The Limits of Artifical ‘Intelligence’

artificial intelligenceThe gauntlet has now been thrown down, that computers, or more specifically artificial intelligence will soon be able to create more perfect art than humans.  This prediction, or threat, depending upon your point of view, applies in particular to music, the most mathematical and ‘algorithmic’ of the arts, following set patterns of chord structure, harmonies, frequencies, intervals and such, but may be extended to everything else, painting, sculpture, even writing, which will make students’ essays a whole lot easier.


The article describes a 1997 demonstration by David Cope at the University of Oregon, who presented an audience with three compositions:  an original piece by the great Johannes Sebastian Bach, and two similar pieces, one by musicology professor Steve Larson, and another by a computer program Cope had devised specifically to imitate Bach, which he called EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence). I suppose Cope chose Bach as one of the more cerebral and precise of the great composers.  The auditors then voted on who they thought actually composed the three pieces.  Curiously, a majority thought the EMI piece was by Bach, that Bach’s piece was by Larson, and that Larson’s piece was by EMI.


So does this prove that a computer (we will leave aside the human imitation for another discussion) can compose as well as the great and unparalleled Kapellmeister from Eisenach?


Well, besides the subjectivity of this study (how well could these particular audience members judge comlex compositions, such as Bach’s?), the short answer is, no, and we may visit some other examples to understand why.


At around the same time, just before the EMI demonstration, IBM had pit their own algorithmic bulldog, which they evocatively called ‘Deep Blue’, against the mind of chess master Gary Kasparov in what was billed as the match of the century.  Up until this point, no computer had ever definitively defeated a grand master under tournament conditions.  In the much ballyhooed and televised event (how does one watch chess on TV? I guess you could take a whole lot of bathroom breaks), Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in both tournaments, not by much, mind you, 4-2 in a 1996 match, and 3.5 to 2.5 in a subsequent re-match in 1997, but it was enough: Computers were now finally better than humans at chess.


One might say, chess is so mathematical, no wonder.  But then this superiority of artificial intelligence was (again, apparently) demonstrated in 2011, when another IBM computer, ‘Watson’, defeated the greatest Jeopardy! Champions of all time, Ken Jennings and Steve Rutter, even hedging its bets better than the human competitors. Then, more recently in 2016, Google’s Deep Mind algorithm defeated Lee Sedol in the game Go, which is apparently even more complex than chess.  From Kasparov to Sedol, it seems the evidence was in: Computers were officially ‘smarter’ than humans, even the smartest of humans.


But are they? Mr. Kasparov complained that the engineers at IBM were ‘tweaking’ the computer in-between games, to improve its performance. Perhaps, but that was not the main point.  Rather, the question we should ask is whether the computer was really playing chess, or Jeopardy!, or Go?  Or, for that matter, was it really ‘writing’ a Bach prelude?


At its core, this is not so much a scientific question, but a philosophical one, part of the answer to which may be found in a 1931 paper by the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gӧedel, whose official title was “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems”, but which came to be known more generally as the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’.  Gӧedel demonstrated that any ‘formal system’, that is, any algorithm that operated according to a set of pre-existing rules and axioms (as any computer by definition must) can never transcend this algorithm, which means that it can never  be aware of its own ‘consistency’, of its own rules and procedures.   When applied to computers (which would not really be invented until after the Second World War, although the theory was around in  Gӧedel’s time), this means that any artificial ‘intelligence’, cannot be aware of what it is doing, unable to go beyond the algorithm that has been programmed into it.  Humans, on the other hand, can indeed transcend not only the computer’s algorithm (for we put it in there), but also our own, for we, as humans, are aware of our own consistency and can therefore, in a paradoxical way, be inconsistent, violating, if that is the word, our own ‘algorithm’.  What this means at a practical level is that we humans, unlike computers, are conscious and free, and therefore will always in some fundamental way be superior to computers, regardless of how  good they get at certain programmable tasks.


This is a subtle argument, not accepted by all, but seems true.  Some respond that our own very awareness and consciousness, even our freedom, is a function of the complexity of our brains, which are still vastly more intricate than the most advanced computer, with untold trillions of dendritic connections.  When artificial intelligence reaches such a level of complexity, it is purported, then they too will become self-aware, and begin perfecting themselves, without our help.  This is the trope of  such figures as Ray Kurzweil, now head of engineering at Google, and other transhumanists who evoke the notion of the ‘singularity’, wherein computing power will explode exponentially, becoming ever-more intelligent and powerful, and we humans had best get on board, perfecting ourselves along with the (our?) machines.  In other words, we must become super-intelligent cyborgs, transcending the limited computing powers of our fleshy brains. (But  then who would win Jeopardy!, if we all know all the answers, and answers to questions that have not even been raised? Ye shall be like gods…).


Science, or science fiction? The key here is that, according to Gӧedel’s theorem, no matter how ‘complex’ one makes a computer, it will always be trapped, if that is the word, within its own complexity, within the very processes that make it a computer.


That is not to say, as seems obvious, that computers will do far better than humans on tasks that are purely algorithmic, that work on a system of set pre-ordained, never-deviating rules and axioms, which is why we use calculators (although in my old school habits I still check much of my own work by hand).  This is also why computers are very good at chess, which has strict rules (part of the reason I am not much given to the game), as well as games of propositional ‘facts’, like Jeopardy!.  Computers can even manipulate musical notes, altering a rest here, a note there, a chord interval somewhere else, and ‘compose’ music.


However, the computer could  do none of these things unless humans had invented the ‘rules’ first and, more than that, programmed these rules into the computer. Beyond the rules, the programmers (all of them human) would also install past iterations of chess and Go games, along with million of facts put into the ‘brain’ of Watson.  The computer would then play these games over and over, in millions of iterations, ‘learning’ in the process, but only learning because humans had already invented and learned.


This argument applies even more clearly to the musical example, with which we began. A computer could never imitate Bach, unless there had first been a Bach. Not much computing power is required (even for humans) to manipulate what Bach there is, sometimes to pleasing effect, oftentimes not (for Bach knew what he was doing, and it is nearly impossible to perfect what such a master has produced).


Even in its most complex procedures, the computer knows not what it does, although in a different sense than we who put to death the Redeemer. Only humans can act in ignorance, or refuse to follow what truth they know, or go beyond a given set of rules.  A computer must follow what ‘truth’ is programmed into it, inexorably proceeding from one step to another, never able to transcend itself, to recognize, or go against or beyond, its own consistency.


This is why computers, however good they are at algorithmic tasks, are woefully bad at anything that requires context, nuance, and subtle decision making, things that seem very simple to us, but in fact are incredibly complex.  Recognizing faces, understanding events, getting the bigger picture, humour, invention, creativity (in the true sense) are either difficult for a computer (insofar as they have some basis in algorithms) or impossible (if they depend on transcending an algorithm, such as consciousness, spirituality, relationships and love).


For a tragic example, ponder the case of Joshua Brown, who was test driving a Tesla self-drive car on a bright sunny day in May of 2016.  Joshua was supposed to have his hands and his human brain ready to take the wheel at all times.  The details are a bit sketchy, but the car went full speed under the trailer of an 18-wheeler, a horrific accident which Mr. Brown did not survive (requiescat in pace).  According to the official laconic statement from Tesla “neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied”. The driver of the truck claimed he could hear a Harry Potter movie playing in the crashed car, and it was still playing as the car kept speeding down the highway, its top sheared off, until it struck a telephone pole a quarter of a mile away.


A human driver, if he were aware and not watching a film, would have noticed that the big, white thing filling his field of vision was attached to a tractor turning left in front of him, and was certainly of a different hue and texture from the blue azure of the sky above and around.  Also, a human driver, even if were so tricked and survived impact, would have stopped the vehicle, and not kept on going full speed like some B-movie zombie-car.  It’s like the joke with the three old ladies out for a drive and, after zipping through the third stop sign, the two passengers say to the driver: “Mildred, you’ve just gone through your third stop sign!”, to which Mildred replies, “What, am I driving?”.  Unlike poor (fictional) Mildred, a computer is not only not aware that it is driving, but is also not aware that it is ‘in’ a car, or playing a game, or writing music.  It just does what it is programmed to do, inexorably and inevitably, which is why I for one will never sit back in a driverless car and, as the song says, just let it drive.


Computers will never be able to see and react to reality in all of its complexity, for the basic reason that reality is not an algorithm.  This is similar to the mistake that Galileo made, thinking that the cosmos could be captured and fully explained by a mathematical model, and why Pope Saint John Paul II had this to say in response 400 years later in a 1992 address to the Pontifical Academy for Science:


 The emergence of the subject of complexity probably marks in the history of the natural sciences a stage as important as the stage which bears relation to the name of Galileo, when a univocal model of order seemed to be obvious. Complexity indicates precisely that, in order to account for the rich variety of reality, we must have recourse to a number of different models.


Reality, and all that can happen as things unfold in God’s providence, is not deterministic, and its infinite richness requires many ‘models’, or paradigms, even to begin understanding and responding to it.  So don’t expect artificial intelligence, such as it is, to take over the art and music world anytime soon, or indeed ever.  We still need creators, inventors, writers, artists, and, I would argue, human drivers and pilots and surgeons, in fact, all of us, to strive to go beyond where we now are, to transcend our own ‘algorithms’, our own sense of limitation and functionality.  It is this which makes us in God’s image, our capacity to relate to persons and to things as they really are, in all their infinite depth and beauty as reflecting their Creator.


Sure enough, like their artificial analogues, humans will never get all of it, but at least we get it.


The Joyful Apostle of Rome

philip neriToday, May 26th, is the feast of one of my favorite saints, Philip Neri (1515-1595), born and raised in the renaissance city of Florence during the height of that glorious era, one which, for all its artistic and scientific accomplishments, or perhaps because of them, was losing the sense of God. As a charismatic, talented, attractive, noble and virtuous young man, Philip could really have been anything, but his heart, in a very real and literal sense, was fixed on God and God alone.  I mean ‘real and literal’ since he was so inflamed with the ‘fire of divine love’, as the Psalms say, that people could often feel his heart beating from across the room, and when an autopsy was performed at the end of his life, his heart was found to be so enlarged that it had expanded his ribs, yet with no ill-effects.


Philip, who at first wanted to go to the mission in the far-off Indies, instead made his way to Rome, still in early adulthood, and began tutoring, visiting the sick, praying, while evangelizing (we had best avoid proselytizing) the young men, urging them to join him in prayer and good works. At his spiritual director’s request, even urging, Philip took Holy Orders, became a priest, and soon men were flocking to him for confession, advice.  Eventually, a sort of community life developed around the saint, so he began what came to be known simply as ‘The Oratory’, a place of prayer, sacraments and preaching the word of God, the three pillars or foundations of Oratorian life.  A rule was drawn up, but without vows, something upon which Father Philip was firm:  The only bond an Oratorian would have to the way of life would be the ‘vinculum caritatis‘, the chain of charity, which would hold him to remain with his brethren, hopefully, in the normal order of things, for life.


The Oratory was one of the primary forces in evangelizing Rome in the 16th century, keeping the eternal city and the centre of Christendom at least in essence on the path of truth and holiness. Saint Philip was the director and adviser of Popes and potentates, but always in a hidden way.  His motto for the Oratory was ‘amare nesciri‘, love to be unknown (which, in my own time at the Oratory, seminarians would modify to ‘amare nescire‘, love not to know…). Father Philip was a mystic, steeped in prayer; his Masses could last hours (the server would close the door and come back and check on him).  He could read hearts and souls, and converted untold thousands during his long life. He was always cheerful, and wanted his own sons to be so: I will have no sad saints, he was wont to repeat.  Joy, even in the midst of suffering, is a hallmark of holiness and the Christian life. We could do with much more of that spirit of joy, delight in the simple things, gratitude to God, in our sad and tired and grey world.


One of the more famous Oratorians, who is known, was Bd. John Henry Cardinal Newman, who helped evangelize England in the 19th century, and whose profound and beautiful writings and sermons still move many.  There is an interesting article on their spiritual kinship this morning in Crisis magazine by Michael de Sapio, and I will leave you with a brief quotation which sums up Saint Philip’s apostolic work:


As a young priest Philip saw the fascination that the arts and sciences had on contemporary minds. Perceiving that the Renaissance was there to stay, he sought to channel it to Christian ends. This he did by founding the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of secular priests that held regular services of prayer, sermons, and religious music for the people. Philip drew upon a wealth of culture for the Oratory meetings. Members of the papal chapel choir were brought in to sing the polyphonic compositions of Palestrina, and popular laudi (songs of praise) were written expressly for use in the Oratory; the musical genre of the oratorio can be traced directly to the religious dialogues-in-music performed here. Just like the Renaissance painters, Philip took advantage of the beauty of nature: his outdoor pilgrimages to Rome’s Seven Basilicas drew crowds of people to relive the immediacy of faith of the early Christians, who worshiped in house churches, catacombs, and en plein air.


Sancte Philipe, ora pro nobis!

The Pope, Trump and Climate Change



The Holy Father and President Donald Trump finally had  a face to face meeting yesterday which, as accounts have it, began rather awkwardly, but soon warmed up (although the Pope still looks rather stony-faced in the group shot afterward) as the two discussed various topics for half an hour, snippets of which were revealed, striving for peace at the top of the agenda.  I hope this is the beginning of an ongoing and fruitful dialogue and cooperation, in the vein of Pope John Paul and Ronald Reagan.  There are, of course, deep differences and divisions, but one can always hope.  Trump certainly seemed elated as he left, effusing many thank you’s, calling the meeting one of the great honours of his life.  Furthermore, his womenfolk, Melania and Ivanka, wore black and were veiled, something they did not do for the Islamic king of Saudi Arabia.  Good for them. Also, Melania, a Catholic, when the Pope gave her a Rosary, asked if he could bless it.  Perhaps she will in turn use it to pray, even, who knows, with her husband. A nightly Rosary in the White House chapel would do wonders for the world, not least in this Fatima year.


All well and good.  But I cannot leave this theme without mentioning that the Holy Father, along with his Secretary of State, also emphasized in the meeting the importance of ‘climate change’, especially in light of the upcoming Paris talks on this never-ending theme, gifting Trump with an signed copy of Laudato Si, his encyclical on ecology and the environment. Pope Francis is likely aware of Trump’s denial of the reality of climate change, or at least its full surety, which I for one share.


Of course, the Holy Father is free to think what he wants, but his magisterial authority, limited to the realm of revealed doctrine of faith and morals, does not extend to the scientific hypothesis of ‘climate change’.  Come to think of it, neither does the authority of scientists, for, as I have written before, there is no way to prove nor, more importantly, disprove, climate ‘change’, which is claimed as responsible for flooding and for drought, for its being too hot and too cold (as Katy Perry might sing), for wind and for rain (a la James Taylor), for too many hurricanes and the curious lack thereof, for the extinction of some species and the proliferation of others, even for climate-change-induced depression and anxiety amongst suburban scientists, frustrated by all the denying they must face.


At least the hypothesis of ‘global warming’ had some semblance, however remote, inchoate and largely unproveable, of a scientific basis.  It is by and large, in practice, impossible to measure the changing temperature of something as large and as old as planet Earth.  More to the point, even if one could, it is in practice nearly impossible to determine and distinguish the multiplicity of causes of such warming or cooling, but one could at least in theory try.


Now the boogeyman of ‘climate change’ is posited as a cause for nearly every, well, let’s just put that at every, ecological phenomenon.  There was our own Prime Minister the other day invoking this spectre in his comment on the recent flooding in Quebec and around Ottawa.  How does one ever disprove a hypothesis which is a truism, for the climate is always changing?  A simple question I might posit is:  Does carbon dioxide cause global warming, cooling, neither, or either?  How does it produce the purported violent and fluctuating weather systems?  Can anyone trace the causal link, which any science worth its name must do? We should recall that CO2 is not a pollutant, and is the stuff which plants breathe, and plants in turn produce our oxygen. Of course, too much of a good thing is always too much (except for charity and grace), but how much is too much, and why?


There are many things in life than men nor Man can ever change, and one of them is the weather, which will come and go, here on Earth and on planets and stars throughout the universe, little affected by our activity.  The primary (natural) determinant of our weather (besides the occasional divine intervention) is, of course, the Sun, and just try modifying that immense and imperturbable object.


As the serenity prayer, attributed to the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, would have it:


God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Yes, there are many things that we can change, and it is best, I would gently posit, to focus our limited time and energy on those.


Help of Christians, China and Trudeau’s Communion

help of christiansToday is the memorial of Our Lady Help of Christians, a title first used by Saint John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, in 345, and invoked ever since.  Pope Saint Pius V urged Catholics to plead for her intercession in the war against the onslaught of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in the latter half of the 16th century, which was, fortunately for the future of Europe, successful. The Pope had the title inserted into the Litany of Loreto, in thanksgiving for the victory in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 against overwhelming odds (although see my piece yesterday for today’s Islamic threat).  Pope Pius VII instituted the official feast day in the midst of his struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte at the dawn of the 19th century.  More recently, during his own pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has asked Catholics to intercede for the Church in China, still mired in many of the evils of Communism, one of which is to set up a State-controlled ‘patriotic Church’, that Catholics in the country remain faithful to the Holy Father in the midst of all the persecution and confusion this causes.


Our Lady Help of Christians is a title under which Mary, the Mother of God, may offer aid to any one of her children in need of assistance, which includes all of us, at some times more than others. We may pray today the prayer written to her by one of those devoted sons, Saint John Bosco:


Most Holy Virgin Mary, Help of Christian,
how sweet it is to come to your feet
imploring your perpetual help.
If earthly mothers cease not to remember their children,
how can you, the most loving of all mothers forget me?
Grant then to me, I implore you,
your perpetual help in all my necessities,
in every sorrow, and especially in all my temptations.
I ask for your unceasing help for all who are now suffering.
Help the weak, cure the sick, convert sinners.
Grant through your intercessions many vocations to the religious life.
Obtain for us, O Mary, Help of Christians,
that having invoked you on earth we may love and eternally thank you in heaven.


Speaking of needing help, a comment on Justin Trudeau’s reception of Holy Communion by the hand of none other than the Archbishop of Montreal: LifeSite news has a write-up about this, to which I will not add much, except to say that the notion of denying Communion to an individual, even such canonical penalties as excommunication and interdict (so rarely used nowadays) are not retributive punishment, a ‘getting back’ at someone, nor are they primarily a judgement on the state of someone’s soul.  Rather, they are medicinal, an act of mercy, a means of leading someone in a state of ‘public, manifest grave sin’ to reflect upon their actions, and mend their ways.  I wrote of this concerning some of the (mis)-applications of Amoris Laetitia, and giving Communion to those living in adultery or cohabiting without matrimony:  The danger here of not correcting them, even supporting their actions, are the sins of scandal and complaisance, wherein, to keep the peace and please the person, we allow them to continue to live in such a way that poses a grave danger to their souls and the souls of others.


As Pope John Paul II declared in 1981 in Familiaris Consortio concerning denying such individuals Communion, in a statement that applies analogously to Justin Trudeau’s own situation:


However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. (par. 84)


Any ‘condition of life’ that ‘objectively contradicts’ the ‘union of love between Christ and the Church’ is a scandal, that is, an occasion of grave sin to the person who commits the act, and to those who witness, and especially participate in, the act.


Justin Trudeau makes no qualms about his public, manifest and unmitigated support for abortion right up until birth which, to avoid euphemism, means the wholesale murder of the unborn, paid for by the State.  Now, he and his government are also directly responsible for the legalization of physician-assisted murder and suicide.  And this says nothing about his public, manifest support for homosexual ‘marriage’, transgenderism, radical feminism, drug use, and on it goes.  To witness him receiving Communion in a public Liturgy signifies that he is in ‘communion’ with the Church, and all that the Church stands for, which he most manifestly and publicly is not.


This is not to ‘judge’ the state of his soul, whether he is in mortal sin or not, something only God and, to some extent Mr. Trudeau himself, knows.  It is to asses the objective state of his actions, which put his soul and the souls of many others in grave spiritual danger, and must be remedied, rectified and repented.


Of course, such resistance to the culture of death requires courage, for there will be backlash, ridicule, even persecution, but it has been so since the time of the Apostles themselves, as we currently read in the Liturgy in the Book of Acts.


As Christ predicted to His own disciples, and to all of us, such is the price we must pray for standing in the truth, and with the Truth Himself.  For it is through only through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  (Acts 14:22)


Domina nostra, Auxilium Christianorum, ora pro nobis!


Massacre in Manchester

manchesterISIS has struck again, in the heart of Britain, as a suicide bomber detonated a ‘sophisticated’ device as young concertgoers were leaving an ‘Ariana Grande’ concert in Manchester. At least 22 have been killed, and dozens more injured. Details are of course still emerging, and in the meantime we must pray for the victims, for the eternal rest of those who have died, for healing for those who survived, and that God may have mercy on thei perpetrators of this heinous deed.


In yesterday’s Gospel, for Monday of this sixth week of Easter, Christ prophesied that “indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God”, the very claim made by the Islamic terrorist(s) who carry out such brutalities.  In the original Greek, the word for service is ‘latria’, which means adoration, worship, reserved for God alone. In their conscience, such as it is, these terrorists see themselves as purifying the corruption of an ‘infidel’ culture, and paving the way for the universal acceptance of Islam, the one and only true religion, according to which they are considered ‘martyrs’, in a tragic and ironic inversion of that venerable title.


Yes, we must respond, and this is a ‘war’ of sorts, the first principle of which, as Sun Tzu says, is ‘know thy enemy’. One aspect of that, in turn, is seeing ourselves as our enemies might see us.  I must confess that I had never heard of Ariana Grande until this morning. In the photo on her Wikipedia page, the 23 year-old singer is dressed in what looks like a naughtie nightie, something you would buy in the back of Victoria’s Secret. Not exactly a role model one might choose for young women and girls in our already sex-saturated culture.  There is a method to the madness of ISIS, and they choose their targets with aforethought.  To such ‘men’, who have their women dress, if dress is the right word, in what amount to full-body shrouds, one can see how someone like Grande and her troops of teenage imitators would make them froth and foam at the mouth.


Ah, yes, the clash of cultures, which our politicians and their followers, which includes most people, just do not get.  At the heart of any society is its religion, whether that religion be supernatural or not, what God or gods they worship, what founds their laws and customs, where they put their time and energy, how they raise their children and govern their families, towns, societies. Islam has a very different idea of how all of this is to be done than what was once the Christian land of ‘Britain’, but the hollowness of an increasingly agnostic and apathetic British culture, along with the rest of the West, is weak and prone against the onslaught of a resurgent Islam.


When these tragedies strike at the heart of our own culture (they happen far more regularly in Muslim lands, but do not receive anywhere near the news coverage, if covered at all), I wonder why?  Not in the sense of why Islam spreads its religion and gains converts by violence, for that has been the case since its founding by Mohammed, but, rather, that Islam has already, in a deep and real sense, won the war, without the necessity of such violence.  President Trump, in his own response, called the perpetrators ‘losers in life’, but are they really, at least according to their own ‘game’ and how they themselves see ‘life’?  Blowing themselves up and taking any number of infidels along with them (none of whom they see as ‘innocent’, regardless of age, sex or status) ensures them a paradise of unending sensual delights.  Of course, they will find out the hard way that this is not the case, as they now stand before the judgement seat of Christ, but that does not change how they will act here and now.


Furthermore, sheer demographic numbers, by births and immigration, ensure that Britain, along with many other European countries, will be more or less Islamic enclaves within a generation or two, and under such a regime, there will not be many, if any, concerts like Ariana Grande’s.  I suppose the a priori violence signifies some level of impatience, so that they might hurry things along, or frustration, or just to prove who’s really in charge. As ISIS has already implied by their social media response, there is more of this to come.


No one knows how many potentials terrorists there are in Britain, which has over 3 million Muslims, with more or less untrammeled immigration still continuing.  Most of these are law-abiding citizens, one may presume, but some, even if it be a small number, are not only prone to such mayhem, but actively planning further bloodshed, and it does not take many to bring a numerically more dominant culture to its knees.


Yes, we must resist, and do what we can by police and military intervention, but how do you stop people who are willing to kill and die in the process, seeing this is a glorious ‘worship offered to God’?  How many police officers, gates, cameras, barriers, security?  Do we hole up in a reinforced walled communities, fearful to go out the door?  To face such an enemy requires primarily a resistance that is cultural, which ultimately means religious, something we have by and large lost.


As we reflect and pray, Britains and all the rest of us have a lot of soul searching to do, to ask who we are, what it really means to be ‘British’, or ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’.  For if we know not who we are, how can we know who is the enemy?


The Queen’s Birthday

victoriaA very joyful Victoria Day to all our Canadian readers!  A statuatory federal holiday, which was originally instituted to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819), Canadians celebrate the first ‘long weekend’ of summer which contains the Monday before May 24th.  Hence, its colloquial term of ‘May 24’, which also has not so subliminal connections to a 24 pack of beer, a beverage often enjoyed during this time.


Canada is technically a ‘Dominion’, still under the governance of Her Majesty, the Queen, represented by the Governor-General, which explains why we have a holiday commemorating a queen, of whose name most elementary, and I dare say high school and university, students are scarcely aware.  What this does mean is that we share in all the history, the common law, the rights and privileges, and, all in all, good governance of what was once ‘Merrie England’. which is not what it once was.  But we will take the weekend.


Of course, we Catholics don’t really celebrate ‘weekends’, but Sundays and Holy-Days, morphed into ‘holidays’. This was the sixth Sunday of Easter, leading us ever-closer to Pentecost, the culmination of the fifty days after the Resurrection.


So we should pray for all sovereigns and their subjects, that we gain wisdom, and the peace that comes from on high.


Veni Creator Spiritus!


And, if you are looking for some holiday reading, I have an article published this morning in Crisis magazine, on artificial intelligence.  Peruse as you will, and comments are always, or almost always, welcome.


Peace and joy to all.

The Eternal Perspective of Pope John I

Pope John IToday is the feast of Pope Saint John I (470-526), the first Pope to visit Constantinople, on an ambassadorial mission T Emperor Justin on behalf of the Arian King Theodoric, now ruler of the Western empire.  The purpose of the mission was to mitigate Justin’s decrees against Arians, a fourth-century heresy which denied the divinity of Christ, condemned by two ecumenical councils, but which still lingered in the Church, particularly amongst Germanic ‘barbarian’ converts like Theodoric.


Pope John made the arduous journey of over 1300 miles with a large and venerable retinue, and was received warmly by the Emperor.  By any unbiased account, the Holy Father accomplished his mission, but was accused by Theodoric of conspiring with the emperor (relations between East and West were already fraying), put into a dank prison at Ravenna, where good Pope John, already old and frail, died of neglect and ill-treatment on this day in the year of Our Lord 526.


Providentially, another Pope who took half of his name, the great John Paul II, was born on this day in 1920.  In Poland, and other European cultures, they do not celebrate their birthdays so much as the days of their patron saints (which for Karol Wojtyla was November 4th, Saint Charles Borromeo).  But I am sure that Pope John was in some ways guiding the life of the young Karol, knowing he was destined to take on the mantle of the papacy, and travel, pray and suffer, more than his eponymous predecessor, for the Church universal.  Curiously, John Paul II’s would-be assassin was from Turkey, where is found Constantinople, now named Istanbul.


It is only in the breadth of eternity that we can truly discern the events not only of this world, but in each of our individual lives.  What in  the rather limited scale of secularity appears as ‘failure’ may in fact be our greatest success, which is why we honour martyrs like Pope John.  Like John Paul II 1500 years after him, his ending seems tragic, but their equanimity in persecution, misunderstanding, even apparent futility, sickness and death, is their greatest triumph.


It is also in this light that we should view the political events unfolding, in Washington and elsewhere.  In his own way, Mark Steyn is correct in his column this morning, that what we witness with President Trump and the all the ‘deep state’ operatives out to ‘get him’ , all the tweets and emails and whispers, who said what to whom and when, vaguely remembered ‘memos, are more or less machinations in a hamster cage, missing the bigger picture:  They accuse Trump of ‘treason’, while outside the hamster cage of  Washington the very definition of ‘America’ is being dissolved by untrammelled immigration, demographic collapse and ungoverned debt now in the tens of trillions, and these are just the secular problems, outside all the moral degradation and the abandonment not only of Christian principles, but of reason itself.


The same here in Canada, as big-C ‘Conservatives’ vie for the leadership, few of whom get in any way the bigger picture.  Canada is celebrating her 150th sesquicentennial birthday, and although this country offers much that is good, that good is being squandered, as we descend further into moral apathy and eventual anarchy.


The ‘real’ Canada happens not in Parliament Hill, and all their own machinations and manoeuvres which absorb the focus of our news sources, but in the homes and churches across this land, where children are raised in virtue and goodness, the Holy Eucharist offered each day,  all the prayers and sacrifices of all people of good will who to some degree get the ‘bigger picture’, even if, especially if, their efforts seem small in the world’s eyes. Four men were ordained for the diocese of Toronto last week, a Jesuit friend will be ordained this Saturday, and four other young men, two of whom we had the honour and privilege of teaching here at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, will be ordained on June 24th for the small diocese of Pembroke; and this says nothing of all the truly Christian marriages, that great and noble adventure, which will provide all the souls for the future of the Church, which these priests will help guide into eternity. This is what will save Canada in these troubled and tumultuous times, just as Pope John’s sacrifice helped ‘save’ the universal Church from its seemingly inevitable demise at the dawn of the ‘Dark Ages’, (if, indeed, Canada is to be saved).  Whatever the future, God has all things in His most merciful hands.


Saint John and Saint John Paul, orate pro nobis, and pro patribus nostris!


Cultural Appropriation and the Shriveling of Free Speech

irish cultural appThe days of free speech, as it was so quaintly called, fought for through the ages, seem to be drawing ever-closer to a sad and final close:  You may have read recently of Dr. Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who has adamantly refused to use ‘gender neutral’ pronouns, a direct affront to the Inquisitors of the new orthodoxy, which will brook no opposition. Fortunately for him, Dr. Peterson is tenured, with a secure source of income, so continues his fight, at least for now, but most others are not so fortunate.


First they came for the pronouns, and now they come for culture.  Yes, in the past few weeks there has arisen the spectre of what is curiously termed ‘cultural appropriation’.  One might think this a good thing, to adopt the culture of another.  But no, dear reader. Rather, it seems that we now cannot write, draw, fictionalize, portray, dress up as, to say nothing of joke about, any culture to which we do not most firmly and externally belong. Mexican sombreros, dreadlocks, Native headgear, accents, any and all cultural art, all verboten, unless you have the ‘cred’, the lineage, the race, the experience, the authenticity, unless you actually, truly ‘belong’.


This all came to a head here in Canada with artist Amanda PL (her original last name seems to have been expropriated), who just had her exhibit of indigenous-inspired art canceled because, you guessed is, she’s not indigenous.  What now, I wonder, of non-Greek iconographers? Chanel, the perfume company, is being vilified for selling a boutique boomerang ($1725, but they probably smell nice, so get one while they’re still available).  As critics say, they ‘should not allowed to profit off aboriginal heritage’.  Hmm. What will next be off the shelf?  Lacrosse sticks (Native)?  Golf clubs (Scottish)? Kayaks (Inuit)?


This is spiraling out of control.  Hal Niedzieczki resigned as editor of the highbrow Write magazine for offer a prize for the best ‘appropriation’, which was taken as a mocking joke, something he denies, claiming it was offered with good intentions.  Then there is Jonathan Kay, nobody’s idea of a right-winger, commenting on Amanda’s plight, who has now parted ways with the Walrus magazine after simply offering to debate the issue (to be clear, Mr. Kay denies any overt connection, claiming he now wants to freelance). Of course, ‘they’ are not interested in debate, but, like their Islamic fellow travelers, only in submission.  ‘Stay calm and shut up’ just about sums up their argument, such as it is.


Curiously, this proscription of any appropriation of another’s culture only seems to apply to certain cultures, those which perhaps feel besieged, undervalued, persecuted.  In a radio interview with the aforementioned Mr. Niedziecki, indigenous ‘writer and comedian’ Ryan McMahon, who seems to have appropriated an Irish name, when asked what was allowed, and not allowed, for non-indigenous authors to write of indigenous life and people, his rambling response was at best ambiguous.  Like offenses against the much-maligned Human Rights Commission, it seems whatever might offend indigenous people, or even one indigenous person, is off limits.  But what might that be? How is one ever to know, except finding out the hard way, by a storm of backlash, losing one’s job, banishment to the writer’s pariah-ville.


Yes, Mr. McMahon, we should beware the mocking of other cultures, but we need not get the law involved in what can be worked out by far more subsidiary means, like embarrassment and shame, as Prince Harry must have felt after making a royal braying ass of himself two years ago showing up at a party ‘appropriating’ a Nazi armband.  People should be free even for such ridiculous interludes.


Speaking as one of Irish-Scotch heritage, should various people who do not share my background be permitted to dress up in green and get riotous on various ethereal liquids on St. Paddy’s day in the middle of Lent, which might cause the rather austere Irish bishop to look askance from his heavenly abode? Or may a Polish man march around in a Highland kilt playing the bagpipes, as someone I know does?  What of Maudling Irish ballads, such as the treacly When Irish Eyes Are Smilin‘, penned sometime before 1912 by George Graff, Jr. and Chauncey Olcott, both American in America? (although the latter at least had Irish lineage)


My answer is:  Of course.  Feel free. Be my guest.  Appropriate my cultures all you want. Imitation, as they say, even bad imitation, is the greatest form of flattery.


So, I ask those other, perhaps more sensitive, heritages, why begrudge?


Mark Steyn, as usual, has his own inimitable take on the matter, concluding that the only subject fit for a writer upon which to write, an artist to draw, or a singer to sing, is, in a word, everything.  Let the truth win out through vigorous and vibrant debate, discourse, dialogue, even competition.  If a Russian can write Scotch poetry better than Rabbie Burns, or for that matter distill better Scotch than Lagavulin, or a white guy sing reggae up there with Bob Marley, then, I say, have at it.  Freedom of expression, in all that entails, barring outright slander and calumny (and even here we should err well on the side of freedom) is a cornerstone of civilization, and as they will find out to their chagrin, the ‘shuttuppers’ will only shut people up so long, before things boil over.  Human beings are rational animals, and it is only by reason, through the ‘word’, that we can be convinced, and led to the truth which, as Vatican II declares, has its own inherent authority, but one that works through and with our nature, not against it.


A final word to the ‘liberals’ who, under their thin-skinned surface do not evince much liberality at all, what better way, I ask, for us to engage in their shibboleth of true and fruitful multiculturalism than by adopting all that is good and noble, even what is comical and quirky, in each other’s heritages?  Would not this help break down the walls of hostility, distrust, intolerance?


Otherwise, as things are now going, we are heading towards a silent, sullen, dead and humorless world, one filled with oppressors, grievances and victims, real and imagined, who can no longer laugh, share with and, yes, even  ‘appropriate’ what belongs to each other.


So up with freedom, raise a glass to good ol’ Saint Paddy while strumming a Mexican guitar, decked out Lederhosen, whenever and wherever you deem it, what is the right word, proper.


The Pope, Fatima and Medjugorje

In his recent pilgrimage to Fatima, the Holy Father, in canonizing two of the young seers, Jacinta and Francesco, delivered a fine homily on the mysterious woman the children saw, whom they, in their innocence, knew to be the Mother of God:


We have a Mother!” Pope Francis exclaimed, continuing, ‘So beautiful a Lady,’ as the seers of Fatima said to one another as they returned home on that blessed day of May 13, 100 years ago. That evening, Jacinta could not restrain herself and told the secret to her mother: ‘Today I saw Our Lady.’”

They had seen the Mother of Heaven, the Pope stressed.

On the other, in a subsequent  ‘flying presser’, as the Pope answered questions on his journey back to Rome, he also had some very cautionary, even disapproving, words on the purported ongoing revelations at Medjugorje:

Medjugorje, all the apparitions, or the presumed apparitions, belong to the private sphere, they aren’t part of the public, ordinary magisterium of the Church.

Well, that we have always known, and, as I wrote the other day, also applies to Fatima and every other private revelation. But the Holy Father continues:

The apparitions, the presumed current apparitions: the report has its doubts. I personally am more nasty, I prefer the Madonna as Mother, our Mother, and not a woman who’s the head of a telegraphic office, who everyday sends a message at such hour. This is not the Mother of Jesus. And these presumed apparitions don’t have a lot of value. This I say as a personal opinion. But, it’s clear. Who thinks that the Madonna says, ‘come tomorrow at this time, and at such time I will say a message to that seer?’ No. The two apparitions are distinguished. 

We may have our reservations about how Pope Francis puts things (Pope Benedict, who did not comment much on Medjugorje, would have phrased this same truth a bit differently, but every Pope brings his own humanity to the office).  The Holy Father does hit on a truth here, that the two revelations are very different, in ways that do not reflect well upon the ongoing controversial ‘visions’ in the mountain village of Medjugorje, continuous now for three decades and counting.

That said, I still wonder about all the confessions and conversions, along with all the prayers and sacrifices, offered through the influence Medjugorje, whether or not the apparitions are real. Whoever is behind them, whether divine or natural or a mix of both, God must have a plan in all of this, somehow, someway, and I hope it is revealed sooner than later.

Today is the feast of Saint Brendan the Navigator, a travelling monk who supposedly sailed the Atlantic and discovered Canada in the sixth century, well before the ‘historical’ first discoverers of this land, a fitting Irish-Canadian connection.  Brendan’s voyage was long held an impossible mediaeval legend, until the intrepid Tim Severin re-traced the saint’s journey in a hand-made leather boat in 1976, as Brendan would have had a thousand years earlier. So have faith! 

Saint Brendan, ora pro nobis!

Trump, Trudeau and the Rule of Law

rule of lawPresident Trump’s recent  firing of James Comey, now-former head of the FBI, has raised hackles, mainly amongst liberals, who at one point had no great love of Comey, but resent him being fired by Trump, without apparent warning, like the top cop in the nation was on some reality television show.  Readers may peruse Mark Steyn’s own take, justifying the act, while Andrew Coyne and a number of others are on the other side of the spectrum, as a further troubling sign of the President’s erraticism.


I know not the full ins and outs of the whys and wherefores, but I cannot help but see this connected with Trump’s other executive decisions on other matters, upon which I commented a few days ago. The headlines this morning now declare that the ‘9th circuit’ is reviewing the President’s recent orders on immigration.  We conservatives may be tempted to cry ‘foul’, and how dare such uppity judges block the very Commander-in-Chief himself?


Whatever we may think of such actions of the President, and I am in sympathy with much of what he is trying to do, we should keep in mind the principle behind such checks and balances, known as the ‘rule of law’.  As paragraph 1904 of the Catechism summarizes:


It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men


This goes back in Western civilization to the Senates and judiciaries of ancient Rome and Greece, which provided a limit to the power of the military, the emperor, the triumvirate or whoever else was in charge.  Things always went awry when any one source of authority held too much power, especially when this was one all-too-fallible man. Demagoguery and autocracy rarely end well.


In more recent European history, we may reflect upon the struggle of the barons of England in the early Middle Ages against the ‘divine right’ of the King, resulting the Magna Carta of 1215, which ensured (in theory, at least) that the sovereign’s power would have to take into account the rights and privileges at least of the landowners of his realm, as well as the written and inviolable constitution which not even the King (or President, or Court) could alter or remand.


The social doctrine of the Church enumerates three loci of authority, the legislative, which makes the laws, the executive, which enforces them, and the judicial, which judges whether and how a law has been broken.


Of course, this balance of power does not always work that well, as  any one locus of authority may absorb and exercise too much authority, or authority that does not belong to it, as we see, for the clearest and most troubling example, in the Supreme Courts of America and Canada usurping to themselves legislative power, contrary even to the clear will of the majority.  ‘Uppity’ does not begin to describe the arrogance they have taken on themselves.


Ultimately, even if the rule of law were balanced well, for any society to survive and flourish, each ‘rule of law’ needs a clear foundation of truth, which can only be found in the Catholic Church, which is why Pope Leo XIII taught that a society must be ‘Catholic’, founded on Christian revelation in forming it laws and policies.


What this means in practice is complex and controversial, but we at the very least may conclude that the further a society drifts from Catholic principles, the worse off it will be.  Even with the best of laws, what is most important ist that the people of the society must be virtuous, raised and educated in a way that makes them good citizens, able to sacrifice their own immediate good for that of their fellows and for the future.


This, I would argue, is what is primarily missing.  What education and formation most of us receive is deficient, from kindergarten to university, with too many warped and weird principles, especially now in our ever-more intolerant and ever-less free centres of ‘higher’ learning. Ponder Jordan Peterson,


Yet we should be cautious that as our own societies, both here and south of the border, drift ever further into moral chaos, we do not seek to ‘fix’ this by means that are themselves unjust, leading to the breakdown of law, anarchy, rebellion, which will lead only to further evils.


As Thomas More put it to his son-in-law Roper in his own chaotic days of early 16th century England under the Tudors, when the tempestuous Roper and others wanted to gut the laws to get at the unjust, immoral and autocratic King Henry:


Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?


Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!


More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.


I wish the President all the best in trying to get more sane and just policies put into effect, but even he must work through and by the ‘rule of law’. (We may say the same, in a different way, for the Pope, who, although given ‘supreme, full, and universal’ power, is himself bound and limited by revelation and tradition in exercising this power).  For if we give the President and Prime Minister too much authority (already the case to a troubling degree), even for the best of motives, what happens when a more unjust one comes to power?  Witness Canada.  A Prime Minister with a majority government here in this Dominion can do whatever he more or less pleases, and what ‘pleases’ Mr. Trudeau is, to put in mildly, not good for the country, nor its future.


At a deeper level, there is whole lot of house cleaning that needs done in areas where the law cannot reach, mostly at the ground level of the family.  Good laws may help here, but it is up to us to do the heavy lifting, a long and laborious process, but a worthy and noble one.