The Parol: A Filipino Catholic Tradition and Vocation

Decorations, lights and fanfare typify the festive celebration of Christmas in the Philippines, even as early as September. On the streets, one can see groups of children and adults alike going from house to house singing Filipino (and even English) Christmas Carols.

At each successive stop, it is not uncommon for carolers to receive gifts. Sometimes it is money or food; other times, wholesome advice to be a good example:

“Obey and honor your parents… and live the spirit of Christmas all 365 days of the year!”

Photo Credits: Maurice Joseph M. Almadrones

Christmas lights covering houses serve as more than decoration: they also illuminate the way in the dark, cold Philippine nights, guiding the pious churchgoers to the Simbang Gabi (“Night Mass” in Tagalog) or the “Misa de Aguinaldo.”

This is a set of nine day Novena Masses at dawn. The faithful resolutely wake up in the wee hours of the night to present small sacrifices and prayers to Our Lord. Usually celebrated before dawn, it is a Spanish tradition, originally honoring the Blessed Virgin’s Expectation of the Messiah. Food was customarily offered to the needy after the Masses; hence the word aguinaldo meaning “gift” in Spanish. i.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of all is the long procession of the parol, which floods the streets with bright colors, and reminds those present of the coming of the Savior to earth.

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A distinctly Filipino tradition

Star shaped Parol made of Capiz shells © Eugene Alvin Villar, 2007

The parol has a rich history that spans centuries of development and perfection.

Prior to the concept of the Christmas tree in the Philippines, the parol (“lantern” in
Spanish) announced the arrival of Our Lord’s Nativity.

Filipino Christmas would not be the same without this humble yet radiant display outside of houses and in the streets, presented from people from all walks of society.

Its roots come from the concept of the Mexican piñata which came to the Philippines when Spain gave the Catholic Faith to the country in the 16th century.ii.

The parol had a two-fold purpose.

It first served the practical purpose of giving light so that the faithful could make their way to the Simbang Gabi.

More importantly, it was a devotional offering to the Child Jesus, the Light of the world. After the Novena Mass, the parol was proudly hung outside the window of the faithful.iii.

Over time, the construction of the parols began to undergo a change. The first lanterns had a humble beginning, created from the local material available to the Filipinos: bamboo sticks, crepe or Japanese rice paper; these were lighted with simple candles or coconut oil lamps.

New variations started to appear with the incentive of the Spanish priests. Refined material, like transparent shells, slowly took the place of paper. This brought with it many advantages. The shells could be dyed into a variety of colors, and the shape of the lamp could be tailored to resemble the Star of the East. With each successive year, the size of the stars started to increase. Soon, friendly competitions were encouraged on a local basis to create the most beautiful parol to the Divine Child.

The result: churches began an annual display of new designs and better craftsmanship, distinct to the various localities. This can still be seen in regions like Pampanga, where the Lubenas Festival is held every year.iv The festival was originally created to showcase the parols in procession from different barrios, or neighborhoods, and were brought to the parish church on the Night of Christmas Eve led by the barrio patrons.

As the lanterns grew bigger and became more intricate, the local people contributed to the creation of the parols of their specific barrios.v.

Thus the harmonious cooperation between the local people and the patrons of the barrios can be seen in the humble parol, initiating a Catholic tradition that spans centuries in the Philippines.

Each parol was characteristic of its respective barrio. Each was unique. Yet all were united under the hearth of Christmas, whose traditions blossomed from the rich and vibrant garden of the Catholic Church.

The Parol: A living tradition

A Filipino parol  vendor’s stall © Keith Bacongco, 2007

A Christian tradition is of incomparable value; it sets a guideline for us to navigate through the present. Indeed, in the words of Prof. Plinîo Correa de Oliveira, the renowned Brazilian Catholic activist,vi true tradition should not be the denial of yesterday, but rather its harmonious continuation. For true progress is not to break, but rather continuity, reaching out to the heights of the past and present.vii

The parol is not some archaic, irrelevant artifact dug out from the coffers of time, offered as a remote antique. On the contrary, it continues as an animating and living custom to the Filipino, effectively preserving the spirit of the first Christmas.

It is at once a perfect gift to the Lord of lords and an innocent and tender reflection of the Wisdom of the Incarnate Word amid the corrosive moral decadence of the modern world. Being an authentic tradition, the parol links each new generation to the Catholic heritage of the Philippines.

The Star in The East: A Prophet Rejoiced

The Christmas parol is not merely a beautiful aspect of the holiday, but reflects the very important role the Philippines have as a Christian nation.

The Philippines is like the Star of the East that beckoned the Wise Men to the King of kings. The country shines as a guide to bring those in darkness out of the chains of the pagan world to the radiant light of the Faith brought by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This was certainly the sentiment of Pope Pius XII, who praised the island as “the herald of the Gospel between two oceans.”viii.

This praise is not without merit, even in our own days. The inhabitants continue to oppose abortion, homosexual unions and euthanasia, and defend the rights of the Catholic Church in civil society. Most notably, the Philippines remain the only country to this day where divorce has not yet been legalized.ix

After more than 400 years of Roman Catholic tradition, the Filipinos unite to form the 3rd largest Roman Catholic nation in the world, and largest Roman Catholic Nation in Asia, effectively serving as a paladin of light and truth to the corrupt world surrounding them.

A Prophet Rejected…

However, we should not put down our guard.

Like all the prophets of old, the Star of the East was also neglected. Impious men unscrupulously rejected and pushed aside the sign as if it never existed. This is not unlike the modern “learned” men in our times, whose goal is to discredit the existence of God.

Not that the light of the Eastern Star was lacking in brilliance. Rather, the stubborn eyes of men refused to discern its importance. Thus was the condition of mankind at that time, and so is contemporary man.

And yet, such blindness need not only apply to outside nations. Could those in the Philippines be unaware of the influence they posses and the duties attached to it?

I turn now to my fellow inhabitants.

We Filipinos must ask ourselves: are we loyal to our vocation to guide the gentiles?

I cannot simply point to those neo-pagan atheists who swamp the earth with their indifference.

Regrettably, I must refer also to those of us who knew Christ, but have descended down to a depth much lower than that in which we found ourselves before the faith; those who have implicitly rejected Him and His Church by going about life as if He does not exist.

How could those that are the light be so immune to the brilliance they posses?

The surge of immorality cannot be ignored. We need only to look at the unthinkable promulgation of the Reproductive Health Bill a few years ago, and promoting “women’s rights.”

It is true that the ground we stand on is comparatively firm when we look at other countries. Nevertheless, there continues to be a greater diluting of family values and of Catholic doctrine in society.

This comes from an increase of impure and immoral practices, some of which have received “legal” sanction. With this, Filipinos must be reminded of the authentic spirit that should animate our traditions and our families.

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Implore Mary: The Star of the Sea

We should certainly not despair, nor hide our light under a bushel (Matt. 5 : 15) out of shame; at the same time, we need to correct our conduct if we are to steer others to the right harbor.

Like the rest of the world, we are surrounded on all sides by raging tempests and uncertainties. These impede our sight and landing on that safe destination, Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the midst of all of this, there is serious danger that we will lose sight of the light of the day that guided us.

It is in such dark circumstances that we must turn to the guiding Star of the Sea: the Blessed Virgin.

“As the splendor of the Sun exceeds that of all the stars united,” says St Basil Selecuia , so the Mother of God “eclipses all the stars in heaven, that is all the blessed, men and angels united.”

We should pray to our Mother to intercede for us. We should have confidence in her maternal concern for us.

Above all, we should honor her by imitating her life and virtues. In this way, we will remove the blinding log from our eyes, and be able to see and communicate the salutatory light to those around us.

Then, led by the Star of the Sea, we will continue to shine as the Star of the East. Like the parol, our light will beam brightly between the two oceans, bringing men to the fold of the unfathomable mystery of the Divine Infant’s Majesty. May the glory of His triumph over the enemies of Holy Mother Church hasten the arrival of His kingdom on Earth.


i. Where did Simbang Gabi come from?

ii. The History of Parol Christmas Lanterns

iii. IBID

iv. Giant Lantern Festival


vi.Plinîo Correa de Oliveira- His Early Years

vii.TFP- Tradition

viii.Radio Message  of His Holiness Pius XII to the Marian Congress of the Philippines, December 5, 1954

ix. The Last Country in the world where Divorce is Illegal

The First Christmas Crib

The beautiful custom of setting up mangers to commemorate the birth of the Infant Jesus was started by St. Francis of Assisi.

It was the year 1223. St. Francis went to Rome to obtain from Pope Honorius III authorisation to celebrate Christmas in a totally new way. St. Francis chose a forest in the vicinity of the village of Grecio, in the region of Umbria, not too far from Rome, where a good friend of his lived, the noble Giovanni Velita.

About 15 days before Christmas, St. Francis said to him: ‘If you want to celebrate the feast of the Divine birth in Grecio make haste to prepare what I indicate to you.

‘So that we can properly remember the circumstances in which the Divine Child was born and all the inconveniences he endured as he lay in the manger on straw between an ox and a ass, I would like to re-create this in a palpable way, as if I had seen it with my own eyes.’

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Many religious and the residents of Grecio and the surrounding area were all invited for this special commemoration. Just before midnight, the Franciscan friars went in procession to the spot chanting the antiphons of Advent. They were accompanied by the villagers who carried flaming torches.

The wind blew strongly and the light of the torches projected their flickering shadows on the dense forest. However, in the clearance where the crib had been setup, there reigned an ambience of sacrality and peace; Only the cold was a nuisance.

When the village bell of Grecio began to toll midnight, a priest began to celebrate Mass. The altar had been placed in front of the crib with the ox and ass on either side. A beautiful full-size statue of the Child Jesus rested on the straw.

As is well known, St. Francis never wanted to be ordained a priest out of humility. Because of this, as deacon, it was his duty to solemnly sing the Gospel of that Christmas mass.

After the reading of the Gospel, all waited attentively to hear the sermon that St. Francis himself gave on the grandeurs and mercies of the Saviour of the human race, who that night was made flesh and dwelt among us.

St. Francis spoke words with a supernatural sweetness about the poverty in which the God-man was born and about the insignificant city of Bethlehem. It is difficult to imagine the fiery love that the sweet, clear, and sonorous voice of St. Francis produced in the hearts of those privileged to hear him.

At the end of his sermon, St. Francis bent over to kiss the statue of the Divine Child. At this moment a miracle took place that only he and Giovanni Velita saw. The statue became alive. It was as if it had been woken from a profound sleep with St. Francis’s kiss, and then the Child Jesus smiled at St. Francis.

At the consecration, when the bread and wine truly become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, St. Francis was able to contemplate the Messiah in two ways: in the form of the Holy Eucharist and laying in the manger.

At the end of the solemn midnight mass, and after having incensed the manger, the friars returned to Grecio and the villagers to their homes. Everyone was full of supernatural joy.

The veracity of this event can be certified by the sanctity of the one who experienced it, as well as by the miracles that happened afterwards. The straw from the manger was carefully kept by the people and was an efficacious remedy to miraculously cure sick animals and an antidote against many other diseases.

This devout and hitherto unknown institution of the manger was enthusiastically received by the faithful. St. Clare of Assisi, disciple of the saint, established it in her convents. Every year she setup the manger herself.

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The Franciscan friars also spread this custom far and wide. Whether composed of figurines artistically carved from clay, porcelain, or wood, the crib became the very symbol of Christmas.

From the majestic cathedral to the simplest rural chapel, from the palace or mansion to the humblest abode, the Catholics of the whole world, since that time, have had the pious custom of setting up a manger. In this way they repeat the custom that Providence inspired from the seraphic St. Francis of Assisi in the remote year of 1223.


The Story of the Christmas Tree

In the seventh century a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the word of God. His name was St. Boniface. He did many good works there and spent much time in Thuringia, a region later to become the centre of the Christmas decoration industry.

Tradition has it that St. Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the fir tree as God’s tree, as they had previously revered the oak.

By the twelfth century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmas time in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity and was referred to as the ‘Tree of Christ’.

The first decorated tree was at Riga in Latvia in 1510, while the first Christmas tree came to England with the Georgian Kings from Germany.

At this time, also, German merchants living in England decorated their homes with a Christmas tree. The British public were not fond of the German Monarchy, so did not copy the fashions in vogue at Court, which is why the Christmas tree did not become established in Britain at that time.

In 1846, the popular Royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were featured in the Illustrated London News. They were standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court immediately became fashionable. The English Christmas tree had arrived!

On the more profound meaning of the ‘Tree of Christ’, the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira explains:

‘Each feast of the liturgical calendar brings an effusion of special graces with it. Whether men want or not, grace knocks at the door of their souls in a more sublime, meeker, more insistent way during the Christmas season.’

The Christmas tree, with its beautiful decorations, lights, and star or angel on top, helps to elevate the soul above the materialistic aspects of modern day Christmas. The tip of the tree points to a marvellous world that is Heaven.

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To show how the introduction of the custom of the Christmas tree was a gradual process and how it favours the elevation of the ambience, we will tell the story of a Catholic family in Austria as written by P. Rosegger in his book Peasant Life in Styria.

‘It had long been a great desire of mine to put into practice something I had heard was done in other towns to celebrate Christmas. One should put a small fir tree on the table, affix candles to its branches and place presents for the children underneath, explaining that it had been the Child Jesus who had left them there.

‘So I had the idea to setup a “Tree of Christ” for my little brother, Nickerl. But I needed to do this secretly (part of the procedure) and before my mother entered the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

‘As soon as there was enough light, I went out into the cold. I hid my gaze from those working around the house and when I returned from the forest with a small fir top, I ran to the barn where the horse carts were kept to hide it there.

‘It was soon night. The servants were still busy with the stables and in the bedrooms, where, according to the custom of Christmas Eve, they washed their heads and put on festive clothes. My mother was in the kitchen preparing her typical Christmas sweets. And my Father was with little Nickerl going around the property blessing it with incense, praying all the while. It was necessary to expel the evil spirits and attract angelic blessings to the house.

‘Thus while everyone was busy with their tasks, I prepared the “Tree of Christ” in the main room. I took my tree from its hiding place and put it on the table. I then cut ten or twelve candles from the wax block and placed them on the branches. Underneath I put some sweetbread.

‘I heard some slow and gentle steps on the floor above. I knew it was my father and my little brother who were there blessing the loft. They would soon be coming to the main room. I lit the little candles and hid behind the stove. The door opened and they entered with the incensor and then stopped….

‘“What is this? My father asked in a low but prolonged voice.”

‘The little Nickerl looked on dumbfounded. In his big, round eyes were reflected the lights of the “Tree of Christ” like little stars.

‘My father advanced slowly to the kitchen door and called in a low voice:

‘“Wife, Wife, Come and see this.”

‘And when she came, he asked:

‘“Did you do this?”

‘“Mary and Joseph!” my mother exclaimed, “What did you put on the table?”

‘The servants soon arrived and were very impressed with the unexpected surprise. So one of them suggested:

‘“Maybe it is a ‘Tree of Christ’! Could it be that the angels brought this little tree from Heaven?”

‘They all contemplated and marvelled at the tree. And the smoke of the incense filled the whole room and formed a delicate veil that rested on the illuminated tree.

‘My mother looked around the room for me:

‘“Where is Peter?”

‘I thought it was the moment to come out of my hiding place. I took Nickerl’s cold hands, who was still dumbfounded and continued rooted to the spot, and took him close to the table. He almost resisted. But I told him in a very solemn tone:

‘“Do not fear my little brother! Look: the dear Child Jesus brought you a ‘Tree of Christ’. It is yours!”

‘And the young boy was overjoyed and folded his hands like he did when he went to church.’

As we mentioned earlier, the top of a Christmas tree points towards a marvellous world, the world of Heaven. In this light, let us consider an enchanting tale about a Christmas tree. The story elevates one’s spirit to a higher plane, thus satisfying our desire for that which is marvelous.

Pious legend recounts that when the shepherds went to adore the Divine Infant, they decided to take Him fruits and flowers from the area. After this harvest, the plants congratulated themselves on being able to offer something to their newly-born Creator: one had given its dates; another its nuts, and so on.

From the fir tree, however, the shepherds had taken nothing because its needle-like leaves and sharp cones were not presentable gifts.

The fir tree recognised its unworthiness, and not feeling worthy to participate in the conversation, prayed in silence: ‘My newly-born God, what can I offer You? I offer you my poor and unworthy existence. This I gladly give You in gratitude for You having created me in Your wisdom and goodness.’

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God was pleased with the humility of the fir tree, and, as a reward, ordered a multitude of little stars to come down from heaven to adorn it. The stars were of many colours: gold, silver, red, blue, etc. When a group of shepherds passed by, they not only took the fruits of the other plants, but they also took the whole fir tree, as such a marvel had never before been seen. Thus the fir tree ended up by decorating the grotto of Bethlehem, being placed very close to the Child Jesus, Our Lady, and St. Joseph!


Those Who Claim Christianity Harms Society Are Wrong!

What the State Should Be—the Protector of the General Order

“the beneficent action of Christianity upon society”

So many liberals claim that Christianity is backward and harmful to the general welfare of society and the State. Such “modern” ideas are woeful wrong and outdated.

The Church has faced such accusations from the very beginning of Her existence. One of the best replies to this empty claim comes from Saint Augustine. He magnificently describes the beneficent action of Christianity upon society in the following way:

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“Let those who say that the teachings of Christ are harmful to the State find armies with soldiers who live up to the standards of the teachings of Jesus. Let them provide governors, husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, kings, judges, taxpayers and tax collectors who can compare to those who take Christian teachings to heart. Then let them dare to say that such teaching is contrary to the welfare of the State! Indeed, under no circumstances can they fail to realize that this teaching is the greatest safeguard of the State when faithfully observed.” (“Epist. 138 ad Marcellinum,” [Chap. 2, no. 15]) in Opera Omnia, vol. 2, in J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, col. 532). (American TFP translation.)

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What the State Should Be—the Protector of the General Order

What the State Should Be—the Protector of the General Order

“The supreme authority of the State ought…to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly,”

People are so used to the modern dysfunctional State that they do not have a proper idea of what a true State is. The following description describes what can be called an organic State that corresponds to what a State should be.

As the supreme power of last appeal, an organic State gives unity and a framework to all the social units in a society. Far from assuming the modern State’s monopoly of supreme power, the organic State does not smash or reduce these lesser groups to subservience. Rather, it is the preserver and protector of the overall order upon which they depend. Far from concentrating authority, this State encourages its wide distribution by recognizing authority as it exists in lesser groups so each might accomplish its proper functions more easily.

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“The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly,” writes Pius XI of subsidiarity. “Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.” 1

As a result of this “parceling out of sovereignty,” there can be no modern masses since there is no single monolithic authority. Each individual conserves a unique character, subject to those overlapping levels of authority that both define and correspond to a special identity, function, and position in society.

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  1. Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, No. 80.

Defining Organic Society

Defining Organic SocietyOrganic society is a social order oriented toward the common good that naturally and spontaneously develops, allowing man to pursue the perfection of his essentially social nature. In this society, the family attains the plenitude of its action and influence as the social cell or fundamental unit of society. Professional, social, and other intermediary groups between the individual and the State freely exercise their activities according to their own forms and rights.

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In an organic society, the State respects the autonomy of regions and intermediary groups, giving each the right to organize according to its social and economic structure, character, and traditions. The State, acting within its own supreme orbit, exercises its sovereign power with honor, vigor, and efficiency. The Church exercises a hallowing influence upon society, by guiding, teaching, and sanctifying.

The Contradiction of Our Frenzied Lifestyles

contradicton of lifestylesIn a world where everything is so rationalistic and well-organized, it seems a contradiction that people would seek after things like drugs, alcohol abuse, promiscuity, violence, extreme sports, intense music, violent video games and other such pursuits that border on the irrational.

Yet, as sociologist Richard Strivers notes, such behavior is actually a consequence of overly rationalistic institutions. As bureaucratic and technical structures proliferate, he claims people sense that they have lost control over their lives. Their reaction is to escape into a realm of ecstasy that seems to rebel against this too orderly existence.

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The paradox is that technology becomes both a supreme organizing and disorganizing force. The more rational and technological that society becomes, the more it manifests irrational actions and attitude. People feel the need to escape into irrational pursuits if only to enjoy temporary amnesia or pleasure. Technology directly produces a kind of ecstasy by imposing a frenzied tempo upon society that works as a type of compensation for regimentation.

Humans cannot stand to have their lives fully rational, subject to timetables, lists and rules,” Stivers concludes. “Their instincts require an outlet that produces an altered state of consciousness – mysticism or ecstasy.”1


What has been lost is the balance that once characterized an organic Christian society that was able to reconcile orderly development and progress with calm spiritual pursuits. The material and spiritual orders used to work together to favor the general well-being of society. Today, one works with the other to favor behavior that is self-destructive.

1 Richard Stivers, Shades of Loneliness: Pathologies of a Technological Society, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Md., 2004, p. 70.


When Institutions Decay

7f441559a42Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is intriguing since the title reflects what should be an obvious connection: Social institutions do affect economies.

The noted British historian’s latest book is a compelling demonstration of his thesis. He lays out all the symptoms caused by decaying institutions: slowing growth, crushing debts, aging populations, and an uncivil society. It is clearly a degeneration, and even a great degeneration.

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We can only admire Ferguson in his quest is to go beyond media hype and find out what really went wrong in the West. He rightly claims that “until we understand the true nature of our degeneration, we will be wasting our time, applying quack remedies to mere symptoms.”

In this short essay, Ferguson lists the four principal institutions which he affirms are in decline: representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society. The author masterfully shows how each one is suffering in our days. The frightening pileup of debts is threatening to burden those that come after us threatening what Edmund Burke called the “partnership” between the generations which he claims is so essential for representative government to work well. The rule of law is fast becoming the rule of lawyers. The free market is burdened under the scourge of excessive regulation. People simply aren’t getting involved in voluntary associations today diminishing the social capital that keeps free markets free.

These are themes that have long been discussed by scholars over the decades. Ferguson provides urgency and context to our present decline. He provides insight and excellent observations that should serve as a warning long overdue. His style is clear, engaging and at times witty.

Subscription12And yet, in his search for answers, we are left wondering if the author has dug deep enough.

The work suffers from its limitations as an essay. The 152-page text is taken from his 2012 BBC Radio 4 “The Reith Lectures” which limits the depth of his analysis since the book’s tone is light and slightly entertaining. There is no time to develop in depth those pressing questions that might be found in a more imposing tome with full bibliography and index.

However, there are other questions that might be raised. We are told how the institutions decayed but not why they decayed. Institutions simply don’t self-decay. We should be able to trace this decay to a decadence in men. There is little in the book to indicate what forces were at work in the depths of men’s souls that caused them to abandon these essential pillars. We are also given little clue as to what moral force might be employed to regenerate that which has degenerated.

The problem stems from the fact that Ferguson’s worldview is that of the Scottish Enlightenment when he felt the four pillars now in decline had reached their harmonious apogee. He thus works inside a rationalist and secular framework. As an historian, Ferguson must have observed that religious and moral institutions have always served as the most effective means to bring about a regeneration of society. Indeed, the very four pillars he lists as decaying were largely medieval institutions that developed under the tutelage of the Church. Yet he does not make the leap to suggest that a moral or religious regeneration is possible or even desirable. Such an omission is lamentable.Subscription5.2

Despite this omission, the book does have great value in making a link not often made. Economists have so entered into the abstract world of formulae and numbers that simply ignore such social considerations. Historians tend to concentrate on events and dates. Not often do we see those who admit that social institutions do affect economy. Economy need the support of social institutions to thrive. We ignore to our detriment this central fact so well demonstrated in The Great Degeneration.


A review of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die by Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, London, 2012.

From the Mail: Is Profit Man’s Only Motivation?

wonderI received a very kind letter from a gentleman who read and appreciated many of the concepts found in Return to Order. However, after some generous compliments about the work, he concluded that the application of the book’s principles is highly unlikely.

Human nature being what it is,” he noted, “the prospect of people’s acting on such principles when to do so would conflict with apparent profit potential appears remote.”

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Such a position reflects a classical liberal stance that profit or self-interest is seen as the sole motivation for man’s acts. Human actions are caused by either the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. According to this modern school of thought, to expect people to act selflessly runs contrary to reality and reason.

Thus, to those who might think the book is somewhat naïve by assuming that men can act beyond what appears to be their own self-interest, I thought it might be interesting to list those areas in our present day society where men put principles above profit and value character more than capital. In this way, we can show that acting upon the principles mentioned in Return to Order is not only possible, but plausible. In other words, acting in “conflict with apparent profit potential” is not a pipe dream, but actually quite common in our postmodern society.

As Return to Order affirms, selfless action occurs especially in a society where honor rules. The fact that we can still find many remnants of this action in today’s hostile culture is proof that our thesis is not unrealistic. Moreover, these same actions attract youth which ensures they have a future.
The first area of selfless action I would list is that of the Church. Aided by grace, countless men and women live abnegated lives, to worship and give glory to God. They often give up promising careers and fulfilling lives to help their fellow men out of love of God. The priest adopts the celibate life to more freely serve the Church; likewise, the young nun offers up her virginity; the faithful are encouraged to embrace both the joys and sufferings that life affords. In so doing, the Church encourages a broad and realistic vision of life that extends beyond self-interest alone that so constricts and saddens the lives of men.

A second field of action where self-interest does not rule would be that of the military. The military profession is sustained much more by a sense of honor than a desire for money. The underpaid soldier puts the welfare of the nation above his own. In the blossoming years of youth, he volunteers to endure heat, cold, hunger, wounds and enemy fire. He is disposed at every moment to forfeit all, rendering the ultimate sacrifice – his very life.


A third field of action is that of the traditional family. In this case, the spouses put their union and their children’s welfare above their own self-interest. faith_brings_harmonyContrary to the hedonistic same-sex unions of our days where self-gratification is the supreme goal, spouses in a traditional marriage vow to remain united until death parts them, for better or worse, in sickness and health, in poverty and riches, in a selfless act of mutual giving to one another. They welcome into their lives the blessings of children who they must support and love at great sacrifice…and with great joys. The mother selflessly gives birth to new life often at the expense of her career and both parents expose themselves to endure possible tragedy, disappointment and ingratitude.

How_should_we_ProductsWe find selfless action among true artists, craftsmen and artisans. This is a class of people who take upon themselves the task of doing things well and experience a disinterested joy in seeing anything perfect, beautiful, or well made—even when not their own. We might single out an artist who is willing to forego monetary gain in order to paint a masterpiece, solely for beauty’s sake.

Finally, we might mention the role of true and natural leaders at all levels of society who take upon themselves the burden of leadership to serve the common good. We think of that teacher who gives all to inspire and help students; that businessman who takes the interests of his workers to heart by helping them in matters beyond the cold and rigid terms of a labor contract; that doctor who gives freely of his time in providing medical care to patients who are unable to pay him for his services. In short, those who hold positions of true leadership usually excel by going beyond self-interest, thereby earning the admiration and respect of those who follow.

These are but some examples of fields where self-interest and profit are not the sole motivation for action. Someone might object that since these actions can eventually bring about joy and even profit, they ultimately favor self-interest. To this, I would respond that they do not always bring about joy. The person engaged in these actions must take a risk that may result in misunderstanding, failure, suffering or disappointment. The person must usually forego an immediate pleasure and embrace a situation of suffering and sacrifice. This is especially true in a Christian society where men are motivated to do things by a pure love of God. Such a society is contrary to the culture of instant gratification that accompanies the actions of those who follow only what I call the rule of money.

Moreover, I would respond that this tendency to go beyond self-interest is not something exceptional. Rather, we naturally tend toward the spiritual values of the good, true and beautiful while our materialistic culture (under the rule of money) tries to suppress them. Human nature, being what it is, is also drawn to metaphysical and spiritual values. We are drawn to the rule of honor that highlights these values.

In fact, this rule is so powerful that when honor is spread throughout all levels of society, the rule of money loses its attraction. When honor reigns, money’s influence wanes, institutions are zealous of their reputation, families uphold their good name, and culture flourishes.

And so, I can agree with my reader that there are indeed many in our present culture who only pursue their self-interest, to the point of selfishness. I would even admit this self-interest could benefit economy. However, I would disagree that this is the only motivation of human action. There are still many today who forego pleasure and embrace suffering for a noble cause and this serves a very important function in society. Subscription8.11This self-sacrifice provides the cement that bonds people together. It forges ties of confidence and trust which many sociologists call the “social capital” that makes for good economy. In times of crisis, those accustomed to looking beyond self-interest provide leadership and direction.

Return to Order was written for that sector of public opinion that values honor over money. I believe the rule of honor is still a fitting response to the rule of money. And I believe that, with the help of God, a return to such a rule is not only necessary, but possible.

Are People Happier Today?

bum-man-lazySociologist Robert Putnam claims young people today are much less content than in times past. In fact, younger people now tend to be sadder than older people. He writes:

“Over these same years … general contentment with life declined among people under fifty-five, while increasing modestly among people over that
age. Surveys in the 1940’s and 1950’s had found that younger people were happier than older people. By 1975 age and happiness were essentially uncorrelated. By 1999, however, younger people were unhappier than older people. The bottom line: a widening generation gap in malaise and unhappiness. … The younger you are, the worse things have gotten over the last decades of the twentieth century in terms of headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, as well as general satisfaction with life and even likelihood of taking your own life.”

(Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, p. 263)

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