When institutions collapse, it is the surface that is the last thing to go. So it was that the Roman Empire in the West had long ceased to be either Roman or an empire, but it still had an Emperor until the year 476, when someone noticed this anomaly and decided to sweep away the anachronism. The Empire did not die in that year; it had died many years before.
It was just that its outward, ghostly and shadowy forms had continued, long after its death. This truth is conveyed in Waterhouse’s mighty painting The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius: an emperor sits on his throne, but the empire is no more.
There can be no doubt that as far as many in the modern West are concerned, religion and faith are dead, though the outward forms remain. Indeed, this was spotted some years ago by the late great Elizabeth Anscombe in her important essay, Modern Moral Philosophy.
We hold to a sort of Christian morality, in that we regard certain things as immoral, but all the truths that once supported that morality have been chipped away. The structure of morality, you might say, has been hollowed out. One little push is all that is necessary for the surface the give way and reveal the void beneath.
And so it is that modern people of fashion wear rosary beads about their neck, without for the most part knowing what the rosary is, or indeed who the Virgin Mary is, or perhaps the words of the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Without such knowledge, rosary beads are just useless bits of tat.
Indeed, the use of the rosary as a fashion accessory, a trend that has been with us for some time, is a serious danger signal. It is a sign of the way the modern culture has cannibalised the remnants of the ruins of faith.
And now look what has happened. It has long been the custom for the Pontiff to hand out rosaries to everyone he meets. Hence he gave one to President Obama. The President is not a Catholic, and so perhaps thought it appropriate to pass it on to one of his associates who is a self-proclaimed Catholic. So he gave the beads to Nancy Pelosi, who is reportedly thrilled with them.
But hang on a sec. There is something wrong here. The rosary is an outward sign of Catholicism, to which Ms Pelosi is attached, perhaps. But what about the inward truths of Catholicism? What about concern for the poor? Love of God and His Blessed Mother? Sticking up for those who are most vulnerable in our society? What about the truth encapsulated in the second Joyful Mystery of the Holy Rosary, in which John the Baptist in the womb salutes the Saviour in His Mother’s womb? How is it that Ms Pelosi loves the outward sign, yet gives no indication whatever about the inward truth that outward sign points us to?
Enough! To be a Catholic is to love human life and cherish and protect it from its beginnings (conception) to its natural end. Ms Pelosi would do well to reflect on Matthew 15:8.