Money matters, but not as much as we’ve come to think. Even if everybody in America enjoyed excellent health care, decent housing, educational opportunities, and lots of consumer goodies, but the wealthy and powerful lived in gated communities and held the rest of us in disdain, we’d think our society sick rather than healthy. The common good is not just a matter of creating or redistributing wealth; it requires that we be part of a common project, a common culture. It requires solidarity.
Solidarity is not the same as equality. It’s about being with others, being part of something, rather than being the same or having the same amount of stuff. A couple I know sensed as much. They lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and shared a life with their neighbors, many of whom were by no measure equal to them in education, income, or social status. But joining together to put in plants along the street, going to neighborhood meetings, or just talking with people down the block doesn’t require strict equality. What’s needed is engagement, cooperation, and a belief that we share something important together, even if we’re different in all sorts of ways.
Then they had a child. Then another. The local public school was unsatisfactory, to say the least. The neighborhood did not strike them as altogether fitting for raising kids. Education, the increasingly crucial asset in today’s competitive meritocracy, trumped all else, and they moved a stone’s throw from Chevy Chase Circle, just over the border in suburban Maryland. The schools are good there, they said, which is true, and also a euphemism for an incalculable range of social and cultural benefits that flow from being raised in the upper middle class.
But they still regret moving. There’s no principle of justice stipulating that people like them must stay in their neighborhoods when their circumstances change. They violated no moral precept by moving to a better school district. But their regrets have a moral basis nevertheless. By moving, they were joining a larger trend of segregation in America, one in which the well-off, well-educated, well-groomed, and well-socialized move into increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods that have become the focal points for our new elite. This segregation, the couple correctly intuited, weakens our collective unity, and that weakening is something we should worry about.
Solidarity was originally a legal and commercial term designating a bond or debt that benefits or binds all the members of a community. After the French Revolution, solidarité took on a larger political meaning as a more forceful expression of the ideal of fraternité . It was imported directly into English, where for a long time it has been a word of the left: class solidarity, workers’ solidarity, solidarity strikes, and so forth. In 1980, I was the student head of our college chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a leftist coalition that supported Salvadoran communist rebels. But not always the left: Around the same time, Polish workers who confronted their communist masters in a strike at the Gdansk shipyards adopted Solidarno as the name for their movement.
Since the pontificate of John Paul II, the term has become prominent in Catholic social doctrine. In Centesimus Annus, he designates solidarity as “one of the fundamental principles of the Christian view of social and political organization,” tracing it back to Leo XIII’s notion of civic friendship as the enduring bond that unites the often antagonistic relations of labor and capital in modern society, through Pius XI’s concept of social charity and Paul VI’s evocative phrase “civilization of love.” In his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI pointed to solidarity as necessary to counter the individualistic, self-interested logic of free-market capitalism.
Like its sister term “social justice,” solidarity can be very hard to define. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes it as “a social principle” and “moral virtue.” The senses in which it’s a principle and virtue are analogical. “Solidarity” refers to the overall quality of our common life rather than a principle by which we can judge specific circumstances and actions. We are “in solidarity” when there are enough shared ideas, conversations, commitments, and sacrifices to make us into a unified whole. It can be understood as social or civic friendship, which is a kind of habit or virtue.
My friends who moved from Capitol Hill recognized that they were joining a larger social trend that works against solidarity. As Charles Murray details in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, the top 20 percent of society now lives very differently from the bottom third, with the folks in the middle trending down, not up. The great disparities of income are part of this story, of course. But there’s social inequality as well. Whether the indicators are marriage, out-of-wedlock births, employment, or social involvement, we now have two Americas that look very different. The top is thriving, not just economically but socially as well; the bottom, not so.
As Aristotle observed, only equals can become friends. He was not making a claim about wealth but about social status. They were related in the ancient world, as they always are. But the genius of modern democratic culture has been to weaken the connection. Norman Rockwell depicted the democratic ideal when he painted a workingman in a plaid shirt standing to speak at a New England town meeting, flanked by two attentive older men in suits. It’s an idealized picture, of course, but it captures a truth. Friendship, especially civic friendship, is possible across any number of disparities and inequalities if they’re encompassed by a larger common purpose, commitment, or belief.
That’s why Murray worries about the growing social divisions in America, which may in the long run be more decisive for our national culture than the economic inequalities that parallel them. The couple I know didn’t move from Capitol Hill because their neighbors didn’t have enough financial capital. They moved because the neighborhood lacked adequate social capital. This disparity—the moral, cultural, and social distance that’s opened up between the most successful people in America and everybody else—makes solidarity more difficult. And without solidarity, we face the danger of a distant, haughty, and imperious ruling class, and a demoralized, disengaged, and alienated common man.
Religion has long been a powerful source of solidarity because it reassures us that everybody is subject to the same higher authority. A robust consensus about moral truth can have the same unifying effect. It allows us to hold each other accountable in accord with common standards that transcend social or economic inequalities. However, as Murray documents, there’s no longer a strong moral consensus bridging the gap between the elites and everybody else. Today’s cultural elites promote a nonjudgmental ethos that often makes ordinary people embarrassed to express strong moral views. The result is often tepid, tentative exchanges by people fearful of sinning against political correctness.
Today elite culture shies away from patriotic gestures as well. The September 11 National Memorial Museum in New York, for instance, was deliberately designed without national symbolism. This reflects the same weakening of shared convictions and loyalties that has worked its way through our society over the past fifty years, making our common culture thinner and less constraining. This weakening allows the wealthy and powerful to become more existentially independent from everybody else. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be socially responsible, but it does make them less socially accountable.
The couple who moved to Chevy Chase finds my social conservatism baffling. They can’t see that I’m worried about the same thing as they are. The successful upper middle class now lives at a distance from everyone else. This distance cannot be overcome by increasing taxes on the rich, because it’s a social as much as an economic gap that separates us. In fact, it’s a dangerous temptation to imagine that redistributing wealth suffices. Solidarity involves sharing social space and a living culture, not just bloodless financial resources. Man cannot live on bread alone: We owe each other more than money.
Can we persuade our fellow citizens with natural law reasoning? David Bentley Hart thinks not. Three issues ago, and then again in the last issue, he’s devoted “The Back Page” to persuading us that most modern men and women, even the faithful among us, find it hard to think of nature as morally purposeful, and therefore won’t be persuaded by arguments that draw upon a robust notion of what things are for. On the contrary, dominant accounts emphasize an evolutionary story of random genetic mutation that feeds into an endless struggle for survival. This intellectual formation works against the metaphysical foundations of natural law reasoning, and therefore most people find the arguments remote and unconvincing—“academic” in the bad sense of being about something other than the real world we live in.
Hart is surely right. Many people, perhaps most today, can’t even see natural law arguments as arguments. Consider marriage. We see it as an institution that serves and promotes the procreative and unitive purposes of male-female sexual complementarity, and we make arguments to that effect. They have little purchase. When Judge Vaughn Walker voided Proposition 8, which restricted marriage in California to a man and a woman, he said in so many words that such a view was based on an irrational prejudice against homosexuals that could find support only in sectarian religious ideologies.
Sad, but not all that surprising. In the preface to his On the Ten Commandments, Thomas Aquinas observes that, in Scripture, God often restates the conclusions of natural law reasoning. He does so because our perceptions of reality are disordered by sin and therefore we often can’t know with any confidence what we are able, in theory, to deduce by way of rational analysis. John Henry Newman thought that our powers of formal argument—“strict reason,” as he called it—have a limited range. Reliable reasoning, especially about moral truths, requires the right prejudices as well as sound syllogisms. Thus Hart’s basic insight: Today we’re habituated into a set of metaphysical assumptions that prejudice us against natural law reasoning.
All that said, we shouldn’t give up on natural law. It can make a number of important contributions to our moral, civic, and religious lives.
In the first place, natural law reasoning often functions like a sharp slap. The core argument of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception, involves an appeal to the procreative purpose of the sexual act. Many are shocked by this argument when they first read the encyclical. I certainly was when I read it thirty years ago. The moral meaning of sex is found in its biological consequences? It didn’t change my mind then, but it stopped me in my tracks and disabused me of the idea that my then conventionally modern views couldn’t possibly be false. The law is written on the Gentile’s heart, as St. Paul pointed out. That’s why natural law reasoning, even as it often fails to compel assent, nevertheless can induce us to stop and reconsider.
Second, natural law reasoning has an important function in public debate. Modern liberalism sets itself up as the view of all “reasonable people.” For example, those who want to redefine marriage or require employers to provide free contraceptives claim that there aren’t any “real” moral arguments standing in the way. Natural law arguments undermine this false equation of progressive prejudice with reason itself. A judge may find the George, Anderson, and Girgis arguments in What Is Marriage? unpersuasive, but he can’t pretend that they’re not arguments.
Third, natural law arguments have an important pastoral function. Christians know what the Bible and Church teach about any number of moral issues. Many accept these teachings on authority, not knowing the why and wherefore. Natural law reasoning helps deepen this altogether proper obedience by illuminating the rational basis for moral principles accepted on authority. Put somewhat differently, there’s a contemplative aspect to natural law arguments. They unite our rational love of truth with our supernatural love of God.
Finally, natural law arguments deepen our understanding of the supernatural dimension of faith. Natural law reasoning provides knowledge of our created purposes, and that clarity makes us appreciate grace as grace. To know the natural order of justice clarifies the supernatural order of mercy. Precise thinking about the laws of reason helps us understand that the gift of faith is something more than an act of intellectual assent.
These differences, which natural law reasoning helps us see, have an evangelical significance. The gratuity of Christ is different from the gratuity of being, to use Hart’s terms. That’s good news. It means the lame, blind, and feeble can enter into his love even if they can’t appreciate Dante, Bach, or any other great artist who brings out the divine beauty of the natural order. Hart argues against a “two-tier Thomism.” I won’t dispute the dangers of an easy, too-rigid parsing of truth into natural and supernatural domains. But there’s also a danger if we obscure the difference altogether.
Hart’s right to be pessimistic about the power of natural law arguments to convince. But his realism about the limits of the modern metaphysical imagination—and his winsome efforts to recall us to a cosmos tensed with higher purposes—do not require us to forsake natural law arguments. Even in our disenchanted age, they can do a great deal of good.
Rabbi Gilles Bernheim
Iregret the need to report this, but I must. In the March issue we published “Homosexual Marriage, Parenting, and Adoption,” written by Gilles Bernheim, Chief Rabbi of France. Or so we thought. It turns out that Rabbi Bernheim plagiarized some portions. In Part II of the essay, “The Negation of Sexual Difference,” he lifts sentences and paragraphs from a 2010 interview with Béatrice Bourges, president of the Collective for Children and an opponent of same-sex marriage and adoption. Even more egregious, big chunks of his exposition of the biblical vision of male-female complementarity come from Fr. Joseph-Marie Verlinde’s recent book, L’idéologie du gender: Comme identité reçue ou choisie? Verlinde carefully cites his sources (including John Paul II). Not only does Bernheim plagiarize Verlinde, he also gets rid of the attributions, transforming the quotations into his own voice.
It seems he has bad academic habits. His 2011 book, Quarante méditations juives, includes passages plagiarized from an interview with Jean-François Lyotard published in 1996. When first accused, Bernheim insisted that it was Lyotard who had plagiarized his student chaplain lectures from the 1980s, only later to admit fault. He also cultivated the impression that he had passed the agrégation, a competitive exam at the pinnacle of French academic training, when in fact he had not. The French take their academic honors very seriously, and as a friend familiar with the French scene explained, to pretend that one is agrégé is the rough equivalent of falsely claiming to have received battlefield honors.
The first thing to say is that this affair can’t be interpreted as an example of progressives hunting down dissenters. Bernheim took a strong stand on a controversial issue, but it wasn’t his opposition to gay marriage that precipitated the scandal. It was his dishonesty. These transgressions of basic academic integrity were uncovered by Jean-Noël Darde, a plagiarism watchdog, not a gay activist.
The second thing to say concerns plagiarism. One of the perversions of our era is to make a god of intellectual property. Most commentators described Bernheim as “stealing” words and sentences. This is wrongheaded. Plagiarism is a sin against truth, not property. It’s first and foremost a kind of lying, not a kind of stealing. He violated our trust by speaking in a voice that was not his own, which is why in this and other cases of plagiarism the writer loses intellectual and moral authority broadly.
A third thing to say concerns the man. In my years of teaching, I had to deal with plagiarism many times. Now and then a cynical young person tried to get by with the minimum of work. But most of the students who plagiarized did so because they were desperate or scared, or both. I could tell because it was so obvious, and thus pathetic and pitiable. And indeed, when I confronted students I found that there was almost always a great deal of pathos in the background: psychological crises, terrible fears of failing, a consuming sense of hopelessness in the face of the assigned material.
Bernheim’s plagiarism seems to be of this sort. Now that I’ve reviewed some of the details, I can’t believe he believed he could get away with it. (I am, in fact, somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t grow suspicious when the French rabbi sounded so much like John Paul II when talking about sexual complementarity and transcendence.) Please join me in praying for Rabbi Bernheim. From my reading of the evidence in this affair (what’s so hard about citing someone?), it seems he certainly needs it.
The final thing to say is that I’m sorry. The essay’s arguments aren’t any less true for having been plagiarized. But we allowed the magazine to be a vehicle for falsehood. The lie was in the byline. “Homosexual Marriage, Parenting, and Adoption” was not in any proper sense by Gilles Bernheim. I apologize to you for publishing an essay that betrayed your trust in the integrity of First Things .
King’s Public Theology
Afew days before Easter, 1963, local civil rights leaders invited Martin Luther King Jr. to join the protests planned in Birmingham, Alabama. They knew he would bring the kind of national attention needed to heighten the pressure needed to make progress. Days later, television cameras captured policemen turning fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful protesters. By Good Friday, King was in jail for parading without a permit.
Eight white Birmingham pastors wrote an open letter criticizing King as an “outsider” and his leadership as “unwise and untimely.” It was a provocation to which King decided to respond, and beginning with small scraps of paper he composed Letter from Birmingham Jail. Words of determined protest make up most of the letter, and they make no peace with “moderation.” A page-long sentence itemizes the evils of racism: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.” But it’s the patriotism and piety that gave King’s words their unique power and influence, making his prison manifesto an American classic.
“The goal of America is freedom,” and King insists that black Americans rightly claim that inheritance, not just because they are men like any other men, but because they are Americans. “Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.” Yes, our nation has been a place of “gross injustice and shameful humiliation” for black men and women. The blood and sweat of slaves “made cotton king” and “built the homes of their masters.” But this place is ours, King is saying, and as he and his followers march in the streets they are “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy.”
This patriotic ardor, which has a strong tinge of Southern pride, works in tandem with an even more pervasive piety. King interweaves biblical figures, themes, and phrases with his words of protest. Against the charge of being a meddling outsider, King points to St. Paul, the man who traveled the ancient world to preach the gospel of freedom. Extremist? The prophet Amos was an extremist for justice. “Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness.” Those who speak against injustice are “the leaven in the lump”; they are “the spiritual salt.” The movement as a whole seeks to bring the segregated South to “the promised land of racial justice.”
King’s patriotism and piety strengthened his words of protest. But do they do so today? Our critical educations (all the failures of America in full view) and ironic sensibilities make King’s warm patriotism remote and inaccessible. Our official secularism keeps piety in the background. Few these days have time for King’s style of American public theology. At a crucial juncture, he writes: “The sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” Even Christians will ask: Isn’t that a dangerous fusion of God and nation, a Constatinian temptation? Aren’t appeals to Scripture sectarian and theocratic?
That’s our loss. I’m not a fan of King’s theology. He cites Paul Tillich and refers to “creative tension.” His rhetoric, while beguiling, isn’t my own. I can’t imagine speaking of anyone rising up “from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest.” But his basic thrust as a public theologian is sound. The language (and convictions!) of faith, as well as the patriotism, allow King to frame his unequivocal “no” to racial injustice with a larger “yes.” To put it somewhat differently, the biblical and patriotic gestures of his Letter and famous speeches allow him to conjure an atmosphere of love and loyalty—love of God, love of neighbor, loyalty to country, loyalty to place—even as he spoke forcefully about the need to resist evil. That’s something the language of justice can’t do. And love and loyalty are what a society torn by injustice (and which isn’t?) needs.
We can be demeaned, diminished, and degraded by injustice. This Martin Luther King Jr. certainly knew. What he also knew was that man cannot live on justice alone.
On April 8 and 9, the Institute on Religion and Public Life brought together more than twenty scholars to discuss Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s recent book, What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. His main thesis is that contemporary social sciences are unhelpfully reductive, because they theorize away a great deal of what makes us actual persons. His ambitious book develops a framework—”critical realism”—for restoring a thicker account of the human person. Not surprisingly, the group was sympathetic. But also critical, and sometimes contentious.
Texas A&M political scientist James Rogers defended the reductive impulse as a source for analytical clarity. The problem comes if we are seduced by the convenience of reductive assumptions (real human beings are so maddeningly complex), turning them into metaphysical propositions.
Candace Vogler, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, pressed in the opposite direction. In modern philosophy, the notion of “person” has served as a formal gathering place for the substantive qualities and capacities that make us uniquely human. Fine as far as it goes, but why not go all the way and speak in a forthright, substantive way about “the human being”? In other words, the social sciences need a stronger dose of Aristotle.
Phillip Cary of Eastern University made a case for the priority of a theological account of the person. We’re defined above all by our relation to God. This doesn’t rule out secular sociology, but it puts it under the sign of incompleteness.
It was an engaging day and a half. I’d like to thank Chris Smith, whose participation helped make the seminar a success, and Donald Yerxa and the Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs initiative of the Historical Society for providing the indispensible financial support.