Does the American political tradition at its best consider the good of the republic to be something good in itself, an honest good, or merely a useful good, an instrument to aid citizens in the attainment of their private goods? In a recent discussion of this question a friend of mine proposed looking at American patriotic poetry rather than political treatises. His idea, if I understand him aright, is that while on a theoretical level American political thought has tended to deny the primacy of the common good, the American people have a natural and implicit love for and understanding of the true political good, and this is expressed in their patriotic songs etc. This points to an interesting tension in modern liberal democracies between their theoretical self-understanding and the image of themselves that the must propose to the imagination of their citizens. Continue reading
Having read a fraction of the things written about Pope Francis’s decision to disregard the Roman rubrics for the Mandatum by washing the feet of women as well as men (see: Vatican Press Office; Rorate Caeli; Caelum et Terra; Pius Pietrzyk, O.P.; Stratford Caldecott), I was struck by the fact that hardly anyone one mentioned what seems to me the obvious reason for the rubric.
In the Middle Ages it was customary in many places for the king to wash the feet of poor men on Holy Thursday, but when a Queen was regnant she would wash the feet of poor women. It seems to have never occurred to any one that a king might wash women’s feet or a queen men’s. The reason seems to be that there was a culture of what I suppose one would call “modesty.” That is, the recognition that the relation between men and women has been rendered fragile through disordered, post-lapsarian concupiscence. “Modesty” in dress and manners is a way of protecting that fragile relation.
It has often been noted that one of the reasons why people were so scandalized by the woman (or women) who anointed Our Lord’s feet (an action with interesting parallels to the washing of the feet at the Last Supper) is precisely a feeling that it violates modesty. In His whole Umgang with women– not only Mary of Bethany, but also the Samaritan woman at the well et al.– Our Lord gives a kind of preview of a redeemed creation in which the relation of men and women is no-longer strained by disorder. He shows an astonishing freedom.
Now, I think the reason why the whole discussion of Pope Francis’s Madatum has tended to ignore the question of modesty is because of the cultural gulf which separates us from past generations. So-called “sexual liberation” has had the effect of making things which once seemed immodest seem totally modest. One could say that there has been a kind of de-sensitization. This means that certain things that would have given scandal in another age simply don’t in ours. Modesty and immodesty are not wholly ”objective” predicates. I suppose, for instance, that while it would have been immodest for a woman to wear trousers in the 19th century, it simply isn’t now. People are so used to women wearing trousers, that it doesn’t give any special occasion to disordered concupiscence. Whether on deplores or applauds this, it seems to be a fact.
One of the main themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate was the relation of faith and reason, and the appeal to overcome the self-limitation of reason in the so-called Enlightenment and to open reason up to the whole of reality especially to He Who above all Is– think of the Regenburg Lecture, Spe Salvi, The Address in the Collège des Bernardins etc.
Judging from some of the things that Pope Francis wrote as a Cardinal this is a theme that is dear to his heart as well. In the chapter that he wrote for a book on Luigi Giussani he writes the following:
The drama of the world today is the result not only of the absence of God but also and above all of the absence of humankind, of the loss of the human physiognomy, of human destiny and identity, and of a certain capacity to explain the fundamental needs that dwell in the human heart. The prevailing mentality, and deplorably that of many Christians, supposes that there is an unbreachable opposition between reason and faith. Instead – and here lies another paradox — The Religious Sense emphasizes that speaking seriously about God means exalting and defending reason and discovering its value and the right way to use it. This is not reason understood as a pre-established measure of reality but reason open to reality in all its factors and whose starting point is experience, whose starting point is this ontological foundation that awakens a restlessness in the heart. It is not possible to raise the question of God calmly, with a tranquil heart, because this would be to give an answer without a question. Reason that reﬂects on experience is a reason that uses as a criterion for judgment the measuring of everything against the heart – but “heart” taken in the Biblical sense, that is, as the totality of the innate demands that everyone has, the need for love, for happiness, for truth, and for justice. The heart is the core of the internal transcendent, where the roots of truth, beauty, goodness, and the unity that gives harmony to all of being are planted. We deﬁne human reason in this sense and not as rationalism, that laboratory rationalism, idealism, or nominalism (this last so much in fashion now), which can do everything, which claims to possess reality because it is in possession of the number; the idea, or the rationale of things, or, if we want to go even further, which claims to possess reality by means of an absolutely dominating technology that surpasses us in the very moment in which we use it, so that we fall into a form of civilization that Guardini liked to call the second form of unculture. We instead speak of a reason that is not reduced, is not exhausted in the mathematical, scientiﬁc, or philosophical method. Every method, in fact, is suited to its own sphere of application and to its speciﬁc object.
In the 1930s Evelyn Waugh could suggest that the idea of Progress was out, but alas the idea proved much more resilient than one might expect. Confidence in progress might have become a bit more cautious after Auschwitz and the Gulag, but it persists.
A remarkable example of this cautious confidence is President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech. Consider the following passages:
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass. [...] We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.
Obama does not see progress as the automatic, inevitable process parodied by Waugh– there can be setbacks–but he sees it something for which we can and must hope. Note how religious his language is here. Progress is presented as the hope of the world. In effect what he is presenting here is a rival Gospel to that of redemption through Christ: redemption through human progress. This is precisely what Pope Benedict sees as the root of the crisis of Christian hope and therefore of Christian faith in the modern world. In Spe Salvi, after describing how Francis Bacon developed a knew program for human knowledge ordering it to power over nature, he writes: Continue reading
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin has the typescript of a radio talk by Evelyn Waugh “To an Unknown Old Man.” The following is a wonderfully dismissive passage on progress. (If only the notion were as passé as Waugh suggests).
I should like to ask you what it must have felt like to live in an age of Progress. But that is now a word that must be dismissed from our conversation before anything of real interest can be said. I daresay this comes less easily to you than to me because belief in Progress – that is to in a proves of inarrestible, beneficial change, was an essential part, as I understand it, of your education. You were told that man was a perfectible being already well set on the last phase of his ascent from ape to angel, that he would yearly become healthier, wealthier and wiser until, somewhere about the period in which we are now living, he would have attained a condition of unimpaired knowledge and dignity and habitual, ecstatic self esteem.
By the time I went to school in the last years of the war, people were less confident and the idea was on its way to the United States of America, from which last refuge of threadbare heresies it has been finally dislodged by recent economic realities. […] nowadays most of us have realized that man’s capacity for suffering keeps pretty regular pace with the discoveries that ameliorate it and that for every new thing found there is one good use and uncounted misuses. […] I do not think that the elaboration of mechanical devices is of any more significance than a change in the fashion of hats, save in so far as both reflect a change of outlook in the users.
I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2
When Christ came into the world, he said, [...] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5
Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII
For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5
The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3
The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading
Klaus Obenauer is one of very few German academic theologian who is also a strict Thomist. Recently he has written some rather interesting things on the question of the reconciliation of the Society of St Pius X (FSSPX) and the Holy See. A lecturer at the University of Bonn, Obenauer used to be assistent to Prof. Karl-Heinz Menke. When Menke gave an interview in which he said that a reconciliation was impossible and implied that that was a good thing, Obenauer answered with an impassioned article arguing that it was both possible and urgently necessary.
Now Obenauer has written an article on why, given that a reconciliation is possible in principle, relations between Rome and the FSSPX seem to have come to a standstill. I have been asked to translate Obenauer’s article, but as its rather long I shall just give a summary. Continue reading
The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom have lots of freedom, but their experience seems to teach them that freedom is overrated. Take Patty Berglund reflecting on her own misery:
By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. (p. 181)
I once pointed out the irony of using Charles Taylor to defend Christopher Ferrara (which I had been doing up to a point) given the radically different intellectual worlds which they seem to inhabit. So it was with some surprise and delight that I noticed that Ferrara’s latest book has a blurb from–of all people–John Milbank. Somehow one doesn’t picture the left-leaning, Anglican theologian à la mode Milbank actually reading the sort of American trad. polemicist who actually writes for The Remnant. Apparently, Ferrara also quotes Milbank a good amount in the book itself. Excellent, Sancrucensis says to himself; the strategy of uniting the anti-liberal insights of the 19th century popes with that of those intellectuals “on the left and the right [who] have all taken their cue from [...] Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue” (to borrow a phrase from Mark Lilla) is one that has my approval.
Reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine on the Holy Father’s appointment of Gerhard Ludwig Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a bit like going back in time; it is so similar to the sort of thing that they wrote about the Holy Father himself when he was prefect of the CDF:
Combined with his stern gaze and determined body language the bishop’s scarlet choir robes give the impression of a suit of armor (Panzer) for the fight against the enemies of the Faith and the Church.
They list his acts against pro-choice politicians and the praise that his Handbook of Dogmatiks received from the original “Panzerkardinal”. But then there bring up the enigma: is this the same guy who is friends with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the hero of progressive, “socially conscious” Catholicism?
This time though, one must admit that the caricature is nearer to the truth than last time. No one could hear the Pope Benedict XVI speak without be astonished at how such a gentle, soft-spoken man could be the kind of heretic-hunting fanatic that he was made out to be. But when I heard G-L M a few years back, he sounded just like the sort of old-style religious energumen that showed up in media reports. But it wasn’t just the 1930s style top-of-the-voice noise of his sermon, but also its triumphalisticly anti-Protestant argument — he was preaching on the sacrificial character of the Mass– that gave this impression. It has been said that in his professorial days Müller used to write letters denouncing his colleagues to the CDF, and it is certainly true that as bishop he used the rod far more vigorously than one expects in Germany. He is constantly bringing cononical sanctions against heterodox theologians, suspending priests, and otherwise annoying the liberals. It seems that in Bishop Gerhard-Ludwig Müller the CDF at last has a prefect who relishes a fight. He he has also gone after the SSPX. This has caused concern for traditionalists, who are also concerned about some of his doctrinal positions.
As Modestinus has pointed out (with unnecessary brusqueness) some of their concerns might be based on too hasty interpretations of Müller’s Handbook of Dogmatik Theology.
In my studies I read a few sections of Müller’s book, and didn’t discover anything so very shocking at the time. His method is “encyclopedic.” After introducing a topic he gives a long history of what everyone from the fathers and doctors to Protestant Reformers, and from Nouvelle Theologie theologians to the Magisterium of the Roman Church has said on it, before giving his own ideas. The advantage that he has over most “encyclopedic” theologians is that he is better read than them, and has a better sense of what he has to pick out from the history of thought on a subject so that he can make the sythesis that he wants at the end. David Berger has criticised him on this point for often willifully misunderstanding texts to make them fit his narrative better. Berger’s review of Müller’s book is well worth reading (for those who can read German).
David Berger is a very strange figure in his own right. He was one of the leaders of German speaking neo-neo-Thomism and wrote a highly regarded book attacking the anti-neo-Thomist cliches of post-conciliar German theology. Later however it was revealed that he was involved in “gay” circles, and he wrote a bizarre book about homosexuality and the Church.
Berger’s review of Müller falls within his “neo-neo-Thomist standard bearer” period. He bashes Müller for a number of things– including for following De Lubac’s account of the relation of nature and grace. His main criticism though is that Müller abandons the idea of theology as a science “from the top down” (Berger’s expression): a participation in the science of God and the blessed, which can thus proceed demonstratively from first revealed principles. According to Berger, Müller tries instead to build a bottom-up theology, beginning with the human experience of divine revelation as described by Karl Rahner in Hearers of the Word.
Another way of reading Müller though is in the light of Joseph Ratzinger’s account of revelation in his book on Bonaventure. According to Ratzinger “revelation” was not understood by Bonaventure and the other medievals as referring to the “content” of divine teaching – not to a set of propositions giving information about the Divine life – but rather to the activity of God showing Himself to His people. From this he concludes that there is no revelation “going on” unless someone is receiving it; God has to be revealed to someone. Ratzinger develops his whole theory of tradition of this, and as far as I can remember that is the tack that Müller takes as well. The Holy Father hints as much in the preface to the Festschrift for Müller’s 60th birthday.” I want to end with a passage of effusive praise from that preface:
We [in the International Theological Commission] were all deeply impressed by your comprehensive knowledge of the history of dogma and theology, which your interventions always showed, and which were the foundation of your ever reliable judgement (immer zuverlässiges Urteil). In everything we sensed that your theology was not just academic learning, but that it was and is – as the essence of theology demands – a thinking-with the word of the Faith, thinking-with the “we” of the Church as the communal subject of the Faith. [...] You made great efforts to explain the true meaning of the document “Dominus Jesus” which had so often been distorted in the reduction to a few slogans. As bishop of Regensburg you took the foundational biblical title “Dominus Jesus: Jesus is the Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3) as your motto, and by so doing you determined an agenda: Christ stands at the center of the episcopal ministry; He is the center of our Christian existence. (Pope Benedict XVI)
Let us hope and pray that Bishop Müller does indeed show an “ever reliable judgement” in his new office, and – when necessary – the courage to pick a fight.