The purpose of my book, Making Gay Okay, is to see what natural reason can tell us about human sexuality and flourishing, most particularly in light of the claims of homosexual activists. It attempts to demonstrate what the consequences are if one abandons a natural law approach. In his review, Ephraim Radner objects to this because I don’t base my argument on revelation (“Sin’s Nature,” November). Specifically, he complains that “original sin has been airbrushed out”although I do mention “evil” thirty-eight times; “vice” fifty-six times; “virtue” forty-one times; “goodness” fifteen times; “moral” 275 times; “immoral” thirty-five times; and “immorality” nine times. What does he suppose would be added by calling it sinful? My argument is intended for the public square, where it is not revelation but “first things” that constitute the common ground.
In Radner’s dismissal of Aristotle and the teleological view of nature, I am reminded of Luther’s denunciation of Aristotle: “any potter has more knowledge than is written in these books [of Aristotle, which] I can only believe the devil has introduced. His book on Ethics is the worst of all books. It flatly opposes divine grace and all Christian virtue.” Incidentally, the Aristotelian views used in the book, ones which Radner seems not to accept, were also the views of St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps, had I used Thomas rather than Aristotle, that would have removed the contamination from Aristotle’s positions on other things (like slavery), extraneous to my book’s subject, with which Radner says I should have dealt. But my bet is that, absent Aristotle, he would keep his review otherwise the same. That is because Radner nowhere acknowledges that a teleological view of nature is the only one from which sodomy can reasonably be said to be wrong. Without it, we are unarmed but for Scripture. This is a problem.
For instance, in the Seventh Circuit Court’s recent ruling overturning Wisconsin’s constitutional definition of a marriage as between a man and a woman, Judge Richard Posner wrote, “The state does not mention the [moral] argument because as we said it mounts no moral arguments against same-sex marriage.” Radner’s approach would seem to leave us silent before the bench and in the public square, where the “explicitly Christian argument” he calls for is not welcome or even (legally) pertinent.
In his “Letter to Oxford University,” St. Thomas More defended Greek studies against a move to throw them out as secular, pagan, and unnecessary, saying “there are some who through knowledge of things natural construct a ladder by which to rise to the contemplation of things supernatural; they build a path to theology through philosophy and the liberal arts, which this man condemns as secular.” Unfortunately, Radner knocks the ladder out from under this kind of effort in respect to the homosexual marriage question.
Ephraim Radner replies:
Robert Reilly’s book is worth reading, and I hope people do. They’ll get a good look at a lot of the un-reason that has driven the push for legitimizing same-sex activity and partnerships, including same-sex marriage. Reilly outlines this push well, and exposes the political bullying and manipulation behind it. But he doesn’t like the fact that I don’t think there’s a magic rational bullet to counter this, especially not Aristotelianism.
He’s right: I think he’s wrong to put all his eggs in that basket. Aristotle is tainted goods when it comes to arguing “natural law” for human relations. Not only isn’t it going to convince GLAAD; it isn’t going to convince the Supreme Court. Nor should it: Aristotle got a lot of things wrong when it came to describing what is “natural” for human beings. And if a smart guy like him went so far off the rails (yes, slavery is relevant here), there’s no “reason” to suppose that Reilly, Radner, and Roberts are going to do a lot better.
My own view is not that reason is without use in this debate. But it’s a form of reasoning that requires lots of different elements: history, biology, custom, self-examination, sociology, intuition, yes, and revelation (which is not opposed to reason), whose compelling character has its own train of intertwined elements. Too complicated and too contested? That’s precisely why a lot of people prefer bullying. And the fact that bullying is often preferable for people in these kinds of struggles is also related to the power of sinwhat we have called “original sin” (something that is not quantified by counting how often one uses the term “vice” in a discussion).
Finally, the kind of human reason that is victorious over such sin as this is one that is itself ordered by the infused virtues of the Spirit of Christ, whose form provides the best kind of convincing witness there is. So while careful, solid, extended arguments of all kinds need to be put forward on the topic of sexual behavior in our day, they will never be reducible, in their force, to simple logicsAristotle’s, Thomas’s, whoever’s. There’s a lot more going on than this, and we are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.
R. R. Reno makes many valuable observations regarding outreach to women voters in his November “Public Square.” He is absolutely right that the true remedy for America’s social ills is to restore a strong culture of marriage. In addition, we must recognize that today, women feel vulnerable and tend to sympathize with the Democrats, who appear to offer a plausible set of options.
But there are other significant reasons that our agenda is not resonating. In the recent past, the mainstream GOP has been criticized for being both out of touch and derisive towards lower-income and vulnerable people. In a recent interview, former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan said that he regretted using language that refers to low-income people who receive government benefits as irresponsibleso-called “takers.” Many voters see certain conservatives, including many Republicans, as people who idealize the status quo, often using rhetoric that blames the victims rather than admitting that features of the U.S. economic structure have serious flaws, bad incentives, and increasing injustices.
All too often, conservative politicians cater to the wealthy with bailouts and other forms of corporate welfare available only for the top echelon. At the same time, they promote sizable cuts for food assistance and unemployment pay, and ignore the twenty-year decline of middle-class incomes. One year ago, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis described these policies as “trickle-down” theories, stating that they effectively ignore the poor and often marginalize low-paid working people everywhere.
Conservatives should critique our failing culture, but if they want to be heard, they need to think about how they are implicated in that failure.
David J. Peterson
As the well-known story goes, Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen, telling the waiter to inform the cook that “it has no theme.” Year in and year out, the Supreme Court serves up mostly theme-less puddings, and this is no surprise. Despite their considerable discretion to accept or decline cases for review, the justices do not entirely control what is on their docket, and their nine chambers produce a lot of fractured, not to say incoherent, legal decisions.
So many thanks to Michael Stokes Paulsen for discerning a theme in the most recently served pudding (“2014 Supreme Court Roundup,” November). The 201314 term of the Court did indeed feature some critical rulings vindicating “the rights of persons and groups to disagree, to resist, to remove themselves from government compulsion, to not go along with the juggernaut of government and social trends.” In the term’s victories for individuals who resist the thralldom of government-supported unions, for uncensored political speech during elections, for the people’s right to reject the elite ideology of affirmative action, and above all for the freedom of conscience to say no to the imposition of immoral mandates under Obamacare, we have much to celebrate.
Paulsen’s explication of the Hobby Lobby ruling is alone worth the price of the November issue. I would only demur a little from his excellent article, by including the Town of Greece case more strongly in his theme, for here we faced the question whether the courts would force local governments and their communities’ religious leaders to bow before a false idol of secularism, grounded in a “separationist” myth about the First Amendment. Greece, New York, said no to this ideological project, and we are all winners on this score as well.
Matthew J. Franck
the witherspoon institute
princeton, new jersey
Something bothers me about Thomas Kohler’s impressive article on the social question (“Rebuilding Democracy,” November). Maybe it’s the social question itself. The social question, as most often put forth, turns man’s duty as a Christian into an abstraction, an abstraction that justified and set the stage for the twentieth century’s monstrous regimes, and has been involved in some of the West’s worst failures, corruption, and growing dysfunction.
Why does the West seem to be fraying at the edges and rotting in the middle just as it was supposed to have won the great philosophical debate and as it spends more on the social questions than ever before in human history? Why have our welfare ghettos become dystopian nightmares when we’ve provided enough income and help to transform them many times over? Why do our financial systems make a tiny handful of persons rich beyond imagination, yet periodically crash and spread giant losses to just about everybody else?
Why are welfare ghettos so dysfunctional? We removed the scarcity that instructs and reminds us why some attitudes and ways of behaving harm or enhance, and at the same time our programs destroyed the cultural heritage that already contained those lessonsthe families, the churches, schools, the guilds, and the norms that enable social pressure to turn those lessons into behavior.
Why are the financial systems so parasitical? It is precisely because we’ve removed the challenge of competition, scarcity, the risk of failure, the vulnerability of individual decision-makers who run them, invest in them, or save in them, and replaced these market forces with a regulatory apparatus governed by the symbiotic relationships that evolve over time between the leaders of the largest regulated financial institutions and the regulators. What actually takes place in such markets will always be beyond the grasp of the best regulators, but the attempt to control it weakens the very forces that discipline, teach, improve, and expand the adaptive process.
Moderns point to all the imperfections, failures, injustices, and hardships that occur in unregulated markets to the unfortunate in the absence of welfare. But it is precisely these failures and hardships, the scarcities and the need to make choices that produce the knowledge that gradually gives rise to success and human flourishing. They cannot be eliminated, and to think they can be is what Hayek calls the “fatal conceit.” To ameliorate them is very difficult and cannot be done by a remote, hierarchical, rational administrative state. These centralized administrative regulatory systems cannot work to man’s benefit, but this does not mean we are helpless. We have seen that persons, churches, and small community charities can improve the lots of people who fall between the cracks.
Subsidiarity assumes delegation of power downward. If the people choose to delegate some of this obligation upward, it will fail, and in failing the central government will, as we have seen, take the responsibility away from individuals who could help and from those who could be helped.
John H. Penfold
Thomas Kohler replies:
I appreciate John H. Penfold’s compliment and his thought-provoking questions. Obviously, he raises many more issues than I can discuss here, so I will limit myself to what I see as his chief concern, “the social question itself,” which he regards as turning “man’s duty as a Christian into an abstraction.” Unsurprisingly, we tend to understand the principles of Catholic social thought (CST) in secular American categories, and he is right that we often so discuss them. Such an approach is fundamentally misleading on any number of grounds.
We tend to conflate the term “social justice” with notions of distributive justice. As my friend and colleague Russell Hittinger observes, in the CST tradition, “social justice is nothing other than the manifold organicity of the common good,” that is, the requirement that “the common good be brought about through organizations, institutions and groups.” In Divini Redemptoris, Pius XI explains that it is “the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good.” In turn, the “good of the whole” only occurs when each member “is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions”points he made in Quadragesimo Anno. From Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus, the social encyclicals reflect the emphasis on identifying and sustaining the sorts of institutions and associationswhat John Paul II called “networks of solidarity”through which those functions can be exercised. Social justice consists in creating and supporting just these sorts of social arrangements.
The anthropology on which CST rests is anything but abstract. Unlike modern accounts that portray humans either in materialist terms or as disembodied intellects, and that restrict reason to some mere calculative and instrumental ability, CST does neither. It takes our messy corporeality and our social nature seriously, as its two key principles, solidarity and subsidiarity, reflect. Solidarity seeks to capture the idea of integrated social unity. Subsidiarity completes solidarity by guiding our thinking about the sorts of arrangements that will best permit humans to engage in acts of authentic self-determination. Properly understood, subsidiarity involves far more than an exercise in federalism or administrative reduction.
These principles admit of no easy syncretism with the categories of modernity. They are not Locke or Rousseau tricked out with a rosary, nor do they rely on opposing egoistic forces to provide “justice.” Making our world more authentically human is CST’s goal.
Catesby Leigh’s negative assessment of the 9/11 Memorial is persuasive in large measure because he brings to it a far-reaching knowledge of the history of monuments and an uncommon appreciation of their singular role in human life (“A Memorial to Forget,” November). Reminding us that monuments honor “events, ideals, or people of a historic, exemplary, or heroic character,” he cites two very different examplesLondon’s Cenotaph of 1920 honoring the million British soldiers who died in the Great War, and the more modest bronze frieze at the firehouse near Ground Zero, dedicated to the few hundred firemen who perished there that fateful day.
Simpler funerary monuments, Leigh notes, often commemorate lives lost in catastrophes. He offers the General Slocum Memorial Fountain, sadly too little known, as a prime example. A decade ago, in an anecdotal Villager article headlined “New York’s Forgotten Disaster Marks 100,” the writer wondered in closing why the tragedy had been “relegated to the back burner of history.” A more recent illustrated weblog post, “Fire and Water: A Remembrance of the General Slocum on June 15, 2010,” is by a writer who first heard the story as a boy and returns to tell it himself on the 106th anniversary of the tragedy. Tellingly, an inscription on the Slocum stele reads simply: “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” An unassuming monument like this, Leigh rightly suggests, would have been entirely fitting at Ground Zero.
A surprising omission in Leigh’s list of praiseworthy civic monuments is the Firemen’s Memorial (1913) situated just above Riverside Drive at 100th Street in Manhattan. Designed by H. Van Buren Magonigle, with sculptures by Attilio Piccirilli, it is surely one of New York’s grandest monuments and a perfect antithesis to the 9/11 Memorial.
aristos: an online review of arts
new york, new york
Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll seek to historicize not only Reformation centennials but also the Reformation itself, arguing for the theological importance of viewing the Reformation as a contingent historical event rather than as a collection of timeless theological axioms (and accusations) that are immediately applicable to the modern period (“The Reformation at Five Hundred,” November). What does this all mean for 2017? Howard and Noll offer not an answer but an intriguing if somewhat opaque place to startthe Reformation as “tragic necessity.”
Most readers of First Things would probably agree that the Reformation was tragic, in that it caused deep division in the body of Christ. Most would also likely agree that the late-medieval Church needed a reformation, although perhaps not the Reformation. Howard and Noll seem to favor the latter, although they do not say why.
In any case, this is not the place to render a verdict on the necessity of reformation versus Reformation, whether reform à la Staupitz would have been better than Reformation à la Luther. For even if Luther’s spiritual mentor (who also protested abuses associated with indulgences and promoted a robust Augustinian theology of grace) had emerged as the reformer of Germany rather than Luther, the Church he sought to reform would have been a Church in schism. The Reformation divided a Church that was already divided from the East. Howard and Noll understandably make no mention of the schism of 1054, nor of what role the 2017 commemorations might play in seeking to heal it. After all, the Reformation was an almost exclusively Western affair. However, the Reformation’s subsequent history and legacies have touched the Orthodox world, and vice versa.
Beyond this, Howard and Noll urge organizers of 2017 commemorations to set the Reformation within the larger context of world Christianity, which obviously includes the Orthodox. This larger context raises a question: What might 2017 mean for 2054? Howard and Noll provide a possible answer. They cite “From Conflict to Communion,” a 2013 document jointly authored by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation: “In 2017, we must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church.” Such a confession (and the healing it would bring) would serve as a salutary model for Catholic and Orthodox Christians in 2054 (and the healing it will hopefully bring). In other words, 2017 could prepare the way for 2054, when, barring some miraculous development in current ecumenical efforts, Christians will mark the millennium-long EastWest schism that began in 1054, which many Catholics and Orthodox continue to view as a tragic necessity.
Ronald K. Rittgers