The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism

"Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?"

“Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

The average American parishioner is more faithful to the Democratic and Republican platforms than the Credo. Alasdair MacIntyre pithily noted this (classical) liberal creep in his classic Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

“Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”

Our political picture isn't red or blue, it's more like grey.

Our political picture isn’t red or blue, it’s more like grey.

If you want proof the unity of opposites (on the classical liberal spectrum) then go no further than the recent ecclesiological suggestions of Ross Douthat and Anthony Paul Smith.

First, pay careful attention to the wording of Smith’s latest bit of writing for a general audience:

“To simplify the big and messy thing called Catholicism, let us just talk about one major split: between the official church leaders charged with safeguarding its teaching and the estimated 1.2 billion everyday believers around the world.”

Now compare this with the takeaway from Douthat’s February takedown of the Neuhaus Catholic Moment:

“Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor’s donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church’s image in this country, or he may worsen it.

But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation’s future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.”

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

Are we seriously supposed to entertain the possibility that a fight where the laity slays the hierarchy is the only tactically viable maneuver for the Catholic Church?! This sounds like suicide through competition to me. It echoes the fight between the People’s Front of Judea against the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The film is a comedy for those of you who missed it.

Michael Sean Winters, in a recent repost of a long-lost article, proposes the work of David Schindler as one possible way to do an end-around the whole classical liberal Hydra represented by Smith and Douthat: 

“The usual view of contemporary Catholic theology sees two camps the liberals who succeeded in opening the Church to the world at Vatican II and who have been in decline in the era of John Paul II, and the conservatives who think the Church went too far in the 1960s to accommodate the world, and support what they see as John Paul’s restorationist program. Schindler argues for (if you’ll pardon the expression) a third way. In his analysis, the liberals want more accommodation with the world and conservatives want less accommodation with the world, but they are still arguing about the rules of engagement. And both fail to appreciate the radicalness of the scriptural claim that ‘in [Jesus] everything in heaven and on earth was created.’

For Schindler, the Christian must always consider the claims of faith first, and those claims extend to the entirety of his or her life. Classical liberalism claims that in the realms of the ontological and the sectarian, the polity has no preference: a Christian is free to pursue his faith and any citizen can make whatever truth claims about the universe that he wishes. To use Murray’s distinction, the Bill of Rights are not ‘articles of faith’ but ‘articles of peace.’ But, Schindler asks, are there not truth claims, religious truth claims, already implicit in this putatively ‘neutral’ state?

Specifically, Schindler argues that Thomistic dualism is the sine qua non of liberal political regimes and, therefore, the neutrality of the liberal state is a sham. Murray’s “articles of peace” formulation assumes a logical priority for freedom before truth, and inevitably issues in a ‘privatization’ of religion. Since the Church is prevented from approaching the world ‘as Church’ (welcome, but please leave your dogma at the door!) it is reduced to the role of an ethical authority. This role, in turn, shapes the Church’s self-understanding so that what results is not only the secularization of society that the neo-conservatives decry, but also the secularization of religion itself. Being ‘Christian’ is reduced to being kind.”

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

Working out his project seems to be the only viable alternative to this:

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Abortion, Natural Law, & Antisemitism?

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

This is the ancient history behind present day hot-button issues.

The plurality of stances possible within orthodoxy is surprising to our uncritical post-Enlightenment prejudices. On the other hand, heresy, perhaps by definition, or at least by etymology, tends to be sterile and one-sided. Ross Douthat, captures some of this heretical reductionism in Chapter 5 (“Lost in the Gospels”) of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “The goal of the great heresies . . . has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.” [I’ve previously mentioned the surprising role Constantine played in the development of Christian pluralism here.]

Christians have been critically aware of orthodoxy’s perennial dynamism at least ever since John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which you can read here in its entirety at the Newman Reader.

Yet, there have been some constants in this torrent of constant change. For example, Judeo-Christian sexual ethics totally revolutionized the looser attitudes of their Graeco-Roman predecessors. More importantly, given the recent mayhem in Texas over abortion legislation, there is the ancient Christian tradition of opposing abortion. It is enshrined in its oldest post-biblical documents such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Your mom!

Your mom!

There is no direct mention of abortion in the New Testament, because the pro-life position was taken for granted by Jews. The early Christians, as good Jews, followed many centuries of Jewish tradition by rejecting abortion, contraception, and infanticide.

One example is the Alexandrian Jewish writings known as the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before dogs and vultures as prey.” It doesn’t take much effort reading between the lines to figure out these must have been fairly common practices among the Graeco-Roman population in which the Jewish diaspora lived. The most cursory glance at the historical scholarship done on Graec0-Roman practices will confirm what I’m saying here. You can also reference their literary output.

I can’t say what Asia and the Indian subcontinent thought about these things, but I’m guessing they were probably (unfortunately) very much like the Greeks and Romans.

The difference of the fates of Oedipus and Moses are instructive here. They hint at very different attitudes toward children. One exposed child is fated to be a criminal, while the other becomes a liberator.

"I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see."  Can't really say the same for Oedipus.

“I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.” Can’t really say the same for Oedipus.

Therefore, the interesting historical twist might be that being pro-abortion is anti-Semitic.

There are also connections with the controversy about natural law, and its application to our abortion debates, started by David Bentley Hart in First Things. He says the following:

“There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.

That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.”

I’ll have to do some more research before taking sides in this debate. It might be the case, like with the abolishing of slavery (think Moses again), that being pro-life is yet another revolutionary innovation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.