Jane Jacobs was a historian of sorts, demanding that municipal officials not only consider, but celebrate, a community’s unique history in their planning and architectural decisions. When they don’t, as Wilfred McClay notes in his balanced essay on her The Death and Life of Great American Cities (“The Living City,” December), they “rob the inhabitants of a relationship to their own past.” Walk the cobblestoned streets of Denver’s “LoDo” (Lower Downtown) or San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, and one sees Jacobs’ influence as an amateur historian.
But conservatism in planning and architecture can be expensive. Limiting available housing units through policies like rent control, low building heights, and knotty building ordinances makes these units more expensive. It is not without reason that the Village’s 10012 zip code was recently ranked the sixth most expensive real estate market in the country by Forbes.com—just behind the distinctly un-Jacobs haunt, Beverly Hills.
McClay is correct to note that Greenwich Village makes a difficult premise for wider policy-making, but his conclusion from Jacobs’ work that “effective planning is not in prescribing everything in sight” deserves deliberate consideration by policy makers of all kinds, while Jacobs-inspired activists would do well to acknowledge the confines and costs of her recommendations.
Pepperdine School of Public Policy
Wilfred McClay’s article about Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities claims too much and too little for that famous book. On the one hand, says McClay, the particular lessons in urbanism taught by Greenwich Village have little to offer the rest of America. On the other hand, everyone should take to heart Jacobs’ opposition to government planning and her enthusiasm for spontaneous order.
This seems confused to me. Jacobs resisted government planning precisely because it was bent on destroying traditional neighborhoods, which were necessary for the spontaneous order she so prized, and not the other way around.
It’s true that not every neighborhood can have Dylan and the Village Voice, but Jacobs has little to say about them. What excites her about the Village is eminently replicable: short blocks, consistent townhouse-level density, small parks, windows that keep eyes on the street, a variety of uses, and a mixture of old buildings and new. In her view, which I think correct, this urban form is objectively more conducive to human flourishing than a landscape of highways, parking lots, and subdivisions.
It’s true, or near enough, that “the good life can be lived in a variety of settings,” but this does not mean that all settings are equal. And to suggest that the particularities of the Village’s urban form are in the final analysis merely incidental to the good life is to take up a position radically, not mildly, at odds with Death and Life. The central thesis of the book is that an urban form very much like that of Greenwich Village is necessary for spontaneous order. If it so happens (though it does not) that without government intervention American neighborhoods look more like suburban Atlanta and less like the Village, then the government, as champion of the common good, should intervene.
Ironically, the government is still the chief villain of this story, as it was in Jacobs’ day. Despite McClay’s implication that planners of the current generation are attempting to “pry” drivers from their cars, current law entrenches a view of urban life Robert Moses would recognize and approve of. Though less aesthetically sophisticated than the modernist vision of the 1950s, contemporary zoning codes, minimum parking requirements, and transportation plans make neighborhoods like Greenwich Village illegal to replicate. The Atlanta suburb, and not the Village, is the product of government planning. This fact alone explains the price of real estate in traditional, walkable neighborhoods.
This quibble aside, I was delighted to see First Things publish an article about urban form. Perhaps readers would welcome more literal consideration of one of the journal’s old hobby horses: the public square.
New York, New York
Wilfred M. McClay responds:
Pete Peterson’s smart and knowledgeable letter might serve as an answer to David Schaengold’s, since he touches so tellingly on some of the main issues here. But a couple of additional points are in order.
It seems to me that the chief difference between Schaengold’s view and my own is that I really mean it when I insist upon the possibility of living the good life in a variety of settings. I am willing, even eager, to affirm the value of high-density urban settings, big cities, midsized cities, small towns, old suburbs, and new suburbs, each of which I have enjoyed living in during different periods of my life, and each of which has its characteristic virtues and defects.
But Schaengold seems to present us with only two alternative settings: Jane Jacobs’ Village and suburban wasteland. He argues that if most Americans still prefer suburban life—and the census data could not be clearer in this regard—that can only be because their judgment has been debased and their horizons have been delimited by bad laws and villainous public policy. What to do, then, about this problem? “The government, as champion of the common good, should intervene”—the same government that has hitherto been the villain.
Schaengold tells us that the Village’s urban form is “objectively more conducive to human flourishing.” That would be an important datum, if true. But are the residents of the Village morally and spiritually superior to the residents of suburban Atlanta? Are their children (if they have any) healthier and saner? How about the Left Bank? Or Georgetown, New Orleans’ French Quarter, Amsterdam? Do the residents of these places, by inhabiting the optimal urban forms, also have a better claim to living “the good life” than the residents of Decatur, Georgia? I rather doubt it.
Atheism’s Facebook Moment
I am far from surprised to see the publication of a book like A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, ably reviewed by R. J. Snell. Secularists and atheists are beginning to realize the full scope of their numbers. In earlier times, those not on the list for Voltaire’s dinner parties probably kept their heads down lest they be regarded unhappily as the village atheist or the neighbor with no more religion than a post.
But this is the Facebook moment for the irreligious. They are beginning to realize that in nations with millions of people, even a small percentage of nonbelievers is quite a crowd. Slowly but inevitably, we have seen various demographics rise up with joy to see that they can make hits out of movies and best sellers out of books. It happened with conservatives, with Evangelicals, and with African Americans. Now it is happening with the minimal-spirituality crowd.
And they want to be served just as every other market niche in modern society has been. Like most people, they rejoice in having their point of view confirmed by the like-minded. A Humanist Bible is tailor-made for the moment.
Snell notes that Grayling looks to “Virgil but not Dante, Cicero but not Augustine” and is quite right to observe that any text purporting to be a Bible of sorts offers little hope for profundity when at the outset it cuts off conversation with a gigantic class of the great meaning seekers. As he writes, “Grayling dares his readers to lead the examined life but refuses to converse with many who have examined it deeply.” This is the fundamental problem with much secularist discourse: Rather than have the searching conversation they propose, they either rule the supernaturalist out of court or act as though he doesn’t exist.
Hadley Arkes (“Natural Rights Trump Obamacare, or Should,” December) recommends that lawyers challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court focus less on the Commerce Clause and more on candid reasoning about the deepest axioms of personal liberty. He winks at their sometimes transparent artifice in citing constitutional text. But I wonder: Was Lincoln winking in the Emancipation Proclamation when, instead of denouncing slavery as evil, he appealed solely to his constitutional authority as commander in chief fighting a war of rebellion?
I don’t think Lincoln was winking. I think his purpose was to remind his fellow citizens of a common good, the Union, which they had formally recognized, and to remind them of the terms of the power they had granted him, as president, to pursue that good. Later he would advocate suitable amendments to the Constitution, prompting the citizenry at large to pass moral judgment on slavery. But in the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln simply adhered to his proper executive function.
Nature itself commends political prudence—the tempering of innovation by tradition—in order to minimize political anxiety and turmoil. Republican government itself, with its reliance on forms, is natural, and so, natural law requires a republic’s executives and judges to make every reasonable effort to honor the positive law and the terms of their own authority.
Perhaps this word, “nature,” is too abstract to help us here. Has Arkes identified all the moral axioms that might bear upon the legitimacy of Obamacare? Is he sure that the justices can do so and that they can properly balance those that might pull in different directions?
I fear that the justices will find in philosophy less real guidance than they will in our republic’s Constitution.
Hadley Arkes correctly criticizes the misnamed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act now subject to a vigorous judicial challenge as exceeding the limitations of the Commerce Clause to the U.S. Constitution. He also rightly notes that the PPACA flouts embedded natural-law conceptions of individual autonomy by seeking to dragoon individuals into buying health-care coverage, either for their own good or for the good of others.
But it is false to say that “only the natural law can explain the deep wrongs of the recent health-care bill.” More concretely, his entire discussion of the Commerce Clause deals with an issue of overlapping powers in a federalist system that were never the concern of natural lawyers. From earliest Roman times, first Gaius and then Justinian assumed that natural law set out the basic framework for interaction among individuals in the state of nature.
These obligations, however, did not depend on citizenship in any polity, and made no pretense of explaining how government powers should be located between independent sovereigns, let alone overlapping sovereigns within a federal system. Nor does the natural law make any distinction between persons more generally and citizens, who owe allegiance to their own sovereign from whom they receive in exchange a richer set of benefits than those available to aliens—most notably the right to engage in lawful occupations and to own real property.
Within this common framework, the justification for the original distribution of powers under the commerce clause rested on a highly practical conception of government. Local matters were subject to local governments that were closest to the people. The regulators in these states were in part constrained by competition from other states into which their citizens could ship goods and services and from which they could obtain goods and services in return. The privileges and immunities clause of Article IV was meant to prevent states from blocking the creation of that common market.
At the same time, the Commerce Clause allowed Congress to remove local barriers to interstate competition by establishing cross-border transactions to keep the arteries of interstate commerce clear. The labor and agricultural cases in the 1930s and 1940s unwisely let the federal government organize extensive legal monopolies in both domains, which are also easy to attack on utilitarian grounds. The PPACA unwisely continues federal monopolization of health-care markets in ways inconsistent with our original governance structure.
Richard A. Epstein
New York University School of Law
New York, New York
I was dismayed to see someone as intelligent and accomplished as Hadley Arkes suggesting that Obamacare violates the natural law because it involves the “rationing” of medical care. If “rationing” means that not everyone can obtain every form of medical care he desires, it already exists under our current system—the insurance companies regularly decide what they will and will not pay for. We cannot provide every form of health care that someone may desire, or even everything that might prove useful. The word “rationing” is a useful bugaboo for scaring people, but no country can afford not to limit expenditures on health care, whether you call those limits “rationing” or not.
Apart from the practical economic issue, there simply is no natural right to unlimited health care. The real violation of natural law lies not in making rational decisions about what treatments we can afford but in leaving large parts of the population with no effective ability to obtain even reasonable levels of care.
Distressingly, Arkes cites the examples of Canada and Britain to support the proposition that Obamacare would make people “entirely reliant on government for their care.” In both countries, those who can afford to do so can purchase private health care, just as they would be able to do were Obamacare implemented in this country. No one would lose his right to purchase private health care. What would happen is that those who currently cannot afford health care would receive it.
If there is any question of natural right raised by Obamacare, surely it is the right of all human beings to have access to decent health care within the constraints imposed by the finite resources of the society to which they belong.
John F. Coverdale
Seton Hall University School of Law
Newark, New Jersey
Hadley Arkes’ commentary on Obamacare is commendable for many reasons, not the least of which is its moving beyond the constitutional question of regulating activity versus regulating inactivity (or whether that distinction even is a sensible one) to the law’s deeper implications. What should a judge who agrees with his analysis do if confronted with the law? In particular, should a Supreme Court justice decide that the law is unconstitutional because it violates natural-law principles and hence, as Arkes suggests, the Tenth Amendment?
My concern with an affirmative answer is the context in which our judges operate, one in which the judiciary’s word is deemed final on questions of constitutional law. As the Supreme Court ruled in the 1958 decision Cooper v. Aaron, “the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution,” and thus its interpretation of the Constitution “is the supreme law of the land.”
A judge who votes to strike down Obamacare on the basis of the natural law thus exercises the purported authority to once and for all decide a contested issue of fundamental, natural law (absent, of course, a constitutional amendment). The cure is worse than the disease: The threat to liberty in investing an unelected judiciary with such power is greater than any problems Arkes identifies in the health-care law.
Arkes may reject judicial supremacy, but what should the judge do who is operating within a system that does accept it?
Conservatives are often at a loss to explain why American conservatism has repeatedly failed to “seal the deal” with the American people and become the philosophy of a stable governing majority, but the reason is that, no matter the merits of some items on the conservative agenda, that agenda invariably includes “freedoms” like the freedom in Roe v. Wade: essentially devices to mask some purpose that no one would dare propose openly. The still-not-defunct proposal to turn Social Security into another kind of 401k plan is one such repulsive freedom. The jaw-dropping model of natural law that Hadley Arkes proposes is another.
The American health-care system is essentially a tax-farming regime. Under such a system, an inescapably public function is delegated to private entrepreneurs who are in a position to define their own costs, and who then charge the public accordingly. In this case, the entrepreneurs are private insurers. As always happens with tax farmers, the charge they demand is “whatever you have”; health insurance is why personnel costs rise while wages remain flat.
The normal way to avoid this problem would be for the insurers to be public utilities or independent nonprofits. Obamacare, however, allows the grossly inefficient private insurers to continue in a system rather like auto insurance. That may or may not be a good idea, but if the federal government has the authority to operate the Food and Drug Administration, then it has the authority to operate a national health system.
Now comes Arkes to tell us that, as a point of fundamental liberty, the federal government does not have the authority to operate the FDA, or at least that the FDA does not have the authority to ban the sale of drugs for medicinal purposes. This understanding of natural rights would also prevent the states from denying the people the right to the quack of their choice.
Jersey City, New Jersey
Hadley Arkes replies:
I would like to thank Richard Epstein for writing, though in a move rare for him, he runs the risk of distracting the reader from the main point: that he is in accord with me on the argument that there is a separate, plausible ground in natural right for the argument against Obamacare.
His objection is directed to the last line in the article. Let me recall. I quoted Gregory Katsas, who drew on Justice Story in litigating against Obamacare to argue that imposing a contract on an unwilling person may be quite as bad as impairing the obligation of a contract. He was drawing on a principle never made explicit in the Constitution, and Story had remarked that this principle would be valid even if there were no written Constitution. After Katsas made this argument, he invoked the Tenth Amendment as a place to hook it. I remarked in closing that “the Constitution was brought in only after the natural law had been engaged to explain, as only the natural law could, the deep wrongs and rights of the matter.”
Epstein has ample reason by now to know that I share his view that the Commerce Clause could be engaged properly right now in bringing down those barriers of regulation that bar people from buying the medical insurance they want from firms in other states. That is a “right,” we might say, that arises distinctly from the structure of the American Constitution. But that is still separate from what we might call the “deep wrongs and rights of the matter”—in this case, the right of a person to seek to preserve his own life and health through means that are legitimate, in the arrangement of his own medical care.
In that same vein, Epstein and I have attached high significance to the Contracts Clause of the Constitution, the clause that bars legislatures in the states from “impairing the obligation of contracts.” But of course, as Justice Peckham once reminded us, we must be speaking of legitimate contracts: The courts won’t uphold contracts for prostitution or murders. The Contract Clause must imply a recognition of the difference between legitimate and illegitimate contracts, but the principles that establish those differences are nowhere set down in the Constitution itself.
Yes, prostitution and murder are barred by the positive law. But we still have to account for those deeper grounds on which a legislature makes the positive law in this way, by banning as illegitimate commerce in sex and stamping these contractual relations as illegitimate.
It does not supply an alternative to this understanding of the deeper rights involved to suggest that Obamacare may be rejected also on “utilitarian grounds.” That very notion already presupposes an understanding of the persons or beings whose “utility” counts.
From the standpoint of “utility,” the removal of 1.3 million human beings in abortion each year, for thirty years, may have the most pronounced effect on the volume of trade in our economy, to say nothing of 1.3 million taxpayers coming on line each year to fund welfare and Medicare. But evidently the defenders of abortion rights have removed this vast class of persons from the population of persons whose “utility” counts in this reckoning. And so we would be forced back, after all, to “all men are created equal” or some rival principle in explaining just why unborn children count or do not count. Either way, we are back to the natural law.
Richard Epstein, in making his arguments, is often appealing to libertarian doctrines or doctrines of individual liberty. Those rights are as unmentioned in the Constitution as the doctrines of natural right I am invoking. And in both cases, they are the doctrines or first principles that guided the framers in the making of the Constitution.
John Coverdale is himself an accomplished academic, as knowledgeable as anyone on Catholic teaching. I would expect, then, that he would have been quite sympathetic to the principle of subsidiarity. We can respect this principle of natural right and seek the care of all persons, yet have serious doubts that this good can be attained, or attained without moral hazard, in a monopoly of medical care run by the government.
John Reilly seems to be working under a curious assumption that anyone committed to natural right claims a license to disregard the laws that screen dangerous drugs—or any other laws, for that matter. Let me remind him of the axioms that form the groundwork here: A moral agent, a being who can reason over matters of right and wrong, may recognize, as Aquinas and Lincoln taught us, that we cannot coherently claim a “right to do a wrong.”
He may recognize, then, the things he has no right to do even in the name of his freedom. There is no impairment of natural rights when we are put under the just constraints of law, whether they bar us from wrongdoing or seek to protect us from hazards such as quacks selling drugs. Nothing in my piece offered a formula for people invoking natural rights to dissolve the vast framework of law that is put in place, ostensibly for the public safety and our own protection.
Scott Rutledge is following an illusion, perhaps worshipping a false idol, if he thinks that the clauses in the Constitution ever explain themselves without tracing our judgments back to the moral reasoning on which these clauses were based. In this way did John Marshall explain why Congress had the power to punish the theft of mail or other crimes even though the Constitution did not explicitly give Congress the power to punish anything but piracy on the high seas.
Rutledge should contemplate this question: Was Lincoln committed to the restraints of the Constitution because it was enacted into positive law? Or was his reverence summoned rather by those deeper principles that commanded his respect for a government under moral restraints, expressed in law, and by the underlying “right of a people to govern itself” through the laws it hands down for itself? For Lincoln it all ran back to “all men are created equal,” and that, as Lincoln reminded us, came before the Constitution.
Many of our friends seem to recoil from the notion of using moral reasoning outside the text of the Constitution, even though founders such as Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall gave us elegant examples of how to do this. In our own day conservative lawyers are doing it all the time while having no notion that they are doing so. Perhaps it is words themselves that have the tendency to excite our friends, and the simple solution is just to get on with cultivating that discipline of moral reasoning while avoiding the use of those dreaded N-words: Natural Law, Natural Right.
I did not expect that the judges would readily make use of this older language when they came to deal with Obamacare, for they have become wound up in conventions so familiar that they have trouble recalling the way in which accomplished lawyers used to address these matters. My article was offered as part of the ongoing revival of natural law, and it may be seen as a gentle plea for lawyers and judges to look again at the things that our best jurists used to know, and sought to teach.
Disclosing the Logos
I appreciate and applaud David Hart’s meditation on Dogen (“Luminous Wisdom,” December). Most of what he says exegetically about Dogen is right-headed and, as usual, written in pleasingly orotund style. But I can’t restrain myself from hesitantly suggesting an emendation to his concluding formulation.
It isn’t that it would be “presumptuous and reckless” to think that when Dogen speaks of what he sees he is speaking of the sanctissima trinitas. It’s clear, surely, that what he refers to—what he’s speaking about—is exactly that; it’s just that he doesn’t refer to it under precisely that description. This is an ordinary application of the sense-reference distinction. It helps to prevent confusion.
A much more interesting question is about the relations between what Dogen does say about, for example, luminous wisdom and what Christians say about the most holy Trinity. Here there are genuine possibilities for further thought, which Hart very helpfully indicates. If Dogen is talking about the Lord, but does not identify the Lord as Christians do, is there something that Christians can learn from his mode of thought and writing about the Lord?
I suggest that this is at least possible. The Church’s growth in understanding of the Lord has often—perhaps typically—come when she seriously engages what thoughtful and brilliant pagans have said about him, even when they don’t know who they’re talking about. Thomas’ appropriation of Aristotle is the paradigm case, but there are many others.
Perhaps we need more than the reverence for Dogen that Hart suggests to us. Perhaps we also need the intellectual humility to acknowledge the possibility that Dogen and his like may have things to teach Christians that we need to learn. I think Hart would agree; and Christian theology certainly suggests that this ought to be true.
Paul J. Griffiths
Duke Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina
David Bentley Hart replies:
Yes, I agree with all of that. Forgive me for being a bit vague on the distinction between sense and reference. Even a book review should cross every “t” and dot every obiter dictum (I think that’s the expression).
Anyway, I would go further and say that, if the reference is certain, then it is not merely possible but inevitable that Christians have something to learn from Dogen’s mode of thought and writing about the Logos. After all, Dogen would not be able to refer to the Logos if the Logos had not been in some way disclosed to him; and so his thought must necessarily bear witness to yet another way in which eternal Truth expresses itself to human beings.
As a Catholic doctor, I applaud George Weigel’s spiritual call to arms (“The Evangelical Reform of Catholic Advocacy,” December). The dangers of which he speaks are real. I agree that evangelization of the laity needs to be done first, and that this will need to come from the pulpit.
I would only add that the bishops and the clergy should first preach the good news of Jesus Christ from the pulpit. Demonstrating and educating how the first principles flow from his life is the true foundation. This is where this soldier draws his strength and his resolve. I follow my king into battle, not just his coat of arms.
Richard F. Shonk
In his incisive manner, George Weigel calls for a new paradigm or ground game for the Church’s public policy engagement. Beyond the core “foundations of the house of freedom,” the bishops and staffs should rarely “dissipate” their energy on issues outside their “competence as Church to offer technical solutions to those who have taken responsibility for the common good.”
The new century does demand the domestic urgency and focus he describes, but it also invites strategic attention to how this ground game dovetails globally and at the interreligious level with Islam. The elusive common grammar with Islam might be found in (1) keeping a distinction between a philosophical and natural-law baseline for the New Evangelization, and then (2) inviting Muslims of goodwill to untangle whatever threads of the universal natural law—not identical with any religion—are found in the very eclectic Qur’an. The crisis of Islam, working within its tradition, is how to unweave the threads of natural law from the repressive fabric of Shari’a law.
The dual challenge in Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address is for the West to rediscover faith and the natural law, and for the followers of Islam to give greater space to reason within its beliefs and way of life. Contact points for an expanding dialogue on the universal natural law might coincide with the core principles of the Church’s social teaching: the transcendent and inviolable dignity of the human person, and as part of this the common good—economic, social, and cultural as well as political—which celebrates the family, solidarity and subsidiarity, personal rights and responsibilities, informed conscience and freedom of religion, the option for the “poor,” the dignity of human work, and care for creation.
The possible common grammar of natural law with Muslims of good will at home and beyond our shores is a tenuous one at best. But this bridge is totally blocked if the somewhat Christian West rejects the New Evangelization and even reasons in favor of positivism, identity politics, and (columnist George Will’s brilliant term) “government-supervised harmony.”
Catholics holding perfectly legitimate political opinions are routinely put in the position of being on the opposite side of their church on questions of public policy. The pain this causes the faithful appears not to concern many of the public-policy advocates in the Church’s employ. Dare question why it is appropriate for the Catholic Church to take positions on plant-emission standards and capitalization of the federal Housing Trust Fund, and expect some variation of the “you only care about abortion!” retort.
In fact, it is concern for the moral dimension of so many political issues that serves as the context for Weigel’s call to action for the Church. The Church must redouble its efforts to form the consciences of the faithful so that voter and policy-maker alike can apply Catholic principles to often contentious questions and make morally informed choices. It is essential that the Church not allow the social promotion of another generation of uncatechized Catholics—whom Weigel so aptly dubs “baptized pagans”—into adulthood.
The Church must also recognize that it is inappropriate and counterproductive for the Church to take hard and fast stands on questions of prudential judgment when Catholics can ethically reach different conclusions.
Inappropriate, because in instances when Catholic social principles permit a range of potential solutions, a position taken by the Church
represents nothing more than the personal political preference of those promulgating that position. All too often that preference is really that of the staff assigned by an episcopal conference to oversee a particular aspect of public policy. Counterproductive, because pitting Catholics against their bishops on issues of prudential judgment weakens the faithful’s respect for the teaching office of the bishops and strengthens the perception that Catholics do not and need not follow their bishops’ decrees, thus weakening the Church’s power as a lobby.
The inclination to go beyond the Church’s competence and mission in matters of public policy is largely a function of inertia from the post–Vatican II years, when the all-purpose term “social justice” became for many the Church’s raison d’être. Properly understood, social justice is the fostering of individual and communal efforts to accomplish the common good in accordance with moral principles, but in practice, social justice became the continuation of left-wing political activism by other means.
Though the situation has improved, the default settings for much of the American Church’s public-policy apparatus remain lodged in the leftward position. Thus it was that the bishops’ clear objections to the abortion-friendly language in the federal health-care legislation were diluted by unmistakable signals from many of the bishops’ public policy advocates that the government-centric approach to health care promoted by the Obama administration represented the culmination of decades of Catholic aspiration. This was the change they were waiting for, and now the federal government, so implacably hostile to core Catholic teachings on life and the nature of the family, has been granted unprecedented leverage over Catholic institutions and individuals.
The Church as stakeholder in big government must give way to the Church as transcendent moral voice. The Catholic Church cannot be just another political interest group.
The author is executive director
of the Kansas City Catholic Conference.
George Weigel replies:
Thanks to all the writers for their comments. Peter Beaulieu’s proposal of a strategic alliance with Muslims in aid of restoring a public moral culture capable of supporting free societies is an important suggestion for the long haul and at the international level—and this despite the obvious difficulties involved, many of which are now on full display in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, as they already had been in the decidedly tepid Muslim response to Benedict XVI’s proposal on reframing the Catholic–Islamic dialogue.
For the moment, though, in the United States, the priority of the life issues and religious freedom must be continually asserted by the public voice of the teachers of the Church. That voice, as noted in my article, is muted when the bishops get enmeshed in the weeds of the public-policy process, as in recent months USCCB committee chairmen like Bishops Howard Hubbard of Albany and Stephen Blair of Stockton have seemed determined to do, despite changes in conference leadership and cast of mind.
An Irrelevant Divide
Gerald Russello’s excellent review of two recent volumes of essays by Wilson Carey McWilliams (“Lacking Liberalism,” December) highlights the increasing irrelevance of the very terms liberalism and conservatism to American politics today. McWilliams argued for a “liberalism” the motivating principles of which would be faith, fraternity, and virtue. He recognized the critical importance of an equality rooted in the dignity of every person as created in the image and likeness of God.
He opposed attempts, whether by government or business, to undermine families and local communities in pursuit of sterile efficiency—whether masked as social justice or wealth creation. And he condemned the practices constituting our culture of death (abortion, divorce, and contraception) for elevating isolated individuals above the responsibilities and social contexts that make them truly human.
There always was much to discuss with a “liberal” like McWilliams—much room, in particular, for disagreement over the proper level of governmental intervention in economic life. But how much do such disagreements really matter when compared with the disagreements that anyone who values a life of faith, fraternity, and virtue should have with Wall Street mavens who preach economic efficiency at the cost of people’s livelihoods, or who make the “conservative” case for government education programs aimed at “leaving no child behind” in the drive for sterile, uniform training in the drudgery of skills acquisition? How much do they matter in light of the “true” liberals’ commitment to transforming society into a mere support system for the pursuit of even the most childish whims of the moment?
As Americans contemplate the possibility of an Obama–Romney contest, in which Tweedledum and Tweedledee argue over who can better administer our burgeoning, irresponsible social democracy, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider our “liberal/conservative” divide. As Russello notes, McWilliams himself termed the liberal tradition a form of “bad faith,” whereas many “conservatives” today cheer on the (often government-subsidized) drive for ever greater wealth on the part of a few financiers and sharpsters at the expense of families, communities, and locally rooted businesses.
Only by focusing on the permanent goods—admirably represented in McWilliams’ faith, fraternity, and virtue—can we reforge a life that is truly human. Only by so doing may we form communities in which to pursue virtue in this life and beatitude in the next.
Bruce P. Frohnen
Ohio Northern University College of Law
How, Not Whether
John Haldane is right (“Hume’s Destructive Genius,” December) to describe one side of Hume’s thinking as “destructive.” He is wrong, however, to think that the needed remedy is a return to pre-Descartes patristic and medieval thought. Like other Thomists, Haldane fails to recognize the great leap forward represented by Descartes’ philosophy and the clarity with which Hume explained the challenge posed by that leap forward.
Descartes’ analysis of the internal contradictions in naive realism, coupled with the new discoveries in physics and physiology—above all the intervening role of the brain—led to Hume’s rejection of the naive-realist illusion that what we sense are realities external to the mind: “But this universal and primary opinion of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy, which teaches us, that nothing can ever be present to the mind but an image or representation,” as he wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume’s challenge follows logically: “How, then, can any thinker acquire certainly true knowledge of external-to-the-mind reality?”
Like Kant, some Thomists have accepted that challenge. Michael Novak’s Belief and Unbelief is an example. But Novak’s philosophy is not developed enough to deal adequately with the stunning achievements in modern physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, or even psychology.
In short, we need to go forward, not backward. None of the neo-Thomisms, whether the transcendental Thomism of Novak or the analytical Thomism of John Haldane, are up to the challenge.
I suggest that William James, who fully accepted the Cartesian revolution and the positive contributions of Descartes’ successors, can supply three things still lacking for a fully adequate worldview: his belated recognition that, although every alternative to common sense grows from it, common sense cannot be the end point for a fully adequate worldview; his analysis of the stream of consciousness—above all of thought—which provides the supremely successful way to transcend traditional and current analyses of knowledge; and his pragmatism, which is essential for incorporating the theoretical constructs, logical fictions, and/or paradigms so prevalent in the modern sciences.
Assumption College Worcester,
John Haldane replies:
Frederick Bauer agrees that Hume’s account of cognition is flawed in failing to provide knowledge of the external world. I might have mentioned a further issue that challenges the very intelligibility of Hume’s theory, which is that subjects’ depictions of internal impressions and ideas generally presuppose descriptions of external objects, which according to the theory are not available. Lesson: An account of cognition should begin with our knowledge of the world and ask how, not whether, such knowledge is possible.
This strategy is shared by philosophers as diverse as Aquinas and Quine, for whom epistemology is not a matter of justification but explanation. It is also the strategy of Thomas Reid, Hume’s main contemporary critic. Reid distinguishes between sensation, perception, and conception roughly as follows: (Typically) sensations are the effects of external causes. These effects give rise to experiences of the objects of which we also form ideas. The point is that the relation between object and sensation is causal not cognitive, while that between perception and object is cognitive not causal.
Reid is preceded in this account by Descartes’ critic Arnaud, who in turn is preceded by scholastic critics of views analogous to those of Hume and Descartes. Bauer quotes Hume building on Descartes to assert that nothing can be present to the mind save an image or representation. That is precisely what Reid, Arnaud, and Aquinas reject, as when Aquinas says that sensory modifications are not that which but that by which we experience things. Interestingly, my heroes and Bauer’s might agree that what has to be rejected is simple empiricism.
I was Leo Steinberg’s assistant for over forty years and am now his literary executor. How I wish Leo had been able to read Dianne Phillips’ “Leo Steinberg’s Artistic Vision” (December). It is probably the finest (and most accurate) summary of The Sexuality of Christ ever published, and its explication of the main principles of Leo’s Last Supper study and of his underlying respect for the primacy of images is equally eloquent. The article brings me much joy, as it will to Leo’s friends and colleagues.
New York, New York
I am intrigued by Dianne Phillips’ presentation of Leo Steinberg’s analysis of medieval and renaissance art. As an Orthodox Christian, I am surrounded by sacred art and teaching concerning it. Much of that teaching is an a priori assumption that Renaissance art is so plagued with secular naturalism that it is of little religious value.
Steinberg’s work invites those of us tempted to simply disregard this body of expression to look again. While it certainly is outside the boundaries of iconic language and taste, it may contain more of orthodoxy than we think.
Tracey D. Edson
Dianne Phillips’ review of the contributions of Leo Steinberg to an understanding of Renaissance depictions of the body of Jesus is a fair and balanced summary of his important, once controversial, but to me, powerfully persuasive argument that belief in the Incarnation is totally consistent with depictions of Jesus as fully human. Steinberg challenged the tired textbook cliché about Renaissance humanism and the increased interest in the human body as signs of a decline in religious faith and sensibility. Despite the misgivings of some popes, Michelangelo’s nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling belong—as signs of the beauty and power of God’s creation—just where they are.
That it took a learned and sensitive Jewish scholar to recall this to our attention is not altogether surprising. Renaissance Italians—and most Italian Catholics ever since—would probably have assumed that there was no need to point out what was so obvious. If you go to Santa Maria del Popolo or San Luigi dei Francese in Rome, you will still see people praying before a Caravaggio painting once the tourists have left.
But for many American Christians, including Catholics, the body still seems naughty. Perhaps it’s the Puritan influence or all those Irish monsignors or Hollywood prurience. Steinberg’s “outsider’s” perspective reminds us to pay closer attention to the richness, depth, and beauty of our own tradition.
Harvard University Cambridge,
In her tribute to the work of Leo Steinberg, Dianne Phillips delineates his unusual respect for artists’ ability to convey theological ideas through intentional and visually compelling images. Artists today are similarly expressing in their work a narrative and theological meaning that deepens the work.
The monastic Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation at Clear Creek Oklahoma offers one example. It is being built in a severe Cistercian style, but Abbot Antoine Forgeot, OSB, commissioned two figural stone capitals of the Archangel Gabriel proclaiming the Annunciation southward to the receptive Virgin Mary at the church portal to express the dedication to the Annunciation.
The sculptor, Andrew Wilson Smith, expanded the essential narrative into a framework of salvation history. The sequence begins with the creation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion is followed by Isaiah foretelling, “Ecce virgo concipiet.” It concludes with the Nativity. Mary enfolds the Infant while Joseph shreds his stocking to swaddle the Child, a traditional portrayal of Joseph as solicitous father. The artist portrayed the infant naked; he describes the idea as “an image of the necessity of fathers to sacrifice—even such commonplace necessities as their stockings—for their children, as a parallel to God’s willingness to make sacrifices for His children.”
We cannot know whether Steinberg’s speculations about the intellectual and artistic intent of the paintings he cites reflect their makers’ thought, but he was correct in pointing to the artist’s vocation to serve the Church by expressing theological ideas through the visual languages of sculpture, painting, and architecture.
Thomas Gordon Smith
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
Dianne Phillips replies:
That the power and beauty of Leo Steinberg’s thesis continue to elicit such generous responses comes as no surprise, but I am nonetheless most grateful for them.
Tracey Edson indicates that the genital display that Steinberg identified as a deliberate and meaningful motif in Renaissance art is “outside the boundaries of iconic language and taste” in the Byzantine pictorial tradition. Steinberg in fact pondered the absence of the motif from Byzantine iconography in the second edition of his Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion and attributed it to Greek patristic teaching, which held that Adam and Eve were chaste and sexless while in paradise. In the West, Augustine’s view that lust-free conjugal coupling, and thus sexual difference, were intended for Adam and Eve from the time of their creation held sway, and informed the meaning attributed to Christ’s genitals (as the new Adam) by Renaissance artists.
I would note, though, that while it is true that Byzantine icons do not typically show a naked infant Christ in the cave of the Nativity, they sometimes include a secondary scene of the infant’s first bath. As analyzed by Ernst Kitzinger, the inclusion of the first bath seems to have been motivated by its fittingness to convey an incarnational theology.
So, while Byzantine artists do not depict the infant Christ as a nude figure, they do seem to have thought that showing him with a bare upper torso (often sitting or standing in a chalice-shaped tub) was an appropriate way to represent God’s condescension to our mortal condition in assuming human flesh and submitting to ablution even though he was without sin. The recognition that the naked body of the baby Jesus can impart profound theological meaning evident in some Byzantine Nativity icons is not so distant from the development of the genital motif in Renaissance christological imagery.
The Memorial’s Story
As a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, I have been profoundly moved both times I have been at the Memorial, to the extent that I have volunteered to become a guide for the walking tours offered there. I believe R. R. Reno is seeking something in the Memorial that is already there, albeit not in the obvious way that he wants it to appear (“The Failed 9/11 Memorial,” December).
No one visiting the Memorial will be unaware that the 2748 who died that day at the World Trade Center died collectively as part of an American event. The fact that they were all murder victims is not something that may only be expressed by draping an American flag somewhere on the grounds. The names in the plates around the pools immediately invite personal reflection of both the victim represented as well as the reason why they are there. When I go find the names of my coworkers who died that day, I feel intimately connected to them and to all the victims. I find the “national story” of the victims to be inherent in every aspect of the Memorial grounds.
I must also say that I do not experience the bleak vision of death that Reno feels at the place. First, there is the presence of the so-called Survivors Tree, a pear tree that improbably survived the devastation and stands as a symbol of resilience and hope. Second, for the more than 1100 victims for whom no identified remains have yet been found, the Memorial site is in fact a cemetery. But far from contemplating “the annihilating abyss of death,” the Memorial—even while it invites feelings of sadness for the families who lost loved ones—sings to me of the Christian hope and faith that these innocent victims might enjoy the eternal happiness of the direct presence of God. Thus, perhaps the greatest contrast: As the individual strands of water join and then flow—commingled—into the voids of the pools, the souls of the victims join the communion of saints in triumph.
Deacon Stephen Kern
Flemington, New Jersey