Cranky and Getting Crankier
In his June/July Public Square column, Joseph Bottum claims that the three infallible signs of cranks are that they have a theory about the Jews, a theory about money, and a theory about Shakespeare’s plays.
This is a gross oversimplification that leaves vast swaths of crankdom uncovered.
I agree with Bottum to a limited degree: The crank usually has a theory about the Jews, often has a theory about coinage, and sometimes has a theory about Shakespeare. But by focusing on the Stratford/Oxford debate—and his enthusiasm on the subject is perhaps a sign that Bottum himself is too close to the phenomenon—he misses much of the variegated richness of crankdom.
The crank also almost inevitably has strong opinions on vegetarianism and nudism. The crank usually has a fixation on legalizing and normalizing specific drugs or sexual practices, while drawing a firm line (arbitrary, to most others) at some point beyond which he personally has little interest (heroin, incest). In fact, the line between crankdom and libertarianism is so thin as to be invisible to most outsiders.
The crank does not limit his beliefs in secret conspiracies to Zionist ones. He also has ideas about Catholicism’s unhealthy reach. Then, of course, there are the usual theories about Jesus’ rich sex life and the Church’s conspiracy to suppress public knowledge of it.
This allows space for the Jewish crank as well. And if the crank happens to be Catholic, the theory is replaced by belief in a pervasive Masonic influence.
Finally, the crank may be known most surely by this sign: He will seize on a side point that is raised only casually by another and deliver a ninety-minute lecture on the topic.
I hope that all of this helps clear up some of the misconceptions that Bottum may have inadvertently spread on this strangely neglected topic.
Patrick J. Sullivan
Abortion Diminishes Us All
Richard Stith (“Her Choice, Her Problem: How Abortion Empowers Men,” August/September 2009) gets it right in his exposition of the many, many unintended and mostly unpredicted consequences for women resulting from the legalization of abortion. His piece sets forth the results for American women in terms that clearly delineate the shabbiness of the deal foisted on them by the Supreme Court. A pearl of great price was indeed cheaply pawned.
Where I fault the piece is in the unfortunate wording of its subtitle, “How Abortion Empowers Men.”
First, abortion simply does not empower men, for man cannot ever be fortified in any respect by the willful destruction of an innocent. The point does not refute Stith’s discussion of the various legal and practical releases that redound to men as yet further consequences of Roe, but this bogus liberty does not amount to empowerment.
Second, because the aborting mother’s decision is solely hers, all the responsibility for her act is hers, and none is the father’s. This is profoundly harmful to men. To strip a man of his responsibility toward his children is to strip him of a central component of his male human dignity. The loss of his chief responsibility renders him less of a man. Thus, the mother’s choice is her problem and his diminishment; that is her problem and his problem and our problem.
James C. McCrery IIWashington, D.C.
Richard Stith discusses, in relation to abortion, the power dynamics surrounding sexual intercourse. He argues that even “the advent of birth control did not change this dynamic, for all forms of contraception are fallible.”
I think not. Even the strong likelihood of sex without natural consequences changes the whole cultural context of marriage. It stops being a divine institution in which a man counts on a woman to cleave to him and to help him raise a family. It becomes something much vaguer and weaker. It becomes an arrangement in which the husband has constantly to wonder if his wife will abandon him (whether literally or emotionally) to fulfil herself as an individual. It was birth control that first began to erode marriage and that made the sexual marketplace the site of the cynical power game Stith describes.
Richard Stith replies:
James McCrery is correct that, deep down, men are debilitated and emasculated rather than empowered by the woman’s abortion option. And John Wickey is right that birth control already contributed to the corruption of sexuality. But the narrow topic of my essay was not the nature of men or of sexuality but the nature and effects of choice. I sought to show that making new life the object of choice necessarily harms the chooser.
Choice regarding old life has the same effects. An ailing grandmother’s right to assisted suicide means that she has been given a way out and so no longer merits much family compassion or health-insurance support (“her choice, her problem,” in the words of the inspired title conceived by the First Things editors). Indeed, if she chooses to go on living, her suffering becomes her own fault, and she can be blamed for any costs her continued existence imposes on other individuals or on society.
Implicit here is what choice does to life itself, degrading it from the status of an absolute to be respected to the status of an object to be evaluated. We no longer stand in solidarity with the child and the grandmother in difficult circumstances. Rather, they themselves become problems to be solved.
This degradation is discussed at greater length in “The Priority of Respect,” published in International Philosophical Quarterly (June 2004). I would be glad to send a copy for personal use to anyone so requesting: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reuven Brenner (“The Rule of Law and the Wealth of Nations,” August/September, 2009) provides a careful analysis of the roles that need to be played by both the financial sector and the government. But I dispute his suggestion that government was to blame for the financial crisis of 2008.
Brenner fails to ask why the government neglected its responsibilities. Might it be that financial and commercial institutions were too powerful and simply wouldn’t let government do what it was charged to do?
Elmer J. Thiessen
Reuven Brenner makes the excellent point that governmental failures are at the root of the financial crisis. I would go further and argue that these failures are not just, and perhaps not even primarily, failures of regulatory oversight.
Contrary to the statist narrative, the underlying problem is not Wall Street greed or some similar manifestation of “unregulated capitalism.” The underlying problem is government’s attempt to manipulate capitalism to produce politically popular outcomes.
Without denying the impact of private-sector misjudgments, we can see the crisis began with, and was nurtured by, governmental policy. Take away the Community Reinvestment Act, take away Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and take away monetary policy that produced negative real interest rates, and you take away the problem altogether, or at least substantially ameliorate it.
Craig J. Lazzara
It is ironic, given that Reuven Brenner alludes to Adam Smith in his title, that he missed one of the most important insights from The Wealth of Nations: Government is not the proper entity to guard the entrance or the exit of the market. Licensing and regulation are tools of government intervention, whether for altruistic reasons or for the benefit of certain business interests. This is improper, because market regulation is properly the domain of the market.
Of course, thanks to original sin, problems will occur in a truly free market, but such a market remains far more efficient than government at ferreting out problems. This is why I take issue with Brenner’s allegation that government neglect caused the crisis. On the contrary, the systemic problems with the market resulted from government interference, which is the opposite of neglect. All actors in a market cannot err in the same direction unless that error is directed by a coercive entity—no doubt for the benefit of entrenched business interests. That is the definition of corporatism or fascism.
The original and authentic free-trade agreement (article 1, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution) prohibited Congress from interfering in the commerce of the member states. Clearly, the federal government was charged with guarding the entrance to the free market within the United States but prohibited from interfering with that free market, except perhaps (though not necessarily) as an enforcer of contracts.
Brenner also makes the confusing claim that there must be risk-free assets. But markets by their nature involve risk. Calculating risk is why the entrepreneur is so necessary, as Brenner himself says. How can there be provision of something that can’t exist, and why would this even be desirable?
Brenner claims that the Federal Reserve allowed an alien entity to take over the American banking system. That statement does not make any sense. First, classing the Federal Reserve with the Treasury as equally parts of the “government” reflects a massive misapprehension. The Fed is a private monopoly not subject to Congress, the executive branch, or the Constitution. The Fed is itself an alien entity.
Brenner seems to think that a certain amount of regulated fraud—and that is what fractional reserve banking is—is tolerable within limits. But this disingenuous leverage, this sophisticated counterfeiting, should be banned rather than regulated. Investments based on real assets and sound money will not lead to the kind of systemic problems we are facing, even when poor decisions are rampant. Brenner points out that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since 1913, but he does not take the next step of identifying the Fed as the culprit.
The Fed inflates the money supply, which leads to lower dollar values and increasing prices. This suggests that we should no longer look to this illegal entity as a solution to the problems it created. The only solution is for Congress to abolish the banking cartel and allow a true free market in all commodities, including money: real money, not counterfeit money, no matter what legal-tender laws dictate.
Will things be all roses and strawberries if we abolish the Fed? No. But at least we can begin to come out of a centurylong fog and seek the light of the truth: that we were created free and should dispose of private property freely in a free market. For good or ill, God chose to allow us each to make free decisions. We have no right to give up that freedom to anyone but him.
It is refreshing that Reuven Brenner does not blame government outright. We can learn from the current debacle only if we address the much deeper forces, national and international, that conflated to bring about the crisis. Government was only one player and, except for allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to get too large and then failing to regulate them properly, arguably did the best any entity could have done under the circumstances.
The flaw in most arguments that attempt to blame government or any narrow set of institutions is the assumption that anyone can foresee systemic risk that results from innovations and deep change. As Brenner himself points out, “innovation on which prosperity depends stems from the experimentation of countless players—most of whom will fail.” For those few innovations that do take hold, the consequences are usually highly unpredictable. It is best to keep any institution, including government, from getting so large that its failure risks bringing down the whole edifice of the economy, or even of the society.
On a more mundane level, I should note that Brenner conflates banks and “non-banks,” thereby leading to some confusion about leverage. Commercial banks might have made large investment mistakes that wiped out their capital, but while these remained undetected, their leverage was within limits. It was investment banks and other non-banks that exceeded prudent limits on leverage, but they did this with the acquiescence of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Regarding the savings of Asia and Europe, Brenner erroneously identifies Europe as the sole source of the large flows of foreign capital. Europe was as much a “victim” of foreign capital as was the United States.
On the issue of exchange rates, Brenner may want to revisit the effect of “sustaining a solid currency” on trade, and particularly the reasons for the longstanding American efforts to have the Chinese strengthen their currency vis-à-vis the dollar. Moreover, the Federal Reserve did not “abandon” its responsibility for exchange-rate management—it never had such a responsibility!
Finally, the assertion that it was the Federal Reserve raising the federal-funds rate to 5.25 percent in 2007 that led households to no longer be able to pay their higher debt burden misses the timing of the problem, which became critical only after the Fed began dropping interest rates. Besides, it is the yield curve (more precisely, the long rate) that determines the interest that households pay for their mortgages, not the Fed-funds rate, which was, as it happens, already on the way down in 2007. Brenner will know that the yield curve inverted at the peak of the frenzy in 2006 in large part because of the very large flows of foreign capital into the United States.
Xavier L. Simon
Reuven Brenner dismisses as speculation Judge Richard Posner’s contention that the current economic crisis indicates an inherent instability in capitalism. Rather, Brenner argues that the crisis is a case of government neglecting its responsibilities. He overlooks, however, the central role of social mood. Recall that, when housing prices were going upward only, and the stock market was soaring, the social mood was one of extreme optimism. Government policymakers are not immune from this euphoria. As Brenner notes, they can “forget what makes a commercial society tick.” Moreover, when not only the banks, but also the public and Congress, were eager to let the good times roll, making responsible decisions would have been extremely unpopular.
The stability of capitalism within a democratic system of governance is therefore rightly called into question. Instability implies that cycles of boom and bust are inherent in the system, and the busts have devastating consequences. That those who are explicitly charged with protecting the common good are frequently, as a natural consequence of the capitalist system within a democracy like ours, confronted with situations in which sound judgments are very difficult has not received proper attention. Thankfully, Brenner’s focus on government brings us to the threshold of this issue.
John H. Young
Reuven Brenner replies:
Xavier Simon writes that I wrongly identify Europe as “the sole source of the large flows of foreign capital.” This statement does not appear anywhere in my article. Europe appears twice in the article, first in the statement that “Asia and Europe sought secure destinations for their savings,” and the second time when referred to Europe’s unprecedented monetary experiment of having paper money backed neither by a government nor gold (or some other physical anchor).
I happen to agree with Simon’s observation that it may be best to keep any institution, including government, from getting so large that its failure risks bringing down the whole edifice of the economy, or even society. But I see an analysis identifying mistakes and suggesting ways to prevent them as a better way to solve problems than talking in general terms about size. His suggestion to take a closer look at the China–United States relationship is a good one; it is, in fact, the topic of my next projected article.
Marwan Jabbour takes me to task for forgetting Adam Smith’s laissez-faire counsels. But many pages in The Wealth of Nations specifically warn against leaving the regulation of banking to the bankers. In Smith’s view, regulations on banking are “necessary violations of natural liberty for the security of the society” comparable to “building party walls in order to prevent the communication of fire.”
Smith also thought regulations, licensing, and other interventions could be justified in other industries if the reasons were compelling enough. For instance, he thought that, when “some particular sort of industry is necessary for the defense of the country,” foreign participation could be banned or deliberately disadvantaged. Therefore, Smith supported the British Navigation Acts, which he called “wise . . . as if they had all been dictated by the most deliberate wisdom.”
Of course, politicians can take these arguments to the extreme and then just protect about every industry, but this does not discredit the general line of argument.
My advice to readers who want to rely on classic texts is to actually read them. And read the originals rather than abbreviations or academics’ interpretations. The Wealth of Nations is full of wisdom and facts, but it is a treatise against arbitrary monopolies and abuses of power in the broadest sense. It addresses many issues in great detail and does not generalize. The book propounds no ideology, unlike the interpretations of insecure economists who present distorting simplifications by selective quotation.
Elmer Thiessen takes me to task for not asking why the government neglected its responsibilities. Could it not be a case of industries’ “capturing” the regulators and the politicians?
As I see it, deeds are far more important than motives. The latter can easily be hidden under self-serving words. Whether people actually believe in what they are saying or writing, we can know only rarely. I sought to analyze what governments, the Federal Reserve, and the financial institutions did, to explain why their actions were mistaken, and to suggest how to correct them now.
I emphasize the word now because Thiessen (along with John Young) may have wanted me to address something much broader: If, indeed, lobbying shaped politicians’ votes on those policies I identify as mistaken, what can be changed in American politics to make elected politicians more accountable and less subject to such pressure? I raised this question in chapter 4 of my book Force of Finance (2002). There I suggested (among other things) that Swiss-style direct democracy practiced at all levels of government could be an answer.
The Swiss model has been shown to deliver results, whereas the solutions Jabbour advocates (abolishing fractional banking, and the Federal Reserve, and so on) seem simply utopian to me. My article didn’t seek to describe how the world would look if we started from a tabula rasa or to explain what a “truly free market” means. I proceeded on the principle that we must take the world as we find it and propose specific solutions that work within this world—especially when limited to 3,500 words.
But Jabbour also raises some simpler points that warrant a response. I referred to “risk-free” assets in a very narrow context. I was speaking of an almost default-free security, issued by a trusted government, and defined in a stable currency.
The word stable is defined not by the present misguided practice of central banks targeting mismeasured price indices, but by a situation where people would sign long-term contractual agreements without worrying about the currency’s volatility and considerations of hedging. Having such a reliable standard in terms of which contracts can be priced (economists call it the “nth currency”) has nothing to do with “markets by their nature involving risks.” The very first thing that every society invented was such a standard: In prisons—and in that big prison-land that was Soviet Russia—it turned out to be cigarettes.
But it is a stretch to conclude from any of this that the Federal Reserve and fractional banking must be abolished. The real imperatives, it seems to me, are to impose on the Federal Reserve the mandate of sustaining the U.S. dollar as a standard and a reserve currency, to be explicit about what “lender of last resort” means, and to find ways to hold the Federal Reserve accountable.
What’s Sex Got To Do with It?
In Robert George’s view (“What Marriage Is—And What It Isn’t,” August/September 2009), biological union is the purpose and fulfillment of marriage. Thus, a homosexual marriage is impossible because there can never be a consummating act. George goes on to argue that any view of marriage that is not centered on biological union will open the door to radical reinterpretations of the meaning of marriage and family because, to him, it is only this reproductive act that can form the basis for a lifelong committed relationship between two people.
Of course, this understanding of marriage as grounded in physical mating has a certain force: It fits a literal reading of Genesis 2:24, and, as George points out, the concept of consummation has long been important to both common law and ecclesiastical law on marriage. I think, however, many people will agree that it rings hollow, precisely because it downplays the importance of emotional and spiritual union.
The Church teaches that marriage is a complete giving of oneself to another in mutual love. The declaration of consent in the Anglican prayer book famously puts it like this: The two parties consent to live together in covenant—to love, comfort, honor, and keep each other, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, being faithful until death. Marriage is also about the “procreation and nurturing of children,” as the prayer book states in another place, “when it is God’s will.” But it is fair to say that the primary emphasis in all marriage rites is on love and commitment to each other, not biological union or even procreation.
This is echoed in the way Scripture uses the image of Christ and the Church as bridegroom and bride. This analogy fails completely if we view marriage as about biological union. The physical mating of two spouses has no parallel in the relationship between Christ and the Church, whereas both love and covenant have very clear parallels. Thus, marriage—the emotional and spiritual aspects, not the sexual—can be a model for the kind of love we are to have with God. In this connection I was struck by the juxtaposition of George’s article with Robert Miola’s beautiful opinion piece (“Sisters and Daughters,” August/September 2009). Miola describes how his daughter became a “spouse of Christ” by her profession of religious vows. Even if this were merely metaphorical, what power would it have if marriage were about mating rather than love and commitment? Is it not the love-and-commitment part of marriage that such analogies seek to model?
George’s interpretation also seems odd from the perspective of marriage as sacrament. As Hooker says, marriage is an outward and visible sign of an inward and visible grace. The outward and visible sign has been identified as the vows, the giving of rings, and the nuptial blessing, but it seems that, for George, it must be the sex act. This seems to make the marriage liturgy superfluous, which I (whatever the courts have said over the years) find difficult to accept.
But even if we all agreed that physical mating is the outward and visible sign that makes the sacrament of marriage, we still would be left with the fact that it remains ordered toward an inward and spiritual grace. It is this grace that defines what marriage is about. Does George fear that, if instead we took the liturgy for the outward sign, God’s grace would be insufficient to make a true union of two souls in mutual self-sacrifice out of a relationship that did not include reproductive sex?
Sex is not unimportant, but its importance is merely ( pace George) instrumental: It helps to facilitate the union of souls and can be part of the complete giving of one to another—but that union itself is constituted by a liturgical act and a covenant between two individuals. There is no reason to fear that a spiritual definition of marriage will lead toextramarital cohabitation, adultery, polygamy, and so on, because these are all inconsistent with a definition of marriage as a sacrament uniting two people in a lifelong covenant to love, comfort, honor, and keep each other.
Brian E. Coggins
Durham, North Carolina
Robert George’s article on marriage was very thought provoking. One aspect of sexual life that perhaps merits further consideration is the mental or fantasy life that accompanies sexual expression. Sometimes the intent of the sexual act can sanctify or desanctify it, whether or not the act itself is conjugal.
Here are two examples. Because of my wife’s severe spine problems, we often are unable to perform genital intercourse and so are forced to share sexual pleasure by other means. But, it seems, following George’s reasoning, we are thereby still actualizing a one-flesh union since we would intend genital intercourse if it were possible. Conversely, I know from my psychiatric practice that there are gay men who have conjugal sex with their wives but indulge homosexual fantasies during the act. Those acts presumably do not unite the couple as one flesh.
Robert George’s essay was informative but did not engage the public-policy questions. Why has society attached legal benefits to marriage? And, why do homosexuals seek to be married?
In my view, the answer to the second question is twofold. They want the aura of social acceptance of their lifestyle, and they want to acquire the health, tax, and estate benefits that come with marriage. As a consequence, the philosophical underpinnings of traditional marriage must be transformed to broaden the definition of marriage.
But why should marriage receive social benefits? Some say society has an interest in encouraging stable relationships. But unless the interest of a third party (meaning a child) is jeopardized, is there a substantial state interest in stability?
This brings us to the important point. Marriage as a public institution is not about serving the needs of adults. It is about fostering a relationship biologically and spiritually designed to bear and raise children within a socially approved, binding contract, rooted in love, between male and female.
If we assume with Robert George that “a human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit,” it follows that an ideal sacramental marital union is defined by dynamic sacred union of the bodies, minds, and spirits of two individuals. For this reason, it is wrong to isolate one aspect of the person, as George does when he writes that “comprehensive personal union—marital union—is founded on bodily union.”
Bodily union is very important, but it is arbitrary to assume that it is more important than any other element of marriage. Should a paraplegic who cannot perform sexual intercourse be denied the right to marry? People with such disabilities are married within the Catholic Church, which shows that bodily union cannot be isolated from the other aspects of interpersonal union.
Once we accept that many couples married in the Catholic Church do not live up to the ideal of complete sacred union of bodies, minds, and spirits, we will see that the sanctity of marriage is not based solely on physical union. God’s love will not be constrained by human definitions.
Vivian Olsiewski Healey
South Bend, Indiana
Robert P. George replies:
Brian Coggins’ letter begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of what my view about marriage is—a view that, I believe, is not mine alone but the one embodied in our historic law of marriage and the traditions of philosophical and theological reflection that decisively shaped it.
Coggins says that “in Robert George’s view, biological union is the purpose and fulfillment of marriage.” That is not my view. My view is that comprehensive personal union is the purpose and fulfillment of marriage. It is true that I hold that human persons (whatever else they are) are their bodies and do not merely inhabit and use them as extrinsic instruments. And that is important for understanding marriage correctly. But I do not hold that the body is all there is to the person and that personal union is nothing but bodily union. To say that the body is an intrinsic part of the personal reality of the human being (and not an extrinsic instrument) is not to say that the human person is nothing but his body.
As I thought I made clear, my view is that the human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, emotion, will, and spirit. The human person is an integrated whole. Marital communion, then, as a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life, is constituted by unity in all of these dimensions of human being. Marriage includes bodily union, to be sure—and is therefore intrinsically, and not merely incidentally, a sexual partnership—because marital commitment is consummated by bodily (sexual) congress. In this sense, sexual intercourse is the foundation or matrix of the multilevel—biological, emotional, rational, dispositional, spiritual—sharing of life that marriage is. But it is indeed a multilevel sharing of life. It includes not merely bodily union but union at all levels.
So, in truth, I reject the proposition that biological union is the purpose and fulfillment of marriage just as I reject the proposition that spiritual union (Coggins’ “union of souls,” or psychological or emotional union) is the purpose and fulfillment of marriage. The person is neither just the body (as Coggins evidently thinks I suppose) or just the spirit or soul (as he supposes in endorsing a “spiritual definition of marriage”). As a true and truly comprehensive union of human persons, marriage is not just bodily union; but ( pace Coggins) it is not just spiritual union, either. It is both—and more.
The final sentence of Coggins’ letter merely begs the question against the view he is attempting to counter—namely, that a conception of marriage as a “spiritual” union in which sexual acts are merely incidental as “facilitating the union of souls” will have no basis in moral principle for conceiving of marriage as the union of two and only two persons and not three or more in a polyamorous relationship. Of course, I am willing to consider any actual argument he might care to offer to support his claim. None of the arguments I’ve seen advanced by others who make the claim have survived even the most cursory scrutiny, however. So I’m doubtful, to say the least, that a successful argument is lurking out there somewhere, waiting to be made.
Greg Mahr is correct that what spouses intend can matter to the nature of their sexual coupling. An act—even an act that fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation—can be nonmarital even when performed by lawfully wedded spouses. Thomas Aquinas noticed just this problem in addressing the question of whether the marital quality of spousal intercourse is vitiated when one of the spouses is fantasizing about having sex with a partner other than his or her spouse. His answer to the question was that the marital quality of their intercourse is indeed vitiated. I think he was right. A marital act, whatever else it is, is an embodiment and expression of the love and fidelity (what St.Thomas calls the fides) of the spouses for and to each other. Remove that element and all you have is a sex act by people who happen to be married to each other; you don’t have a marital act. The other issue raised by Mahr is a good deal more complicated, and I would need to know more about what he means by “sharing sexual pleasure by other means” before I could say anything about it. Moreover, since it concerns his personal relationship with his wife, it is not something that I would be comfortable commenting on in a public forum.
I mostly agree with the points offered by Herb Zeller, especially concerning the grounds and nature of the public interest in marriage and the establishment and maintenance of a flourishing marriage culture. Perhaps this is the place to add a point about the nature of marriage—one that directly relates to Zeller’s comments. When a man and woman truly marry, they consent to enter into a form of relationship that has its distinctive meaning and structure (and is shaped and governed by a particular set of norms) in significant part because it is the kind of relationship that is naturally oriented toward, and uniquely apt for, the generation, protection, and rearing of children. Thus, the link to procreation is itself intrinsic and not merely incidental, notwithstanding the fact (and it is indeed a fact and not merely a legal convention) that spouses who know that one (or both) of them is incapable of having children can enter into and live out a true marriage. When men and women get together, you can expect, in the majority of cases, for babies to be part of the picture before too long. When a baby is born, you will always find a mother somewhere in the vicinity; an important question is whether you are going to find a father hanging around to help support and rear the child. It is in the interest of the mother, the child, the community in which they live, and the father for Dad to bind himself to Mom and Junior in a truly committed way. Marriage is for the common good—and is a matter of profound public concern rather than a merely private matter—because it is the fullest and best way for Dad and Mom to bind themselves to each other and to their offspring.
I have responded to the thrust of Vivian Healey’s criticism in my response to Coggins. She makes the mistake of supposing that my claim that “comprehensive personal union—marital union—is founded on bodily union” means that I am isolating one aspect of the person—the bodily aspect—from others and asserting that it is “more important than any other element of marriage.” I am not. Nor do I assert, as Healey wrongly suggests I do, that “the sanctity of marriage is . . . based solely on physical union.”
To repeat: Marital union is comprehensive personal union; it includes—intrinsically, and not merely incidentally—bodily (sexual) union; but mere bodily union, although it is the foundation and matrix of the multilevel sharing of life that marriage is, is not marital union. Persons are not merely their bodies, although the body is an intrinsic part of the personal reality of the human being and is not a mere instrument. To notice that marriage is a distinctive form of friendship by virtue of the fact that it is consummated, actualized, and renewed by sexual intercourse is not to say that the sexual aspect of the marital relationship is “more important” than the other aspects. It is to affirm that marriage is intrinsically, and not merely incidentally, a sexual partnership. I suspect that Healey and I simply disagree on this point.
It is true, of course, that sometimes sexual intercourse is no longer possible for spouses, due to injury or affliction. Because of the lastingness of morally significant human choices (what philosophers call the intransitivity of action), a consummated marriage remains unannulable or (for Catholics) indissoluble even when marital intercourse is no longer possible. But unconsummated marriages have historically been treated as annulable or (in the Catholic case) dissoluble. When I lived in England in the 1980s, the Catholic Church came in for rather rough criticism by the British newspapers when a diocese declined to solemnize the marriage of two Catholics who (as the result of the paraplegia of one of the spouses) intended to live in an unconsummated marriage. A canon lawyer would have to tell us whether the bishop responsible for that decision ruled correctly. I gather that Healey would say he did not. Whatever the correct judgment, though, it remains the case that consummation by sexual intercourse, in canon law as well as civil law, seals a marriage and, for Catholics, makes it indissoluble. It is, as I say, integral to marriage as a truly comprehensive union of persons and not merely incidental.
Catholics and other Christians sometimes are accused, by those who regard themselves as progressive thinkers about sex and marriage, of having a dim view of sex or of believing that sex is fully legitimate only as a means to procreation. This is the reverse of the truth. The mainstream of the Christian tradition—while cognizant of the ways in which wayward sexual desire can dehumanize us, wound our relationships, and lead us into mortal sin—has a high view of sex as something integral to marriage and holds and teaches that loving conjugal intercourse, even when procreation is impossible, actualizes and enables spouses more richly to experience the profound good of their marital communion. Sex is not an evil—not even a “necessary evil”; it is not merely an instrumental good; when it is truly marital, it makes a man and woman, bound to each other in the commitment of marriage, truly one flesh.
Living in the End Times
Having spent many years introducing René Girard’s anthropological work, I am keenly aware of the combination of fascination and bewilderment often experienced by those encountering Girard’s thought for the first time.
As the commentary on First Things Online demonstrates, the interpretive power of Girard’s mimetic theory cannot be immediately assimilated or quickly summarized. Girardian thought is an authentic instance of a paradigm shift, and paradigm shifts are more difficult to assess than are interesting or even brilliant ideas, for they require seeing perennial questions in an entirely new way.
The most perplexing feature of “On War and Apocalypse” was Girard’s reintroduction of the apocalyptic vision that liberal theology thought it had permanently left behind. Girard reminds us that we possess destructive technologies that can annihilate and alter nature and that our civilization has gradually repudiated the Christian moral ordering that might limit the catastrophic effects of these technologies.
But the apocalypse that Girard has in mind is, as he says, based less on the Book of Revelation than on the apocalyptic texts of the synoptic gospels. This apocalypse emerges directly from the center of the Christian revelation: the Cross. Its first appearance is almost undetectable: “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent’” (Luke 23:47).
The crucifixion was structurally identical to the scapegoating mechanism on which conventional culture had always depended. Conventional culture vented the social animosity that threatened order by murdering an innocent victim—a scapegoat. As Caiphas put it, succinctly, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). But the mechanism worked only if the community did not recognize the scapegoat’s innocence. The centurion’s declaration is heavy, therefore, with anthropological ramifications, which are adumbrated in the very next verse: “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).
The gathering event, the “spectacle” that had always served to reunite a fractious society, has, in this case, exactly the opposite effect. Given the unique identity of the victim, not even the mesmerizing power of social contagion can eclipse the victim’s innocence.
Jesus said, “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23); here, after the crucifixion, we see that scattering in the dispersal of the crowd, which is the anthropological harbinger of the end of conventional culture. Exposed thereafter to the truth—which, as Jesus said, is continually extended by the Spirit of Truth—humanity is gradually led to the whole truth and a decision for or against it.
Luke’s depiction of the failure of the scapegoat mechanism at Golgotha represents an anthropological watershed. From now on, “whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
As the old mechanism for restoring order begins to pass away under pressure from gospel revelation, the paramount question is this: Will humanity undergo the conversion of heart necessary to live without the old mechanism, or will it simply lose the ability to maintain social order? To the extent that humanity is tending toward the latter possibility, it is tending toward the apocalypse about which Girard is warning us.
Seen through the anthropological lens Girard has made available, the Church—in addition to all else that can be said of it—is an anthropological experiment aimed at creating a kainos anthropos, a new type of human being. The Church is the school in which humanity slowly learns to reduce the level of resentment by behaving charitably and selflessly, and by forgiving seventy times seven times when the law of love has been breached. This—and only this—will save us from an apocalypse of our own making.
North Brookfield, Massachusetts
René Girard (“On War and Apocalypse,” August/September 2009) seems to think that modern Islamic terrorism represents a radical departure from Islamic tradition. But the Prophet’s violent biography suggests modern terrorists are traditionalists, acting with the founder’s charism. I should also note that the Qur’an asserts that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the designated sacrifice.
But it is good that Girard warns us, in this age of Islamic terrorism, of a coming apocalyptic disaster.
Western civilization, founded on Judeo-Christian values, has two great resources to counteract terror. First, we have our universally attractive fundamental values, which are nicely distilled in the American Declaration of Independence. But we also have military power. We used this to exemplary effect on September 11, 1683, when the Polish army defeated the Islamic army at the gates of Vienna.
The Rev. David Halaiko
Nativity Catholic Church
René Girard is engaging in a bit of apocalyptic speculation. He looks at Islamic terrorism while employing his theory of Christ as sacrificial scapegoat. But his scapegoat theory is based on a fundamental philosophical error and several theological misapprehensions about Christianity. The fundamental philosophical error is to think that intramundane history has an eidos, or discernible meaning, when in fact it does not. History is incomplete. We do not know how long mankind will continue, or what will happen tomorrow, much less a hundred or a thousand years from now.
To suggest that we do understand the meaning of history is to make the Hegelian error of imagining that historical understanding has at last found fulfillment in the consciousness of this particular thinker. Augustine understood that history, considered as sacred history, does have a meaning, but that meaning lies in a fulfillment beyond historical time. The meaning of intramundane history can be known only to God, who is outside of time.
The theological errors are several. Girard falls into Marcionism, the ancient heresy recently repeated by Rudolf Bultmann, to the effect that the New Testament repudiates the Old and the Old is to be disregarded. There is also an element of failed Pelagianism in his thought: We must roll up our sleeves and save ourselves, following the ethical guidelines provided by Christ; but mankind has failed to follow Christ, and so now we are in for it. Welcome the apocalypse!
Next, Girard completely ignores the theological tradition of divine providence, the belief that everything that happens is known to God and is in accord with his plan for each of us and for mankind.
Furthermore, and this is akin to the Pelagian heresy, he ignores grace, the loving touch of God and our grateful response, which is really the center of our hope and happiness in this life. One also must mention that the scapegoat theory wrongly presents Christ as a historical figure of the past—the crucified Christ—rather than the Christ of the present—the resurrected Christ.
Lastly, Girard sidesteps the mystery of evil and the tradition of theodicy—the possible reasons God would permit disasters that befall large numbers of men at one time.
If I understand René Girard correctly, since the demystification of other religions by the true religion, Christianity, we are faced with a double-edged sword. As we become more aware of the innocence of Jesus revealed in his crucifixion, we move further from violent ritual sacrifice. The further from this we move, the more dangerous it is for the future of life on earth because without sacrificial constraints, we “invented science, technology, and all the best and worst of culture.” Because we were not prepared to shoulder the consequences of demystification, we continue to tend to extremes, and so all life on the planet is in peril.
What types of mimesis are possible? Is it only a mimesis of our nemesis the devil, who lies and murders, or is it possible to have a mimesis of our genesis?
I contend that, if our Christianity tends to extremes, we lose our awareness of the truth of Christ. If we tend toward a gnostic extreme, all matter is evil: We don’t look for a resurrection of the body, we seek to destroy the body and free the spirit. But Genesis says we were created “very good,” fashioned out of the dust of the earth.
If we tend toward a Pelagian extreme, we think we can save ourselves without divine grace by imitating virtuous behavior. Both Gnosticism and Pelagianism implicitly deny the Incarnation. The former denies that the Incarnation ever took place; the latter calls into question its very purpose.
If we tend toward Calvinism or Jansenism and insist on man’s total depravity, then the inherent goodness of human nature is denied. It is much easier to kill totally depraved people—whether they be the criminal, the infirm, the old, or the unborn.
We have become ignorant again and have reinvented a postmodern version of archaic religion that may, through technology, destroy all life on earth.
Dwayne J. Reineke
West Des Moines, Iowa
In the “While We’re At It” item citing Jeffrey Tucker (August/September 2009), Joseph Bottum argues that liturgical music from previous ages is superior to present liturgical music. This suggests that we should choose a specific time and language from which to choose the music for our common liturgies.
But what time and language shall we choose for our timeless and universal Church? Aramaic? Ancient Greek? Medieval Latin?
We should look to the root meaning of liturgy (“public service”) for an answer. We are a part of the Catholic Church in the United States in the twenty-first century; it seems only reasonable to listen to the voices of this time and place in our public service. Of course, I also want to hear the voices of the one Church throughout different times and places; but to reject the new because it is new seems silly.
Robert L. Marx
I was struck by the starkly different visions of the good life represented by the monk and poet Thomas Merton on the one hand and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the other (“While We’re At It,” August/September 2009).
Merton is contemplative, quiet, unrushed, solitary. Aldrin is brassy, task-oriented, technologically obsessed, blasting outward into the solar system with a gang of space cadets, scattering antimatter and nonexistent federal funds in his interstellar wake.
Why? To spread our pathologies throughout the solar system? I’ll give Buzz and his planetary joyriders about ten years after arrival before they manage to turn Mars into Los Angeles: drive-by shootings from lunar vehicles, abortion on demand, speech codes, confiscatory tax rates, and bad novels.
As a guide for advice about how to live a meaningful life, I’ll take a guy named Thomas (Merton or Aquinas) over a guy named Buzz, any day.
Joseph Bottum says (“While We’re At It,” October 2009) that Justice Ginsberg’s future feminist legal agenda “turns out to be nothing more than the old feminist legal agenda: abortion, and abortion, and abortion.” It would have been more accurate if you had called it a current legal agenda. Most well-known feminist foremothers opposed abortion.
Mechanicville, New York