John Milbank on Liberalism and Transgenderism

John Milbank has an interesting essay in The Catholic Herald about liberalism and transgenderism. Here’s a snip:

And there is, naturally, money to be made out of all this. Husbands, wives, children and adolescents (this last an invention of the market) are more effective and exploitable consumers when they are isolated. Fluctuating identities and fluid preferences, including as to sexual orientation, consume still more, more often and more variously in terms of products and services. The fact that the market also continues to promote the nuclear family as the norm is not here to the point – of course it will make money from both the “normal” and the “deviant” and still more from their dispute. Ultimately, profits will accrue from reducing the heterosexual norm to the status of just another “lifestyle choice”.

Secularized Fraternity or Solidarity and the Failure of the European Union

The Preamble to the Treaty of Lisbon, recognizes the influence of “religion” on its “values,” but it sees these values— including solidarity between peoples— as universal and secular. Thus it states:

DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law […] DESIRING to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions […]

Now that Brexit has become Brexibat, and the supposed ‘direction’ of European history has been called into doubt, Pope St. Pius X (if he were still alive today) might be forgiven for saying “I told you so.” In his Apostolic Letter Notre Charge ApostoliqueSt. Pius X rejected the idea that “universal solidarity” or “fraternity”  could be established on any firm basis apart from the Catholic Faith. Fraternity founded on “the love of common interest or, beyond all philosophies and religions, on the mere notion of humanity” is soon swept away by “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” No, he writes, “there is no genuine fraternity outside Christian charity.” Indeed, even if it could succeed a fraternity merely based on enlightened self-interest and a common recognition of humanity would not even be desirable:

By separating fraternity from Christian charity thus understood, Democracy, far from being a progress, would mean a disastrous step backwards for civilization. If, as We desire with all Our heart, the highest possible peak of well being for society and its members is to be attained through fraternity or, as it is also called, universal solidarity, all minds must be united in the knowledge of Truth, all wills united in morality, and all hearts in the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. But this union is attainable only by Catholic charity, and that is why Catholic charity alone can lead the people in the march of progress towards the ideal civilization.

This thesis of Pope St. Pius X’s is actually a common place of Catholic Social Teaching. Russell Hittinger has even argued  (with only slight exaggeration) that of the three ideals of the French Revolution— liberty, equality, and fraternity — the Roman Pontiffs have been especially troubled by fraternity. Quite recently, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI echoed his predecessors on this point:

Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is. (¶ 19)

Catholic Social Teaching has long noted that three ideals of the French Revolution are secularized Christian ideals. Pope St. John Paul II was re-iterating and old thesis in his controversial (and often misunderstood) homily at Le Bourget in 1980. Unfortunately, however, parts of the le Bourget homily, and other recent magisterial teachings, seem to be endorsing a secularized universal fraternity. As the Lake Garda Statement puts it:

Today, however, the Church’s leaders present her role as merely that of proposing a “contribution” to a vast and quite hopeless neo-Pelagian project in which the United Nations or some other “world political authority” would serve as the juridical framework for a solidaristic world order in which “believers,” regardless of religion, and unbelievers would be co-equal participants.

And this despite the fact that St. Pius X’s words do seem to have been born in the 19th and 20th centuries. The universal brotherhood declared by the French revolutionaries had little weight against “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” The intellectual grasp of common humanity was drowned in the powerful pseudo-religions of nationalism, and ever more internecine wars tore Europe apart, culminating in the previously unimaginable carnage of World Wars I and II.

But after World War II it seemed that a new beginning was possible. The Schuman Declaration recognized that a merely abstract rational solidarity was not enough, and proposed taking concrete steps to fuse the interests of European nations together, hoping that out of the ‘de-facto solidarity’ of national self-interest well understood, a deeper solidarity would develop. Schuman himself, like many of the founding fathers of the EU, was devout Catholic. As Alan Fimister shows in his brilliant study of Schuman and Catholic Social Teaching, Schuman was hoping that the EU would become a new Christendom, inspired by a Faith, which at the time seemed to be reviving. But that is not what happened. As Fimister puts it in a recent article: “Schuman well understood […] that the European project of Christian Democracy, if it became anti-Christian, ‘would be a caricature which would sink into either tyranny or anarchy.’”

As Adrian Pabst has eloquently put it, the actual development of the EU has seen a fusion of “Anglo-Saxon free-market economics with continental bureaucratic statism.” That is, the “common interest” of EU has pursued by means of a violent and anti-traditional economic mechanism, and it’s rational “notion of humanity” has been given form (to quote Pabst again) in “Kantian morality of context-less duties, Weberian statecraft void of virtue, and Bismarckian quasi-military management of citizens through centralised welfare,” yielding a uninion that is “abstract, administrative and alien vis-a-vis its citizens.”

And yet, Pabst was arguing against Brexit, and many of his colleagues in Radical Orthodoxy have done the same. In his reaction to Brexibat, John Milbank writes:

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy.

Is this true? Can much of the spirit of either Burke or Cobbet be found anywhere in practical politics today? There certainly seems to be very little of either spirit on either side of the Brexit debate. Would that Leave and Remain could have both lost! One prominent Burkean, however, has made an argument virtually opposite to Milbank’s: Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton argues that the EU is really anti-European, and that by leaving the European Union the United Kingdom will have a chance at saving the best parts of the European heritage. But as for me, I think that Edmund Burke himself was right when, over two hundred years ago, he declared the glory of Europe was gone forever:

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

John Milbank vs Mark Lilla on the Theologico-Political Problem

I had never heard of Mark Lilla till I read his angry review of Brad Gregory’s book on secularization. Lilla’s review caused a certain amount of stir among the sort of people that are interested in the sort of Christian critique of modernity that Gregory represents (See e.g. Matthew Milliner and Modestinus (with a follow up). Now I thought Brad Gregory’s book was brilliant, and disagreed with Lilla’s critique, but it still seemed to me that Lilla was at least an articulate critic who grasped what was at issue. That is, Lilla understands the sort of critique of Enlightenment liberalism made by the likes of Gregory and Aladair MacIntyr , but still defends liberalism. This would seem to make him a helpful interlocutor with “anti-liberal” thinkers, so I was pleased to find the following debate between Lilla and John Milbank:

It is a quite fascinating debate. Lilla puts the question thus: do human persons legitimately rule themselves (as Lilla holds) or do they rather need a divine warrant for political authority? This is what Leo Strauss used to call “the theologico-political problem.” Milbank’s defense of the anti-liberal position is all right as far as it goes, but it is a bit too soft. Lilla rightly presses Milbank on what exactly politics would look like given his theory, and Milbank is shy of giving any very concrete answer. This is because Milbank is too attached to the positive achievements of liberalism, and is not willing to push his premises all the way to their logical conclusion, which would be a lot more authoritarian than he wants to admit. As an irate commentator on this blog once wrote it’s not really clear how anti-liberal Milbank really is. As Modestinus has pointed out, “postmodern” anti-liberals like Milbank could learn a thing or two from good old reactionary Catholic integralism…

Does John Milbank read the Remnant?

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. 

On Jokes and the Difference between Austria and Prussia

I think that the carnival is an irrational institution, and that St Philip Neri was entirely right to try to abolish it. The irrationality is mostly limited to February, but in German-speaking parts it “officially” begins on the 11th of November. This is because of the confusion of the “little” pre-Advent carnival with the “big” pre-Lent carnival to form one giant “carnival Season”. Various rationalizations have been attempted for the carnival. What interests me about them is that they fall into basically two types, which correspond to the two accounts of the nature of jokes that I referred to in my last post as the Prussian and the Austrian view. Continue reading