Hegel Finagled


Regarding “America in the European Mind” by Thomas Albert Howard (November): Mr. Howard’s quotation from Hegel’s Philosophy of History (“What has taken place in America so far is a mere echo of the Old World, and the expression of an alien vitality”) is taken out of context. The context is that America did not, in Hegel’s day, have much of a past. But the beginning of the paragraph from which Howard took the quote presents a much more sanguine view of America, albeit a bit speculative. Hegel says: “America is . . . the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself—perhaps in a contest between North and South America. It is a land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical lumber-room of old Europe. Napoleon is reported to have said: ‘cette vielle Europe m’ennuie.’”

This does not jibe well with the dismissive view of America that Howard ascribes to Hegel.

Howard P. Kainz
Philosophy Department
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Thomas Albert Howard replies:


Professor Kainz singles out Hegel’s isolated speculation about America’s future as the relevant context. This speculation is preceded by much more dismissive passages. Hegel sees “no coherence in the political structure” of the United States. He regards “acquisition and profit” and the triumph of “private interest” as “the basic character of [American] society.” My essay, though, focused on America’s religious life as viewed by Europeans. On this topic, Hegel, who never set foot in America, is even more dismissive and condescending. His America is a land ridden with sectarianism and obscurantism, a place of “sheer madness,” “capriciousness,” and “total arbitrariness.” In his magisterial work on European views of the New World, Antonello Gerbi speaks of “Hegel’s disdainful and arbitrary dismissal of the American continent””perhaps important in the future but of interest in the present neither to historian nor philosopher.

Our Fathers


It may seem bad form to single out what might appear to be small potatoes from the rich and delectable stew that is an otherwise very thoughtful, hopeful, and encouraging essay pleading for a return to the writings of the Church Fathers (“The Return of the Fathers,” November). I feel compelled, however, to point out that Paul Tillich would hardly be averse to a rediscovery of ancient Christian thought. Indeed, his writings, as well as his life, bespoke a familiarity with Augustine, Athanasius, Origen, Chrysostom, and others.

Some ancient Christian thinkers, notably Justin Martyr and Origen, believed their mission involved grappling with the leading philosophers of their day, as did Tillich. Comments such as “the Paul Tillich Society may soldier on” and “[Cyril of Jerusalem] did not expound a philosophy of New Being” are rather weak and disparaging, to say the least.

A renewal of faith and Christian culture may come in many forms, even as barbarians stand at the gate, as they always have and always will. I would simply add Paul Tillich to an already formidable arsenal”an arsenal of which R.R. Reno has so eloquently reminded us.

Adrian Valentino
Fort Collins, Colorado

Regarding R.R. Reno’s “The Return of the Fathers”: I am puzzled that anyone could find the early Fathers consistently spiritually rewarding. Perhaps the best description of my reaction is from Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield:

“There is no other such gulf in the history of human thought as that which is cleft between the apostolic and the immediately succeeding ages. To pass from the latest apostolic writings to the earliest compositions of uninspired Christian pens is to fall through such a giddy height that it is no wonder if we rise dazed and almost unable to determine our whereabouts. Here is the great fault”as the geologists would say”in the history of Christian doctrine. There is every evidence of continuity”but, oh, at how much lower a level! The rich vein of evangelical religion has run well-nigh out; and, though there are masses of apostolic origin lying everywhere, they are but fragments, and are evidently only the talus which has fallen from the cliffs above and scattered itself over the lowered surface.” (From his 1897 address “The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed”)

Professor Reno should return to the Apostles, not to the Fathers. The careful study of the Apostles’ writings, using all the help available from the communion of saints, past and present, with the intention of learning the truth and putting it into practice, is what I thought was meant by inductive Bible study.Frederick Kuhl
Oak Hill, VirginiaR.R. Reno opens his article lamenting the current state of higher education. He remarks with reference to his home institution that the “extensive modern tradition of Catholic social teaching has no role to play in political science” and that the Catholic tradition is similarly left untaught in his university’s history and English departments. He asks us “to imagine what the situation is like at Yale and UCLA” if things are this bad “at a self-consciously Catholic university.”

Although I can speak for only a part of Yale (the law school), I would invite Reno to visit us sometime. In my years here, I have taken a seminar on just war that drew generously from Catholic teachings, a lecture class on religion and the law in which we read Pope Benedict XVI, and a jurisprudence survey course where several of our assignments focused on the natural-law tradition. Just last semester, a seminar was offered on Catholic social thought. Visiting speakers at the law school have included Justice Antonin Scalia and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (perhaps Reno has heard of these men). If there is any approach that could claim intellectual hegemony here, it is law and economics, and not the gender and postcolonial theory that Reno derides.

Stock attacks on the “political correctness” of modern universities are not just tired, they are no longer true (if they ever were). If Reno would care to rely on evidence outside his own university and twenty-year-old stories from his friends, he might discover that things are much better than he realizes.

Chad Flanders
New Haven, Connecticut

As one who studied theology in the “Father-deprived” early post- Vatican II era, I was pleased to read R.R. Reno’s article, in which he shares the good news that the study of the Fathers of the Church is on the rise these days, both in and out of strictly academic circles.

I say that the early post-Vatican II years were “Father-deprived” and not “Father-less,” because the Catholic Church in her official teaching never abandoned or rejected the wisdom of the Fathers, as even a cursory reading of the texts of Vatican II will illustrate.

I wish Reno had more clearly emphasized this point in his article. Along the same lines, I think it would have been helpful (and enlightening to some) to mention the commitment to patristics that many Catholic scholars”like Joseph Ratzinger”had in the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, which eventually influenced conciliar teaching on a host of matters. Ratzinger and other like-minded scholars believed that aggiornamento needed to be combined with ressourcement-a “return to the sources” of Catholic theology in the Scriptures and in the early Fathers of the Church.

Rev. Raymond N. Suriani
Pastor, St. Pius X Church
Westerly, Rhode Island


R.R. Reno replies:


As Fr. Suriani rightly points out, popular histories of Vatican II tend to dichotomize. On the one side we find the ressourcement crowd, enriching the Church with tradition, perhaps, but essentially conservative in outlook. On the other side”so this pat view holds”are the patrons of aggiornamento, an Italian word that means “bringing to today” or, as it is usually translated, “updating.”

This picture of “tradition” versus “progress” fits our wider, modern political and cultural frameworks of “right” versus “left,” but it is grossly inadequate for understanding the history of modern Catholic theology. As Etienne Gilson once said, “If theological progress is sometimes necessary, it is never possible unless you go back to the beginning and start over.” Or, as Charles Peguy wrote, “A true revolution is a call from a less perfect tradition to a more perfect tradition.” True aggiornamento comes through thorough ressourcement.

As my essay suggests, the real revolution of Vatican II is now bearing fruit. The main thrust of the council was not to abandon the spirit or achievement of Vatican I and its successful (!) responses to the challenges of modernity. (Yes, successful, as one of her most faithful sons, the late pope John Paul II, so clearly demonstrated in his lifelong struggle against evils that deceived and seduced far too many modern intellectuals.) Instead, the primary desire of Vatican II was to resupply the spirit and achievement of modern Catholicism with the primary power of the apostolic witness.

Thus the return of the Fathers. They have always been present in the life of the Church. But as the first and greatest servants of God’s Word, we are now turning to them more fully. We ask them for guidance in beginning and starting over again, not against or as an alternative to our inherited tradition, but in confidence that the Church, our mother, lives for the sake of ever more fully serving the truth of Christ.

As for Mr. Kuhl, I can only express my deepest regret that his spiritual imagination is impoverished by old Protestant prejudices. Do the infinite richness and luminous light of the Scriptures require us to denigrate and dismiss the noble, intelligent, and, as I argued in my essay, relevant and helpful work of the Fathers? Is sola scriptura such a tenuous, anxious doctrine? If I may be permitted to paraphrase the great Dr. Johnson: He who tires of the Fathers, tires of faith.

If I sigh deeply for Kuhl’s blindness, then I groan over Mr. Valentino’s credulity. Paul Tillich certainly knew a great deal about the Christian tradition, but his overall influence on American Protestantism was largely destructive. He was the master of translating scriptural truths into vague existential slogans that countless preachers easily manipulated into a capitulation to the spirit of the age. American Lutheranism has never recovered from his gloss of justification in Christ as “you are accepted.” His account of the so-called Protestant Principle turns anti-Romanism into a global rejection of any and all forms of historical authority, including the creeds and Scripture itself. The interpretation of faith as the “courage to be” struck me as fatuous when I was a teenager, and as an adult I have seen Tillich used to justify any and every attack upon traditional forms of Christian faith and morals.

No, I will not add Paul Tillich to my arsenal, as Valentino encourages. By my reading, Paul Tillich helps the barbarians maintain their illusions. His primary role in the twentieth century was to unburden the consciences of clergy who no longer believed but wanted to maintain their roles and reputations as men and women of spiritual seriousness. I have difficulty thinking of a more destructive writer. Give me the ardent atheism of Richard Dawkins any day over the pseudo-mystery and easy spiritualism of Paul Tillich.

Every time I write about Christianity and higher education, many people contact me to tell me that things are not really all that bad.

Mr. Flanders adds a nice twist by suggesting that I’m an ill-informed hayseed who relies on twenty-year-old stories and recites tired old clichs about “political correctness.” If only I would get out more and visit Yale . . .

I wonder, however, if Flanders is not the naif. Yale Law School cannot afford to ignore reality. Clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court is the great goal of many elite law students, and it provides a crucial credential for those who want to teach law. Ivy League law schools must engage conservative political and legal philosophies or risk losing their historic claim on a lion’s share of clerkships to places like Pepperdine. So I don’t doubt that Yale Law School has taken notice of the Catholic tradition of legal and social teaching, the tradition that five sitting justices have explicitly acknowledged as important in their own thinking”even to the point of reading Pope Benedict XVI, giving a seminar on Catholic social thought, and (imagine!) inviting a Supreme Court justice to speak.

Flanders reminds me of a friend who protested that the New York Times has become more balanced. After all, now they have David Brooks on the editorial page. But let’s not kid ourselves. Peter Singer can write essays endorsing the killing of infants, but someone who publishes an essay questioning any aspect of gay liberation will be blacklisted. Academics can publish pseudo-scholarly essays excoriating “fundamentalism” and its role in public life, but scholars who criticize feminism or race-based policies or any other liberal piety make many professional enemies. I suggest that Flanders contact Shelby Steele for an opinion about the true price of criticizing the liberal consensus in academia. Or maybe he should chat with Lawrence Summers.

Over the years I have talked to graduate students at top schools. They all report the need to conceal or downplay their conservative beliefs in order to survive professionally. Ambitious liberal scholars think of essays in The Nation as proud achievements. In contrast, I know job applicants who carefully edit their resumes to remove any hint of association with FIRST THINGS. My own experience on hiring committees suggests that they do not misjudge their chances.


Seeing Reason


John Rawls justified his particular constraints on public discourse in part by claiming that natural-law theorists (“rationalist believers”) deny “the fact of reasonable pluralism” when giving public reasons. “But do they?” asks Robert George in “Public Morality, Public Reason” (November). And George’s answer is yes, apparently.

Professor George does not deny that reasonable people can hold other worldviews, but his approach to engaging such people in public debate is based on the assumption that the differences between those worldviews and that of natural law are due to their mistakes in reason. Disagreements in public debate could apparently be resolved with more careful argumentation.

Public debate predicated on the claim that our opponents are just making errors of reason with regard to their ultimate commitments still strikes me as a non-starter. But my more basic complaint is that those commitments are not products of reason in the way George says. Successful natural-law arguments are those that argue from a particular vision of what human life is supposed to be in full development. Sadly, we no longer hold in common such an understanding as self-evident. Or, more precisely, what we do hold in common is shrinking rather than growing.

It was such intractable differences between visions of the good life, and the practical consequences of those differences, that served as the justification for the Enlightenment project. Arguing from the lowest common denominator of observable human nature and employing the tools of unaided reason alone, that project sought to establish the rational authority of moral precepts. It failed, and surely any project in moral or political philosophy today must begin with the recognition of that failure. Every successful argument for morality must begin with premises that cannot be demonstrated by reason alone. Even Rawls recognizes that his famous thought experiment reflects a conception of the good life, albeit a “thin” conception. Rawls’ “original position” is a way to “make vivid” our (Rawls’) considered judgments. Rawls has a conclusion in mind, an understanding of justice. When in the first instance the decisions made behind the “veil of ignorance” have not resulted in exactly the principles of justice he wants, he changes the conditions behind the veil. The veil is rigged. There is nothing underhanded about this manipulation. It is unselfconsciously evident in the text of A Theory of Justice. Graciously “recognizing” that this argument had drawn on a form of comprehensive liberalism, Rawls sets out in Political Liberalism to construct a public reason independent of comprehensive doctrines. He fails. The argument of Political Liberalism also imports an understanding of justice derived from comprehensive liberalism. We cannot avoid presuppositions of this kind.

Points of commonality still exist in the broadly Western understanding of human dignity and destiny that can provide a majoritarian basis for public morality. But that basis is very narrow, and even it is strongly influenced by biblical traditions in ways seldom recognized by many natural-law theorists. Can we demonstrate by reason alone that the pro-abortion position is incoherent? Absolutely. And that the claims concerning human nature offered by most pro-abortion activists are incompatible with their position? Yes. But the natural law alone is not able to offer a positive rational doctrine of what life ought to be. The natural law is a gracious gift serving to mitigate the consequences of sin, as well as to leave everyone without excuse. Cultures without biblically informed traditions have not arrived at anything close to the natural-law conception of human nature, dignity, and destiny.

Why deny, implausibly, that the public reasons of orthodox believers are informed by our revealed traditions? Why thereby accept, implicitly, that our reasons ought not to be thus informed? Let’s recognize our biblical influences and then go on to deny that others can offer public reasons devoid of their own indemonstrable premises.

Kelly Alvin Madden
Orlando, Florida

Robert P. George replies:


I am grateful to Mr. Madden for his comments on my critique of the “political liberalism” of the late John Rawls. The linchpin of Professor Rawls’ criticism of the “rationalist believers” was his claim that they deny what he called “the fact of reasonable pluralism,” namely, in circumstances of political and religious freedom it is to be expected that there will emerge serious differences of opinion among reasonable people on important moral and theological questions. In my essay, I said that natural-law theorists”who seem to fall under the description of “rationalist believers””do not deny the fact of reasonable pluralism. While rejecting ethical or theological skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism, they acknowledge that reasonable people can and in circumstances of freedom typically do disagree about important moral and theological questions. Such questions can be difficult-either inherently or contingently so”and imperfect or even unsound positions can be adopted by intelligent and well-informed people who are doing their very best to think honestly and carefully about them.

Madden contends, however, that in fact I am arguing for the opposite of the position I say I hold. He insists that I am actually denying, not affirming, the fact of reasonable pluralism, as Rawls claimed the rationalist believers do. Madden allows that I do not deny that people can reasonably hold worldviews that differ from my own, but he says that my “approach to . . . public debate is based on the assumption that differences between those worldviews and that of natural law are due to their mistakes in reason.” In other words, he assumes that accepting the fact of reasonable pluralism entails denying that differences on what he labels “ultimate questions” can be accounted for by saying that somebody has made what he calls “mistakes in reason.”

But this is itself a mistake. The rejection of subjectivism and other relativist and/or non-cognitivist doctrines according to which reason cannot adjudicate moral disputes at the level of fundamental principles neither implies nor entails denial of the fact of reasonable pluralism. Rawls himself recognized this. Indeed, he was careful to avoid constructing his political theory on non-cognitivist or relativist premises. He recognized that liberalism, as a set of doctrines of political morality, could not rest upon, or be defended by appeal to, any form of religious or ethical skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism. As the late Joel Feinberg-another eminent liberal political philosopher-warned, any effort to found liberalism on the denial of truth or objectivity would leave liberals hoist on their own petard. Rawls therefore ventured forth in search of a form of liberalism that was not founded on, and did not presuppose, such a denial. The task Rawls set for himself was to adumbrate a form of liberalism””political” liberalism”that could reasonably and in good conscience be embraced by people subscribing to a wide range of reasonable and conflicting “comprehensive views,” including decidedly cognitivist and non-relativist and comprehensive views, such as Catholicism.

Madden’s “basic complaint,” as he puts it, is that I believe that people’s ultimate moral convictions and commitments can be based at least in part on reason. He holds otherwise: “Successful natural-law arguments are those that argue from a particular vision of what human life is supposed to be in full development.”

The trouble is that a natural law argument is by definition an argument from first principles of practical reason. Any argument that ultimately rests on appeals to feeling, emotion, or faith is not a natural-law argument. Successful natural-law arguments identify and apply norms of morality that reason grasps as truths entailed by the integral directiveness of practical reason’s first principles-principles that direct human choice and action toward intelligible aspects of human well-being and fulfillment (health, knowledge, friendship, etc.) and away from their privations. Of course, those principles themselves, qua fundamental, are not deduced from further or deeper principles; but they are nevertheless grasped by acts of understanding”acts of what Aquinas, following up a lead from Aristotle, called the practical intellect.

Such acts are, by the way, scarcely rare or exotic. All of us perform them all the time. For example, people reading this exchange with a view to assessing the validity of Madden’s criticisms of my position and the soundness of my rebuttal are acting on one of practical reason’s per se nota first principles”namely, that intellectual understanding of matters such as those under discussion is something worth having and expending time and effort to achieve. (Of course, if someone denies a first principle, this does not necessarily end discussion: As Aristotle showed when he defended the very first principle of all reasoning, the principle of noncontradiction, one can dialectically defend such principles-one way being to show that, in some cases, to deny a first principle is self-inconsistent.)

Two errors must be avoided in thinking about the problem of moral disagreement and pluralism. The first is to imagine that truly reasonable people can never disagree on important moral issues. (It is a fallacy to suppose that from the fact of disagreement it follows that at least one party to the debate is not a reasonable person.) The second error is to suppose that there is no right (or rationally superior) answer to important moral questions on which people disagree, or that the right answer can only be known by blind faith, not by reason. (From the fact of disagreement, one cannot validly infer the absence, subjectivity, or relativity of moral truth.)

Madden says that “public debate predicated on the claim that our opponents are just making errors with regard to their ultimate commitments . . . strikes me as a non-starter.” But it is the belief that we can reason about our differences and offer our opponents reasons to alter their beliefs in favor of those we regard as rationally more compelling that makes debate-public or otherwise-possible at all. Reasons are the currency of debate. In the absence of reasons, there is only conflict.

Most of us have at least some experience of changing beliefs, including some fundamental moral beliefs, under the pressure of rational argument. Indeed, there are people whose entire worldviews have shifted as a result of reflecting on the arguments for and against competing alternatives.

Some people have even experienced religious conversions as a result of subjecting their beliefs to rational scrutiny. For example, philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett, and John Finnis have all acknowledged the central role of critical rational reflection and argumentation in their conversions from essentially secularist views of the world to (Catholic) Christian faith. As they tell their conversion stories, an essential element was the identification of mistakes of reason in the secularism they had previously embraced. None of them supposes that there is anything unusual or even especially remarkable about this; nor should we. It is not the only way conversions happen, but it is hardly an unusual way.

I’m glad that Madden agrees that we can demonstrate by reason that the pro-abortion position is incorrect and that “the claims concerning human nature offered by most pro-abortion activists are incompatible with their position.” I think he goes wrong, however, in saying that “natural law alone is not able to offer a positive rational doctrine of what life ought to be.”

Of course, theorists of natural law do not suppose that they can offer a complete account of “what life ought to be.” With only the rarest exceptions, natural-law theorists are religious believers who agree with Pope John Paul the Great that “faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of truth.” A complete account of what life ought to be requires both wings.

Still, we honor those, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, who were able even without the blessing of Jewish or Christian faith to develop “positive rational doctrines of what life ought to be””doctrines that (while not free of error) contain much that is profoundly true. And those of us who are Christians (and I believe the same is true of Jewish natural-law thinkers, such as Rabbi David Novak) acknowledge that the faith we affirm has itself been enriched”and in certain dimensions even partly shaped”by taking onboard their insights and integrating them into theological reflection.

At the same time, it is true that the work of Jewish and Christian theorists of natural law has itself been enriched by wisdom drawn from the biblical tradition. I agree with Madden that “the broadly Western understanding of human dignity and destiny . . . is strongly influenced by biblical traditions.” If that influence is, as Madden asserts, “seldom recognized by many natural-law theorists,” perhaps my acknowledgment of it will help a little in setting the accounts straight.

Not a Man for All Seasons


In reference to November’s “While We’re At It,” Fr. Neuhaus claims that Robert Ingersoll was an atheist who toured the country in the early part of the twentieth century. Ingersoll was many things, such as a Union officer in the Civil War, the attorney general of Illinois, one of the great orators of his time (his “Plumed Knight” speech, in which he nominated James G. Blaine at the 1876 Republican convention, is one of the great political speeches of its time), Republican political leader, attorney, and atheist. But he was not a man of the twentieth century. “Colonel Bob” passed away in 1899.

Kevin Michael Derby
Yorktown University
Denver, Colorado


Fr. Neuhaus replies:


Of course, Mr. Derby is right. I also said that there is on the northwest corner of Gramercy Park a plaque honoring Ingersoll. Walking by the other day, I noticed the building has been renovated and the plaque removed. Sic transit .

A Standing Point


Richard John Neuhaus has a point when he asserts that, although the People of God stood for the Mass in the patristic era, kneeling is now “the tradition” in the West, and “the insistence of some liturgists and pastors that everybody must stand is the innovation” (The Public Square, November).

It is questionable, however, whether those who are trying to restore the earlier practice necessarily reveal “a fundamental lack of respect for the lived experience and piety of the People of God.” Arthur Carl Piepkorn, whom both Neuhaus and I had for a professor and a father in Christ, and who did his share both of kneeling and of encouraging the practice of kneeling, noted that when royalty entered a room in the Middle Ages everyone in the room would kneel. In a comparable situation today, Piepkorn continued, everyone would stand.

I believe he was suggesting that standing during the Mass might, therefore, be more in keeping with the “lived experience and piety” of the People of God in the West today rather than kneeling. The four-plus decades that have passed since his death have convinced me that Piepkorn had a point that deserves careful consideration in the twenty-first-century Church.

Rev. Philip James Secker
The Arthur Carl Piepkorn Center for Evangelical Catholicity
Storrs Mansfield, Connecticut

Fr. Neuhaus replies:


What is not “comparable” is our attitude toward royalty or others of public importance. What is unchanged is the acknowledgement of Christ the King, before whom we kneel.