Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

I read a paper on individualism and totalitarianism in the writings of David Foster Wallace and Charles de Koninck (see below) at a conference on “Political Demononolgy” at Worcester College, Oxford on Friday. The talks were about all sorts of things from all sorts of perspectives. And many of them were quite good. Conor Cunningham’s keynote on evil as the refutation of eliminative materialism was hilariously funny (“Some of you might be interested in the political implication of all this. But I don’t do politics; I’m from Belfast.” “I hope you don’t read Bataille— he’s crap.”). Adrian Papst gave a wonderfully clear and convincing paper on the pessimism of liberalism— looking at Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and making a plea for a politics of the pursuit of common ends. And Henry Mead gave a fascinating paper on the idea of original sin in T.E. Hulme, and his guild-socialist friend A. R. Orage. Sadly I had to leave before the final keynote by Elizabeth Frazer, but I have heard that a recording will be made available soon. I met some people that I only know through the internet— including Andrew Cusack, whose excellent blog I have followed for years.

I have pasted my talk below, and have also made it available in audio and pdf formats.

The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

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Amoris Lætitia

Preliminary Remarks on Religious Submission to Magisterial Teaching

Before turning to Amoris Laetitia I want to first give some general remarks on submission to Church teaching. I recently read Daniel Schwindt’s excellent overview of Catholic Social Teaching, and application of it to the American situation,  The Papist’s Guide to America. Schwindt’s book is notable for its rich account of the common good, making use of Fr. Sebastian Walshe’s profound dissertation on the subject. It is also notable for the exemplary spirit of docility to papal teaching that it displays. Schwindt offers a devasting critique of the rule of private judgement typical of a liberal age, which has infected even many in the Church. And gives a resounding plea for submission to the teachings of the Roman pontiffs, a plea worthy of a Cardinal Manning.

There has been a lamentable tendency in Catholic theology since about July of 1968 to minimalize the requirements of submission to the teachings of the popes. Submission, so goes the argument, is only absolutely necessary to infallible teachings, and according to Vatican I the pope is only infallible under four conditions: “when, (1) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, (2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, (3) he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals (4) to be held by the whole Church.” Many Catholic theologians, especially in Germany, have argued that these conditions are only met in solemn definitions, in which the supreme pontiff exercises his extraordinary magisterium. This was the strategy adopted by those who wished to dissent from the teaching on artificial contraception of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. This extremely minimalistic approach to the teachings of the supreme pontiffs has always been particularly abhorrent to me. The pope is infallible not only in his extraordinary magisterium, but also his ordinary and universal magisterium, when he intends to bind the Church definitively. Moreover, the Church requires religious submission of will and intellect even non-definitive teachings. My tendency has thus always been to the opposite extreme. And yet, this too can be taken too far.

There are different levels of authoritative teaching, and the require different kinds of assent. In the Professio Fideiwhich I made before my ordination, three kinds teaching are laid out, which each require a different kind of assent: Continue reading

French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe

In a letter to the editor of First Things, my brother Benedict objects to Pierre Manent’s claim that while Western Christianity was born in an imperial form, it “found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called ‘Christendom,’ then ‘Europe:’”

To me, the nation-state does not mean heroic unity in the face of foreign invasion, but World War I: the destruction of the supranational Danube ­Empire and the creation by violence and forced emigration of homogenous nation-states. […] For Dante, it was precisely the inability of Christendom to unify under a single emperor, Ottoman-style, that was its downfall. Nothing illustrates the failure of the loose federal Christendom model better than its inability to unite against the external threat of the sultan’s armies. French national interest, Venetian national interest, Hungarian national interest prohibited a united effort, and the result was the Ottoman conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula and untold suffering for its Christian inhabitants.

As the example of Dante shows, Medieval Christendom all the way to the end was inspired by the imperial ideal of a universal temporal order. Virgil can be said to be the “father of Europe,” partly because of his imperial ideal was subsidiarist ideal that left room for local piety. And the Roman Church— from Pope Gelasius’s Famuli vestrae pietatis to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’— has never given up the ideal of a universal temporal power, corresponding in some way to her universal spiritual power.

The ideal was, however, never fully realized, and was made almost impossible by the forces that brought the Middle Ages to an end. Arguably the estrangement of Byzantium and Rome had already made the ideal of empire unattainable, but it was the Reformation that made even a semi-empire in the West practically impossible. And sadly “French national interest” had an important role in making the Reformation possible, preventing it from being reversed, and preventing the emergence of a post-Reformation empire in the parts of Europe that remained Catholic.

However much the medieval popes and emperors quarreled, they always shared a basically imperial idea of Christendom. The quarrel between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII on the other hand was quite a different thing: it was (among other things) a quarrel between an imperial and a national ideal of human of common life. This was the beginning of the end of the Medieval Christendom. There followed the Avignon exile of the papacy, and then the conflicts between France and the Habsburgs. If France had supported the emperor in the 30 Years War, it is likely that the Reformation could have been reversed. Even afterwards, “French National Interest” continued to make a semi-empire in Catholic Europe impossible. Charles VI losing the War of Spanish Succession to the French was almost as great a blow to the Holy Roman Empire as Francis II formally dissolving it under the pressure of Napoleonic French aggression, less than a century later. Fittingly, it was Charles VI, who left one of the most beautiful symbolic monuments of the empire: the Karlskirche. I celebrate Mass in the Karlskirche from time to time for Una Voce Austria, and it always makes me reflect on the nature of Christendom.


The Karlskirche

As Friedrich Polleroß has pointed out, the Karlskirche is meant to remind us of the Solomonic Temple, the temples of pagan Rome, Hagia Sophia, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The classical portico stands for the heritage of imperial Rome, the two great pillars stand both for the for the pillars of Hercules and for Jachin and Boas. The pillars of Hercules show that the empire is to stretch to the ends of the earth. But Jachin and Boas show that the emperor is the new Solomon; above the classical portico is a dome reminiscent of the cupola of St. Peter’s— the Holy Roman Empire exists for the exaltation of the Holy Roman Church.

Pierre Manent is of course right that the EU is antithetical to the true spirit of Christendom, but it is ironic that he praises French nationalism as conformable with that spirit. Oddly enough, the EU was largely put together by Frenchmen. It is even said that Alexandre Kojève was an influence, after his dream of a Latin (i.e. French) Empire failed to materialize.

Postscript: lest I be accused of Francophobia: France is awesome.


Desire, Deicide, and Atonement: René Girard and St. Thomas Aquinas

Before Easter I was invited to give a mini-course on soteriology as part of Duc in altuma series organized by the Loretto, an Austrian lay movement, and the Community of St. John. I had just been studying the beginning of the Prima Secundae, and I was struck by how important the teaching on the final end was for understanding the nature of sin, and therefore of salvation. A little earlier I had been arguing with Facebook Girardians on TNET about René Girard, and so I decided to write the following essay atonement, and desire, and Girard. A printable version can be found here.

Human action begins with the good. The good is the cause of all desiring, wanting, or willing without which there is no human action. The goodness or evil of human actions can only be understood in the light of the good that is their end. And so a consideration of the good, and of desire for the good, is crucial for understanding our separation from God through sin and of the atonement that overcomes that separation. I want to show how the St. Thomas Aquinas’s account the good as the final end can be of great help in understanding the teaching of scripture and tradition on how Christ’s death on the cross atoned for our sins. But before turning to the Thomistic account I want to consider René Girard’s theory of how Christ’s death accomplished our salvation. Girard’s theory is helpful because it sees the structure of human desire as a key to understanding the cross. Girard’s account of desire contains brilliant insights, but it is somewhat one-sided, since it does not give enough weight to the attractive power of the good. Girard’s insights can help to bring out certain aspects of St. Thomas’s account, and the difficulties arising from his one-sidedness can help to set off the balance and subtlety of Thomas. Continue reading

Aristotle on Trolling

Aristotle on trolling (as reconstructed by Rachel Barney) is one of the best things on the internet. One must read the whole thing, but here is a preview:

And it is clear from this that there can be trolling outside the internet. For every community of speakers holds certain goods in common, and with them the conversation [dialegesthai] as an end in itself; and the troll is one who seeks to damage it from within. So a questioner can troll a political meeting, and academics troll each other in committees when they are bored; and a newspaper columnist may be a profit-troll towards a whole city. But blogs and boards and forums and comments sections are where the troll dwells primarily and for the most part. For these are weak communities, and anyone may be part of them: and so their good is easily destroyed. Hence the saying, ‘Trolls <are> not to be fed’. But though everyone knows this, everyone does it; for the desire to be right on the internet is natural and present to all.

Nuclear Explosion of Joy

Leicester City has won the Premier League. This is the greatest achievement in the history of kicking balls into goals. This is like Hobbits defeating Sauron.

Yes, of course professional football is an evil capitalist spectacle and all that, blah, blah blah. But… but: sometimes things happen that remind us that it is a good thing for humankind to exist on earth. Et delectabar per singulos dies, ludens coram eo omni tempore, ludens in orbe terrarum; et deliciæ meæ esse cum filiis hominum.

alienorum peccatorum participes efficiantur

“That’s all?” a penitent, whose confession I had just heard, once said when I gave him his penance. I immediately thought of a passage of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Penance:

The priests of the Lord must therefore, so far as reason and prudence suggest, impose salutary and suitable satisfactions, in keeping with the nature of the crimes and the ability of the penitents; otherwise, if they should connive at sins and deal too leniently with penitents, imposing certain very light works for very grave offenses, they might become partakers in the sins of others.

There are a number of difficulties in applying this passage. The most serious is that a severe penance (especially given how rarely such penances are given nowadays) can be discouraging to the penitent. St Alphonsus discusses the problem at length:

The confessor should give a penance that he considers will further the penitent’s chances at salvation, that is, one that is adapted to his particular condition and one that he judges will be carried out. He should take note that even though Trent demands a penance corresponding to the gravity of the sins, still he may, for a just cause, lessen the penance for a number of reasons. For instance […] when the confessor prudently judges that a penance which corresponds to the sins will not be fulfilled. We know that Trent teaches that penance and sins should correspond to each other, but we say that besides this the penance should correspond to the penitent’s capability. In this way, the penance will be a help and not a hindrance to the penitent’ s salvation. When it happens that the penance is neither helpful to his salvation nor fitted to his particular strength or weakness, then the penance is a poison and not a remedy. And yet in this sacrament, amendment of one’s life is the end intended, rather than making all the satisfaction due for sin. The Ritual says this very thing when it tells the confessor to have “the disposition of the penitent” in mind. […] Gerson, Cajetan, and St. Antoninus all teach that the confessor should impose a penance which he prudently thinks the penitent will be able to handle, and which he will readily accept. If the penitent maintains that a penance is too much for him in his weak condition, then, as the saint points out, “No matter how much he has sinned, he should not be refused absolution, lest he despair.” He goes on to say that it is enough in a case like this, to impose the general penance using the words of the Ritual quidquid boni feceris etc.

The words quidquid boni feceris, to which St, Alphonsus alludes, are from a prayer said after absolution:

May the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the good you do and the suffering you endure, gain for you the remission of your sins, increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life.

This prayer applies a great deal more to the satisfaction of the temporal punishment of sin than the actual penance imposed.

The simplest solution to the difficulty raised by Trent, however, is the one used by St. Leopold Mandić. Fr. Antonio Sicari describes Mandić’s solution as follows:

I recall […] St. Leopold Mandić, closed for years and years in his confessional, overwhelmed by the sins poured upon him by the penitents. Derided by some because he made all innocent, giving absolution with merciful generosity, and then passed long nights in expiation, trembling with fear for God’s judgement. He had, in fact, sent away the most fragile sinners offering himself in their place: “I will make the penitence for you, I will pray…”

In a sense Mandić did become what Trent calls a “partaker in the sins of others,” but in quite a different sense than the one condemned.

Pliny the Elder as a Blogger; Schopenhauer as Jonathan Franzen

Pliny Younger’s description of the reading habits of his uncle, Pliny the elder, makes the later sound a bit like a blogger constantly reading an RSS feed or listening to a podcast:

On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, “Did you not catch the meaning?” When his friend said “yes,” he remarked, “Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption.” So jealous was he of every moment lost.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts on the said description sound a bit like Jonathan Franzen ranting about the superficiality of twitter:

Even when it is reported of the elder Pliny that he was always reading or being read to, at table, when travelling, or in his bath, the question suggests itself to me whether the man was so lacking in ideas of his own that those of others had to be incessantly imparted to him, just as a consommé is given to a man suffering from consumption in order to keep him alive. Neither his undiscerning gullibility, nor his inexpressibly repulsive, almost unintelligible, paper-saving, notebook style is calculated to give me a high opinion of his ability to think for himself.