read said that national governments would soon enjoy less autonomy than an individual state in the United States. And “crucially, the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] warned, ‘there must be no mistake about the final objective; the process of change is ‘irreversible’, and the implications, both economic and political, must be accepted from the outset’.” The Hotel California. You can give up your independence but never get it back.

The stakes that Heath knew about were never disclosed to the public. The implications for sovereignty had to be carefully adduced. They were by the archconservative Enoch Powell, and the socialist Tony Benn, who were the unlikely pair in the “anti-marketeer” camp. A nice reminder that the extremes in any age are usually right about something. More on The Great Deception in the next installment.

It is a shortened week with the high holy days. I read Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. But I don’t want to step on my review in the forthcoming issue of the magazine. Needless to say, it’s very good.

Still, there is more to say about Pope Francis today. Because, as I write on Maundy Thursday, his favorite Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, is reporting his latest conversation with Francis. In his reconstruction of their conversation, Scalfari has the pope saying that souls who have not repented and therefore have not received God’s pardon simply scomparire — disappear, in English. In other words, there is no hell. The souls of the damned aren’t damned, they just are no more.

The Vatican promptly put out a statement that the interview is a reconstruction of their conversation, not a series of direct quotes. But the Vatican also pointedly issued no specific denial of any of the pope’s words. Amazing to say it, but that’s typical. In essence this constitutes an invitation to disbelieve whatever you want. Predictably, Catholic media who rely on the pope’s star power and the appearance of impeccability put out stories noting that the pope has often talked about hell in the past and that, by the way, Scalfari is an atheist and unreliable narrator. Frankly, I find the Vatican’s position revoltingly underhanded. It refuses to tell us whether the pope said these things, and encourages us to believe what we want. It incentivizes the pope’s defenders to defame Scalfari as a fraud and an underhanded atheist. What kind of game is this? It shouldn’t be hard to just tell the truth about this, yet it is.

This is the fifth interview the pope has done with Scalfari, and far from the first scandal to come out of it. It is impossible to believe that someone as earthy as Francis is still innocent of what’s happening here. Yes, he’s talked about hell as a reality before. But the whole intellectual culture of Catholic seminaries and formation is filled with doublespeak. Doctrines are proclaimed in creedal statements, and then their contents are emptied in theological essays, or given a completely opposite interpretation in “practical” application. I can’t possibly pretend any longer that Francis is immune from this culture of deception, including self-deception.

This message about souls disappearing may be something he wants out into the world, but he also wants to avoid any direct confrontation over it. I’m sure it thrills the little dilettantes who continue to conjure up a counter-magisterium from scraps of papal statements, a few trendy theological buzzwords, and rejected theological commissions. The capacity for Pope Francis to contradict himself reflects the other changes he is initiating, where the sacramental theology of the Church runs in contrary directions depending on the decision of the local national bishops’ conferences. I’m quite sure he thinks this is all quite clever. I find it pretty indulgent. Grow up, you’re the pope. Popes have had their dead bodies dug up and put on trial for less.

It is impossible to believe that someone as earthy as Francis is still innocent of what’s happening here. Yes, he’s talked about hell as a reality before. But the whole intellectual culture of Catholic seminaries and formation is filled with doublespeak.

On the other hand, I’m almost jealous of the pope and could myself use an unguarded moment with an atheist confidante. Maybe it’s the never-ending end of winter, but I’m much more tempted to deny the joys of the blessed than the reality that human souls may be damned to eternal torment. This has been the worst Lent since I came back to the Church in my college years. At Mass, I do little more than wrestle with my squirming children. The great music and great silences of the liturgy are all around me, but their consolations rarely penetrate my consciousness.

The bell rings. My knee bends. But the mind has long since drifted away,  taken up with preparations for the weekly battle, with the striving for the successes and satisfactions of middle age, and the achievement of some security for my children. To that end, I’m writing a book and filing several columns a week. Baseball season has started, which means the return of my seven-day-a-week morning newsletter, The Slurve. Season six. Periodically, I check Twitter to see if some social-media outrage typhoon has fallen on my reputation and ruined us. (Not yet!) My son also refuses to sleep through the night. More often than not, every single member of my household wakes up in the morning in a bed or on a couch they did not intend to sleep in that night.

So lately, my relationship to the faith is more aspirational. It would be nice to get back to regularly contemplating life’s mysteries, and slowly turning myself toward the love without which man is nothing, wouldn’t it? If anyone is reading Saint Francis de Sales’s book Introduction to the Devout Life, I resemble the kind of sentimental believer he warns his correspondent against becoming. So last year’s Lenten reading could be called a bust, too. Maybe at some point in the Triduum a real silence will fall, and sorrow for my sins will crash on me. Then like de Sales’s bad example, I will weep piously, and be confused again for a devout person. More likely it will happen in the summer when we come back round to the reading at which Peter responds to the miraculous catch by saying, “Depart from me, Lord.” That one usually catches me by surprise.

Next week, I’ve decided to bang away exclusively at the book manuscript. In the meantime, hopefully Yoenis Cespedes will keep cracking in these RBIs. And the spring temperatures will finally arrive in New York, and my son will sleep through the night. So I reassure myself.

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