Christmas in Rome lasts from December 6, St. Nicholas Day, to at least the Octave of Epiphany, January 13, and during those weeks the birth of the Savior is a public event displayed across the city, from the giant presepio before St. Peter’s to the Spanish steps. In every church there is a crèche, often models of entire villages with the Virgin and Child, Joseph and the shepherds at the center, the Wise Men, if not arrived, coming on hard. There are crèches with music and crèches with running water. And in addition to these sometimes vast compositions, there will always be, raised before the high altar, the baby in the manger, sometimes in plastic simplicity, sometimes with baroque elegance, but always, there is the Child, a reminder in a fallen world that God became a little child, thereby blessing childhood everlastingly.
Romans are not exactly de-Christianized; they are non-observant and often apostate, but Catholicism is woven so deeply into their culture that they seem insensible to the American attempt to keep Christianity out of the public square or the public square out of Catholicism. My favorite presepio, at Santa Maria in Trastevere, locates the birth of Christ in the piazza in front of the church, and it is not uncommon to be greeted in some splendid baroque church with the sound of “Jingle Bells” or “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” This Christmas His Holiness Benedict xvi visited the Vatican crèche to the tune of “White Christmas.”
But this is Italy. Perhaps the Italians will bring down the eu single handedly. Romans still go in the out door of busses and the neat Teutonic line is still ignored in favor of the indistinct bunch.
England now feels rather different, not only from Italy but from the England of the post-war decades. In his own day Newman was sometimes criticized for what was seen to be a defense of the Church of England he had left. His defense was based on the observation that the religion of English people had for three hundred years been a Bible religion, in which the words of the Authorized Version had become the soul and conscience of England, and he feared that the destruction of that Bible religion would leave the country godless. His fears have been justified. The old Church of England—the Bible-reading, morning prayer church—fell victim first to the Oxford Movement, which tended toward a kind of Catholic-like religion that for all its aestheticism and historicism, while it deepened piety for many, lacked the moral power of the old faith, and which in turn became an easy target for the secularizing movement that began in the 1870s and effloresced in the 1960s. Since 1900 the number of clergy serving the Church of England has declined from 24,000 to 9000. The incumbent in the church Newman built and in which he worshipped in his last Anglican days is now a reverend lady. It is some comfort that after centuries in which first its extirpation and then its marginalization were government policy, the largest group of churchgoing Christians in England are Roman Catholics. But English Catholicism is much like its trans-Atlantic language-mate, various and apparently anemic. The hierarchy has been unable to resist successfully government plans to make moral criticism of homosexuality or refusal to employ practicing homosexuals criminal. At the same time, as state schools become more and more unsafe pathways to certain failure, Catholic parents who did not bother to have Nigel baptized as an infant are taking this step when Nigel is six or eight so that the lad can get into a Catholic school and out of the state educational establishment.
In England now the principal idea is that there must be no idea, and all in the name of equality. The days after Christmas 2007 witnessed a campaign to punish school principals who, in an attempt to create an educable student body, had stooped to interviewing students and parents. Well, obviously, the well-disciplined children of caring parents tempted the school administrators to cherrypicking, which is anti-egalitarian and now illegal. The result, as one editorial writer observed, is to drive middle class parents to populate the private schools. At the same time the Charities Commission is toying with the idea that private educational efforts should no longer be tax exempt on the grounds that private schools benefit the rich disproportionately.
All this should be a cautionary tale for it reflects the dearest desires of the nea. Remember, gentle reader, that when the acquired cultural capital composed of circumstance, history, genetic inheritance, character, intelligence, and personal merit are read out of human history, all that will remain is the power of politicians and bureaucrats, armed with an unlimited power of taxation, to make a better world according to whatever theory they then hold.