The English language is so very rich, and not least when it comes to language about language. I confess to having a weakness for the aphorism. I like to quote them and have even tried my hand at a few. A friend tells me I mean epigram, not aphorism. Maybe so, but the distinctions are subtle. It could be that my weakness is for the epigram, the maxim, the axiom, the adage, the apothegm, the pithy saying, or any of these in combination. But I think I’ll stay with calling it the aphorism. An aphorism, as I understand it, is a succinct statement of a general truth distilled by particular experience. A further confession: The above comments are but an excuse to quote something said by Alfred Polgar, a Viennese writer of the early twentieth century. "The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist." Lovely. And, while I’m at it, this from poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "Fame is the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a new name." You might want to keep that handy for the next time the conversation turns to our celebrity culture.

I have mentioned before Clive James’ book of mini-essays on intellectuals of the last hundred years, Cultural Amnesia . He really does not like Jean-Paul Sartre, who was lionized by so many for so long. James critiques Sartre’s prewar period in Berlin, and especially the influence of Heidegger. "In Sartre’s style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas." But wait, he is just warming up. "[Sartre] might have known that he was debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered, because telling the truth was something that ordinary men did, and his urge to be extraordinary was, for him, more of a motive force than merely to see the world as it was." Sartre was a fervent communist to the end, denying or belittling the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, and their lesser imitators. As odiously, he made his peace with the Vichy regime and then, after the war, claimed to be a hero of the Resistance, setting himself up as a grand inquisitor, indicting intellectuals whom he thought had been less than heroic. James again: "Heidegger and Sartre were only pretending to deal with existence, because each of them was in outright denial of his own experience, and therefore had a vested interest in separating existence from facts." "Working by a sure instinct for bogus language, a non-philosopher like George Orwell could call Sartre’s political writings a heap of beans, but there were few professional thinkers anywhere who found it advisable to dismiss Sartre’s air of intelligence: there was too great a risk of being called unintelligent themselves. Effectivement ¯to resurrect a French word that was worked to death at the time¯Sartre was called profound because he sounded as if he was either that or nothing, and few cared to say that they thought him nothing." Now that’s polemics of a high order.

There have been lively, and sometimes rude, responses to my respectful exchange with Bishop Thomas Wenski, who chairs the international affairs committee of the bishops’ conference, on the wisdom of his response to a letter from congressional Democrats asking the bishops to help "mobilize Catholic opinion" against administration policy in Iraq (see here , here , and here ). I suggested that it is a mistake for bishops to squander their credibility as teachers of faith and morals by issuing pronouncements, especially politically partisan pronouncements, on matters beyond their competence as bishops. These are typically matters of prudential judgment on which Catholics (and others) of equal intelligence and good will can and do disagree. While most of the responses to my comments were positive, this from the blogsite Vox Nova was among the more thoughtfully critical:
If I understand [Fr. Neuhaus] correctly, the Church should stay out of matters of prudential judgment, or matters pertaining to the application of Catholic teaching to specific facts and circumstances. I do not deny that characterizations like the need to end the Iraq war are prudential judgments. But to deny the legitimacy of Church intervention in these areas would be gravely wrong.
Let me explain why, and I will use the abortion example. The "solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals" (to use Neuhaus’s term) in this area is that abortion is always and everywhere wrong, never a right, and never licit. Hence no Catholic can support it in the public sphere. But what happens when we want to go beyond that general and generic statement? Any discussion of how to address the issue of abortion today quickly descends to the domain of prudential judgment. Is the best strategy to elect presidents that will choose judges that will vote to overturn Roe ? Quite possibly, but this train of thought is a probabilistic one, imbued with uncertainty. In other words, to use Neuhaus’s phrase again, it is a "prudential judgment about eminently debatable circumstances" . . .
Of course, when we think about it, the Church simply cannot ignore prudential judgments, as otherwise it would be reduced to muttering vague platitudes, and saying nothing about 95 percent of the key issues affecting the lives of the faithful. It would be toothless, but perhaps that is what some want.
Politics is not anywhere near 95 percent, I would suggest. Unless one is in the unhappy state of living a life almost totally politicized. Recall the observation of the great Dr. Johnson: "How small the part of all that human hearts endure can laws or kings either cause or cure." But the main question at hand is prudential judgment as it relates to episcopal competence and responsibility. Prudential judgment is, of course, related to prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues. The Greek is phronesis , sometimes translated as "practical wisdom." Aristotle distinguishes between wisdom ( sophia ) and prudence ( phronesis ). The first is understanding the nature of reality in a way that engages universal truths and the second is knowing what ought to be done in the light of the way things are. Although both wisdom and prudence are highly desirable in a bishop, neither is guaranteed by the "charism" of episcopal office. At the ordination of a bishop, we pray that he may be endowed with such graces, but it is no article of faith that such prayer is demonstrably answered. While individual bishops may be prudentially gifted or challenged, problems are multiplied when prudential judgments issue from the bureaucratic sausage-grinder of the bishops’ conference. In the 1970s and early 1980s, under the dominant leadership of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, the bishops’ conference was producing celebrated statements on economics, welfare, nuclear deterrence, and sundry other domestic and foreign policies. At least the statements were celebrated by those on one side of the conventional political spectrum. The bishops were reading "the signs of the times" (Vatican II) at a furious pace and offering more prudential judgments than the market could bear. In his 2004 Erasmus Lecture , Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee said: "It took more than two decades for the post¯Vatican II honeymoon to come to an end. By the late 1980s, some prominent voices in American Catholic life began to wonder if the conference needed to be reined in. Criticisms that had been heard from time to time began to become more frequent and pointed. The conference, it was said, was ‘staff-driven’; the bishops were mere spectators; the biannual meetings were more like political conventions than pastoral meetings; a ‘clique’ of bishops dominated to the exclusion of others; theological leftists inevitably prevailed on everything from public policy to liturgy; the conference’s support staff leaned even further to the left; vast sums of money seemed to disappear into an ever-expanding bureaucracy. Several bishops and Catholic leaders rose to defend the conference against these and other charges, but over time the criticism had its effect." And, of course, the sex abuse crisis that broke open in January 2002 took its toll on the bishops’ credibility and self-confidence in issuing pronunciamentos on subjects beyond their self-evident competence. Catholics and others adopted a large and understandable measure of skepticism about what bishops had to say. If they had so gravely bungled the tasks that are unquestionably theirs¯to teach, sanctify, and govern¯why should people pay attention to what they say about matters beyond their ostensible competence? This is not to question but, on the contrary, to underscore episcopal competence on matters of faith and morals. On most questions of domestic and foreign policy, it only compounds the problem to declare that they are "moral questions" and are therefore encompassed within episcopal charism and competence. Such overreach only invites critics to claim, putting it bluntly, that the bishops don’t know what they are talking about, or at least don’t know any more than is known by the well-informed citizen. Archbishop Dolan noted that, in recent years, the bishops in the conference have learned this lesson and have been focusing their attention ad intra rather than ad extra , concentrating on matters clearly within their competence and authority as teachers of the Church. The response of the bishops’ committee to the Democratic letter may be viewed as a regrettable and momentary deviation from this general direction. Following the week of testimony by General Petraeus and the president’s speech, nothing more has been heard about the idea of the bishops "mobilizing Catholic opinion" and "forging a policy" to oppose administration strategy in Iraq. One may hope that the ill-conceived idea has been entirely dropped. As I said earlier, all of this has nothing to do with whether one supports or opposes U.S. policy in Iraq. It has to do with the integrity and credibility of episcopal leadership. The publication catholic trends recently reported that 70 percent of Catholics think the bishops are doing a good job. That finding is up considerably from a few years ago. This is an encouraging development, both for the bishops and for the Church they lead. We may anticipate that such confidence will increase as the bishops exercise the discipline of acting and speaking in a manner congruent with their indisputable competence and authority.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus


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