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Did Jefferson Try to Abolish Slavery in the Declaration of Independence?

Sometimes an article includes such a jarring historical claim that I find myself immediately questioning everything in the piece. That was precisely my reaction when I read a Commonweal piece today which claimed that Thomas Jefferson had originally included language in the Declaration of Independence abolishing slavery:

Jefferson realized that it made no sense to base a new nation on the principle of “liberty and equality for all” as long as some its people were enslaved by others, so the first draft of the Declaration also renounced slavery. Jefferson accused King George of waging a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Southern delegates representing the interests of slave-holders aligned with northern delegates representing the interests of slave-trading merchants, and together they succeeded in excluding Jefferson’s original language from the Declaration. Their motivation was obvious: eliminating slavery would diminish their wealth. They held up the vote for independence until they got their way.

But the phrase “all men are created equal” remained, and debate about its meaning has dominated American politics ever since.

The rest of the article is a piece of political hackery in which economics professor Charles Clark of St. John’s University goes on to lay out an interpretive framework for American history and the current political situation in which there is always a group of powerful elites which successfully dupes a portion of the ordinary people into supporting the elites’ interests above their own.

The claim that Jefferson (himself a slave holder who never freed his slaves) sought to “renounce” slavery in the Declaration of Independence struck me as wholly implausible, so I researched the question further. The phrase Prof. Clark quotes was indeed in Jefferson’s draft, but he leaves out the crucial second half of the quote: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Basically Good People: The Great Modern Heresy

There’s an odd backwards moral reasoning to which our modern age seems particularly susceptible. Surely you’ve heard it:

Y does X. Y is a basically good person. Therefore, X must be okay.

You hear it from all sides of the cultural divide.

“Joe and Fred are married. They’re good people. How can you say that that kind of relationship is wrong?”

“Cindy does that. She’s a good person. So how can that be racist?”

Think back a bit, and you’ll see that a huge number of the casually-made moral arguments one hears these days boil down to this.

There are a couple big problems.

For starters, what exactly is a “good person”? →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Pope Francis and the Catholic God

Pope Francis’s interview with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari may not have grabbed secular headlines in the US the way that this interview with Jesuit publications did, but it has caused some stir in Catholics circles. I can certainly understand a certain amount of this. We’ve had two very intellectual popes who have lead the church for the last thirty years, taking it from a time in which even orthodox Catholics felt unsure and adrift into a new dynamism and evangelism. In addition to being towering intellects, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (Benedict even more so) were popes hailing from central/northern Europe. Encountering a Latin pope for the first time in my life (Francis is, after all, not just from Argentina but also the son of Italian immigrants, so he’s at the confluence of two southern European cultures) and one who is not a theologian, I’m realizing how much the emotive and more casual aspects of southern Europe and South America (primarily colonized by southern Europe) are not mine. Culturally and intellectually, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are simply much more my style.

That said, I don’t necessarily follow how it is that certain statements become points of controversy. One of these is from this “second interview” and it comes after Francis asks Scalfari what he believes in. Scalfari responds, “I believe in Being, that is in the tissue from which forms, bodies arise.” And Francis says:

And I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Do you think we are very far apart?

(Scalfari says they are, and in the next interchange Francis pushes him to explain, if he believe in “Being” but doesn’t believe in God, what does he mean.)

Now, apparently this has caused some unease in Catholic circles because of the phrase “not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God”. Does this suggest some kind of indifferentism in which the Catholic understanding of God is no better than any other? A generic God without qualities that everyone has some insight into? →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Pope Francis on St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and Pope Francis was in Assisi to celebrate his namesake’s feast day. His homily is out on the Vatican website and is both short and worth reading.

This central section struck me in particular:

What does Saint Francis’s witness tell us today? What does he have to say to us, not merely with words – that is easy enough – but by his life?

1. The first thing he tells us is this: that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.

Where did Francis’s journey to Christ begin? It began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus. With letting Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself. Francis experienced this in a special way in the Church of San Damiano, as he prayed before the cross which I too will have an opportunity to venerate. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

You Have a Duty To “Ban” Books

This weekend marks the conclusion of Banned Books Week, a festival of moral preening in which students, librarians, teachers and others congratulate themselves for bravely demanding that various books not be removed from library (typically school library) shelves.

The event ties in to basic modern tropes of progress and freedom. After all, says the common wisdom, who burned books? Nazis. And crazy people in the middle ages who were afraid of progress. We don’t want to be like them, do we?

Of course, choosing not to have a book in your collection is not really “banning” it (as in making it forbidden to own) nor is it “censoring” it (removing parts). So to start with much of the furor over the “banning” of books is overwrought. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Pope Francis Excommunicates and Laicizes Dissident Australian Priest

Mr. (formerly Fr.) Greg Reynolds of Melbourne, Australia expressed “shock” at being the first priest to be excommunicated by Pope Francis for advocacy of women’s ordination, homosexual marriage, and other offenses.

The letter, a copy of which NCR obtained and translated, accuses Reynolds of heresy (Canon 751) and determined he incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it “for a sacrilegious purpose” (Canon 1367). It also referenced Canon 1369 (speaking publicly against church teaching) in its review of the case.

“Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff having heard the presentation of this Congregation concerning the grave reason for action … of [Fr. Greg Reynolds] of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, all the preceding actions to be taken having been followed, with a final and unappealable decision and subject to no recourse, has decreed dismissal from the clerical state is to be imposed on said priest for the good of the Church,” read the document, signed by Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect for the congregation, and his secretary, Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria.

Excommunication refers to the severest measure of censure for Catholics and forbids an individual from participation in any eucharistic celebration or other worship ceremonies; the reception or celebration of sacraments; and holding any ecclesiastical or governing role in the church.

The document, dated May 31 — coincidentally Reynolds’ 60th birthday — provided no reason for the excommunication. However, a separate letter sent Friday from Hart to his archdiocesan priests indicated Reynolds’ support of women’s ordination was a primary reason.

“The decision by Pope Francis to dismiss Fr Reynolds from the clerical state and to declare his automatic excommunication has been made because of his public teaching on the ordination of women contrary to the teaching of the Church and his public celebration of the Eucharist when he did not hold faculties to act publicly as a priest,” [Melbourne Archbishop Denis] Hart wrote.

But Reynolds said he believes the excommunication also resulted from his support of the gay community. He told NCR that in the last two years, he has attended rallies in Melbourne advocating same-sex marriage and has officiated at mass weddings of gay couples on the steps of Parliament — “all unofficial of course.”

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Moral Laws vs Moral Fashions

Well-known atheist Richard Dawkins managed to grab himself some less than positive reactions a couple weeks ago when he gave an interview in which he dismissed the “mild pedophilia” which was common in the English school system of his youth as not being such a big deal if one considered the climate of the times. Justifying this attitude Dawkins explained:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

The points most people drew from this are:

– Actually 18th and 19th century racism was pretty bad, many at the time did recognize it, and we should in fact condemn it.

– Identifying “mild pedophilia” as some kind of okay thing is something only a sick person with no morals would do.

I don’t disagree with these points. Nor is this new territory for Dawkins, who has something of a history of trivializing child abuse. He’s the one who argued, “Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.”

But I think there’s a more general tendency to be seen in Dawkins’ comments which is worth discussing as well. As a thoroughgoing materialist, Dawkins doesn’t recognize the existence of objectively real moral laws. Rather, what he sees is a sort of moral fashion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, racism was common and socially acceptable. Even “good people” who you’d want to have in your drawing room were often highly racist. (After all, it paid to be racist: slaves were the most valuable capital assets in some whole countries, including the US.) →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion

Brandon over at Siris has a post upon on a saint story that I had not heard before (which isn’t saying much, there’s a huge number of saints and I don’t claim to be the world’s most well read about them):

It won’t get celebrated in any liturgies today, since it is Sunday, but today is the memorial for the Theban Legion. The Theban Legion, as its name implies, was originally garrisoned in Thebes, Egypt; but, it is said, they were sent by the Emperor Maximian to Gaul to try to keep things in order there. This is very plausible historically, although not all details of the Theban Legion legend are. The commander of the Legion was Mauritius, usually known as St. Maurice, and a lot of the officers, at least, were Christians — here, too, it was not an uncommon thing for soldiers in this period to be members of an eastern religion like Christianity, particularly on the borders of the empire. The Theban Legion, according to legend, was given the order to sacrifice to the emperor, and St. Maurice and his officers refused. Given the close connection between legions and their officers, it is perhaps not surprising that the entire legion followed their lead. In response the legion was decimated — every tenth man killed — as punishment; and when the legion still refused to sacrifice, it was repeatedly decimated until all were dead.

The plausibilities and implausibilities are interesting here — it’s implausible that there was an entire legion that was Christian to a man, but soldiers sticking with their captains is not implausible, and the Gaul campaign is perfectly historical, although our information about it is somewhat sketchy. Our earliest definite reference to the Theban Legion is about a century and a half afterwards, which leaves time for embroidery, and some historians have concluded, on the basis of what other information we have about that campaign (how many soldiers seem to have been involved, etc.), that if it occurred, it was probably a cohort, not an entire legion, that was martyred, or to put it another way, probably several hundred men rather than several thousand. That’s a plausible way in which legends form around historical events.

There are various works of art showing St. Maurice and the martyrdom of the Theban legion.

Apparently some medieval artists assumed that since the legion was from Egypt, St. Maurice must have been black (this wouldn’t necessarily be the case, obviously), as shown in this statue from the Cathedral of Magdeburg:

Do You Really Believe Pope Francis Said The Church Needs To Stop Talking About Abortion and Gay Marriage?

Pope Francis has given an extended interview which was published simultaneously today by several Jesuit magazines around the world, with America providing the English version.

The interview is good and very much worth reading, and of course the noise machine (ranging from the New York Times to left wing, dissenting Catholics) has kicked into full gear, radically distorting the pope’s message to claim:

Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

Perhaps because the interview itself is long and wide ranging, a disturbing number of people, even ones who should know better, have taken the reporting of the NY Times and other biased sources at face value, and this is too bad because not only is the message these sources are giving untrue, but it obscures a very, very important point about the faith that Pope Francis actually is making.

The interviewer asks the pope, “What does the church need most at this historic moment? Do we need reforms? What are your wishes for the church in the coming years? What kind of church do you dream of?” He replies:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
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Does Anyone Really Reject God?

Kyle has written another post on hell, this one dealing with what he says, with at least some degree of accuracy, is the historically common belief among Catholics that many people will go to hell while few will be saved. (Personally, I have no opinion on the question of what ratio of people will go to heaven and hell, and other than warning people away from the one and towards the other, I can’t really think why one would have much of a position on the matter.)

It seems to me that there are two main points which Kyle martials to his cause. His first is that if many are damned, then God’s will has been frustrated, and unless we are prepared to think God a failure, we can’t think that many are damned:

If you say, as much of Christianity does, that God created the universe and specifically human beings–creatures made in his image and likeness–for the purpose of participation in the love life that is God, and you also say that most people will refuse this destiny, then logically you’re led to say that, overall, creation won’t achieve its purpose. Overall, it is a failure. Overall, the purpose for which God created goes unrealized. Overall, God’s desire and will are not done. This would seem to make God, as Creator, something of a failure, even if you can, through some dexterous theodicy, get God off the hook for the damning decisions of his hellbound creatures.

This is, as I recall, a complaint that many of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation (or Revolt, if you prefer) were big on. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

99 Years Ago: The Week The World Caught Fire

Certain historical events are remembered in terms of a single event which, in the course of minutes or hours, ushered in a new era. People who lived through Pearl Harbor could remember exactly where they were when they heard about the Japanese attack, a point when the course of US history (and world history) changed in the course of a couple hours.

Ninety-nine years ago, as the world plunged into the First World War, the experience was different. Rather than a single sharp event which plunged the world into cataclysm, there was a long series of events, at first not much noted, which in late July and early August of 1914 plunged all the major European powers into war over the course of a week.

There’s a certain tendency to look, with historical hindsight, at the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 as an incident very likely to lead to world war. There were hints of such a possibility. German Chancellor Otto von Bismark famously observed in the late 19th century that the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. When Archduke Ferdinant was assassinated, some people immediately worried that this would lead to a general war. (H. G. Wells was among those with the dubious honor of predicting a general war was coming after hearing news of the assassination on June 28th.) However, there had just been two full fledged wars in the Balkans during the last ten years, and neither had led to general war. Indeed, the great powers, for all their diplomatic entanglements, had been able to negotiate satisfactory (at least to themselves) peaces to both prior Balkan wars. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

He’d Rather Reign In Hell Than Serve In Heaven

The more “friendly” modern formulation of hell is that hell consists of eternal separation from God and that no one goes to hell except through his own choice: choosing to remain separate from God rather than embracing Him fully in the union of the beatific vision.

The objection I normally hear to this is: In that case, then obviously hell is empty, because no one would choose an eternity of isolation rather than union with God.

This always strikes me as showing a profound lack of understanding of human character. Within our temporal lives, we often choose unhappiness in order to get our own way, and it’s hard to see how this sort of pride would fail to play a part in people’s eternal decisions. Perhaps part of the problem is that people often think of the afterlife in cartoon terms: Would you rather spend eternity boiling in a lake of fire or reclining in a cloud with a harp?

But if heaven is full and complete union with God, then I think it’s pretty clear that for the person who would much rather define God for himself than mold himself to God’s will, heaven would seem like something worth rejecting. C. S. Lewis, I think, does a very good job of showing this in The Great Divorce.

‘You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’

‘Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leav me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.’ (from The Great Divorce, ch. 5)

In religious circles, this pride seems often played out in the desire to make a God after our own image. From the same chapter of The Great Divorce:

‘But you’ve never asked me about what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. he would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste… so much promise cut short. (from The Great Divorce, ch. 5)

A almost shockingly clear example of this made headlines last week, as Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu made headlines by saying that he’d rather go to hell than be in heaven with a God who considered gay sex to be sinful.

South Africa’s iconic retired archbishop, Desmond Tutu, said on Friday that if he had his pick, he’d go to hell before heading to a heaven that condemned homosexuality as sin.

“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said, by way of denouncing religions that discriminate against gays, in Agence France-Presse..

He added, AFP reported: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.”

Or as Milton’s Lucifer put it: Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

If we must regret that Jesus died too young, before his views had had the chance to “evolve” enough to fit modern sensibilities, we may at least be happy that Desmond Tutu has lived long enough to provide us with a more enlightened savior.

Fake Pope Francis Quote Takes Internet By Storm

If you move in Catholic circles on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the following quote, allegedly spoken by Pope Francis at World Youth Day this week, being passed around:

“We need saints without cassocks, without veils – we need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies that listen to music, that hang out with their friends. We need saints that place God in first place ahead of succeeding in any career. We need saints that look for time to pray every day and who know how to be in love with purity, chastity and all good things. We need saints – saints for the 21st century with a spirituality appropriate to our new time. We need saints that have a commitment to helping the poor and to make the needed social change.

We need saints to live in the world, to sanctify the world and to not be afraid of living in the world by their presence in it. We need saints that drink Coca-Cola, that eat hot dogs, that surf the internet and that listen to their iPods. We need saints that love the Eucharist, that are not afraid or embarrassed to eat a pizza or drink a beer with their friends. We need saints who love the movies, dance, sports, theater. We need saints that are open sociable normal happy companions. we need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane. We need saints.”

– Pope Francis (World Youth Day 2013)

The thing is, it’s a totally fake quote. There’s no evidence that Pope Francis ever said it.

Google around a bit, and you’ll find versions (some written as verse, many with slight variations) dating back to 2010. Some are attributed to Pope John Paul II, some to Pope Benedict XVI, some say that it is Pope Francis quoting John Paul II or Benedict XVI. One thing you will absolutely not find, however, is any quote of the text on the Vatican website or a reputable Catholic news source, because none of these popes ever said this.

If one gives it an extra moment’s thought, it seems particularly unlikely that Pope Francis would choose World Youth Day to give a shout out to global brands such as Coca-Cola and Apple, in saying that we need saints who use their products.

Of course, one of the problems with a faux Francis getting so much attention is that it draws things away from the things that Pope Francis really has been saying at World Youth Day this week, such as:

“It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols. Dear brothers and sisters, let us be lights of hope! Let us maintain a positive outlook on reality.” [source]

and

Jesus has shown us that the face of God is that of a loving Father. Sin and death have been defeated. Christians cannot be pessimists! They do not look like someone in constant mourning. If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will “light up” with a joy that spreads to everyone around us. As Benedict XVI said here, in this Shrine: “the disciple knows that without Christ, there is no light, no hope, no love, no future” [source]

You can access all of Pope Francis’s addresses from World Youth Day on the Vatican website.

Maybe World War One Generals Weren’t Idiots

I was interested to read this British opinion piece, making the case that British military leadership during the Great War was not the clutch of bumbling fools which has become the stereotype of the war.

In 1928, following the sudden death of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, more people took to streets to mourn his passing that had ever been seen previously or indeed since. The very public mourning as a result of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was dwarfed in comparison to those that came out to pay respects to Earl Haig.

It took literature and some key individuals to change history. As one of my university lecturers once said to me, history does not happen, it is written, and that principle could not be applied more strongly to the case of First World War history.

With the publication of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and the production of Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), a wave of popular history provided the foundation through which all subsequent knowledge of the First World War is filtered – precisely the problem with which we are now faced. Historians and thespians took the critical words of those men that had a grudge and an agenda to push, namely Lloyd George and Churchill, thus generating the idea that generals were both inept and callous.

But beyond the Blackadder episodes there is a raft of history that is desperate to break into the mainstream. No one doubts that there were a handful of poor officers at various stages of the command structure who made bad decisions that ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of men.
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War Novel Recommendations

I’d like to turn to our TAC readership and ask for book suggestions. Specifically, what would you recommend as some of the best historical novels dealing with war?

Some of the best that I’ve read have been:

War and Peace which although some of Tolstoy’s historical/philosophical digressions drove me nuts does certainly give a sweeping sense of Russia during the war with Napoleon.

The Cypresses Believe in God and One Million Dead — Donald recommended these to me, and although they are very long (not quite War & Peace long, but pretty astoundingly long nonetheless) I found them utterly gripping and they similarly give you a sense not just of individual characters but of the whole nation of Spain at war with itself.

Killer Angels is a much more modest book in scope, but is a compelling and clear account of a single battle more detailed than many history books.

Alan Furst’s espionage novels aren’t, perhaps, technically war novels, but they give a very strong sense of what war and rumors of war do to society.

The Sharpe novels and Aubrey/Maturin are also great historical novels dealing with the Napoleonic era.

What other novels would you recommend and why?

Hell: Oppression or Justice?

An argument about the existence of hell broke out, and I couldn’t help inserting myself into it.

Something interesting, however, struck me about how arguments were phrased. Formulations (from theists) of the belief that hell either does not exist or does not contain anyone seemed to be based on a need to avoid thinking of God as on oppressor:

“I refuse to believe that a just and loving God would condemn anyone to eternal suffering.”

Defenses of the existence of hell and the idea that at least some people are in it tended to emphasize the ability of people to do wrong:

“People choose hell by utterly and irrevocably rejecting God. Given the willingness of people to choose evil in this life, even when it makes them unhappy, I don’t see why it’s hard to believe that some people would reject God permanently.”

The more I thought about these two formulations, the more it struck me that these tied in the with Kling’s “three axis model of politics” which I mentioned a while back. The three axes are:

[P]rogressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Here we have those who deny hell (which is, indeed, generally thought of as a “liberal” theological belief) doing so based on the argument that allowing some people to experience eternal misery turns God into an oppressor. Since they don’t want to see God as an oppressor, they reject the possibility of anyone being condemned to hell. Also implicit in this is a belief that everyone is, at root, good. No one will really, really, really choose hell over the beatific vision, so obviously the only explanation for anyone being in hell is that God is a big oppressive meany who put them there.

Those who believe in hell (a belief we might term “conservative” theologically) see hell as a matter of justice and free will: Some people will reject God, and if they choose to do so, then justice and free will demand that God allow them their condemnation. Thus, the “conservative” belief is based, like many other conservative beliefs, on a conviction that we can be pretty sure that some people will do evil, and that the application of justice will necessitate those people being punished.

Kling’s model is one of those things which I am a little annoyed to find working as well as it does, since it seems so utterly simplistic. Yet I have to admit, in its basic sort of way, it provides a bit of insights into a startling number of arguments.

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