Mickey Mattox’s piece on Marquette University (“Marquette’s Gender Regime,” April) was welcome indeed. I taught at Marquette for thirty years, and am grateful for the many blessings I experienced there. It has consequently been difficult for me to watch from a distance as the university has moved farther and farther away from its former commitment to retaining a connection with the Catholic university tradition.
Every new generation of scholars finds itself confronted with certain key questions that shape its concerns. For example, when I attended college at Notre Dame in the late sixties, my teachers in political philosophy had devoted much of their intellectual life to questions that arose from their coming-of-age experience: How is it that Germany—one of the most advanced and civilized nations in the world—could have given itself over to the barbaric ideology of Nazism? And, moreover, how was it that totalitarian communist ideology could come to have such an extraordinary hold over not just the Soviet Union, but a large number of prominent intellectuals in the West?
Today, the bipolar world divided between modern totalitarian states and a West that still acknowledged strong Christian roots seems like a dim memory, and for most of the students we teach, it is no memory at all, but just another barely known historical era.
But what of today’s future scholars? What questions are central to their intellectual coming of age?
Two questions stand out. First, how is it that in the veritable temples of our intellectual life—our universities—profoundly irrational ideologies (regarding gender, among other things) have become so prominent? Second, how is it that the family, as a central social institution, has been so dramatically changed and weakened in what is, historically, the blink of an eye?
The short answer to the first question is that the widespread philosophical rejection of “natures” or “essences” creates a world in which “things” come to be regarded as socially constructed—creations of human will rather than beings to be perceived and understood.
The short answer to the second question is that the social minimization of the most obvious end or purpose of marriage and sexual activity—the procreation and raising of children—and the substitution of amorphous human feelings in its place inevitably injects the instability of those human feelings into the institution (as well as into our conceptions of the natural capacities on which that institution rests).
But those short answers simply describe an agenda for future intellectual and social undertakings. Plausible paths to reestablishing the conditions of sensible intellectual life and a sound marriage institution—how we get there from here—are obscure indeed. One can reasonably hope that current intellectual fashions will fade away, as so many of them do. But it’s less clear whether there are grounds to hope that whatever replaces them will be much of an improvement. As Mattox rightly notes, “those who want to teach in fidelity to the Church should be prepared for a long struggle.”
But he is also right that “we must keep the faith,” because “when the costs of capitulation to gender ideologies and a sexual morality that ignores natural law become clear, our Catholic university leaders”—and, we need to hope, perhaps many of our secular fellow citizens, too—“may at last turn to us in search of something sane and sound.”
university of dallas
Mickey Mattox replies:
I am grateful to my former Marquette colleague Chris Wolfe for his thoughtful letter. Wolfe is surely right to wonder at the rapidity with which the social institution of marriage has come apart. He’s also right to locate the origins of the gender crisis, especially as it affects Catholic universities, in philosophy.
Without doubt the retreat from Catholic realism as reflected in the natural-law tradition has wreaked havoc in Western, Catholic universities. If nothing is given, not even ourselves, then nature itself becomes merely the inchoate “matter” we shape to serve ends determined solely by desire and techne. The logic that undergirds the movement for “marriage equality” is itself post-natural in this sense. It leads inevitably toward the unreason of transgender “rights,” and from there to a transhumanist movement that promises self-transcendence without the transcendent God. The stakes, I think, are high.
Faced with these challenges, we need to recover the doctrine of creation as a gift of love and reason. To avoid the distortions that result when we too easily baptize the status quo, moreover, we also need to take seriously the doctrine of the Fall and sin. We dare not give an account of love and order in our world that does not take into account the disordering power of sin. The partnership of man and woman for mutual society and procreation, however, is grounded in the original order. In the economy of salvation, these goods also reflect Christ and the Church and thus point toward the prize that awaits the faithful beyond this life. The way forward, then, proceeds through the unabashed recovery of sound Catholic teaching in partnership with the philosophical realism that Wolfe commends.
Pierre Manent’s “Repurposing Europe” (April) brilliantly points out the European Union’s problem. The solution proposed, however, is not universal and Catholic but specifically twentieth-century and French. Faced with humiliation, France was rescued by Charles de Gaulle and his idea of the nation and the great common good of the nation-state. This is the patriotic ideal that Manent believes can again save Europe. As a central European, I have no great nationalist hero to turn toward. To me, the nation-state does not mean heroic unity in the face of foreign invasion, but World War I: the destruction of the supranational Danube Empire and the creation by violence and forced emigration of homogenous nation-states.
Manent’s claim that the loose federation of European states called Christendom represents a specifically Christian political arrangement, and an ideal, is indeed a “rough stylization.” For Dante, it was precisely the inability of Christendom to unify under a single emperor, Ottoman-style, that was its downfall. Nothing illustrates the failure of the loose federal Christendom model better than its inability to unite against the external threat of the sultan’s armies. French national interest, Venetian national interest, Hungarian national interest prohibited a united effort, and the result was the Ottoman conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula and untold suffering for its Christian inhabitants.
The loss of the nation-state and the creation of a universal European empire does not necessarily entail the loss of the idea of the common good, although, as Manent so convincingly argues, the E.U. as it works today is in fact eroding the idea of the common good. Perhaps the death of the nation-state will allow oxygen to flow to the flames of an older patriotism: patriotism for one’s region (often transnational) to one’s city. Of course, the beauty and strength of national pride will be mourned, but perhaps regional pride is more concrete and more human. Perhaps it is better for the Venetian to be first of all a Venetian, next a European, and only thirdly an Italian.
Benedict Maria Waldstein
ave maria, florida
I am grateful for Pierre Manent’s insightful article “Repurposing Europe,” but I am skeptical that the path toward a common life should be a re-strengthening of national identity supplemented by Christianity.
First, why should we preserve France? For that matter, why should we preserve Britain, Germany, or any nation? The nation is a relatively recent concept in human history. It seems too convenient. Even a return to a particular regional or local France makes more sense. Let’s think bigger.
Second, Christianity may have “found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations,” but why confine Christianity to a specific political form? History suggests that Christianity thrived under all forms of government except under extreme dhimmitude.
Finally, even without Europe’s fantasies of human universality, the continued atomization has less to do with politics than with technology and global trade. Unless we have the desire and ability to prevent the free flow of capital, labor, and ideas, the deracination of ethnic and national identities is inevitable. Without common rhetoric and place, what is a nation?
The French government may jail Uber executives, but can it stop the market? Can it better control the Internet than Russia and China? In our current technological and demographic context, a call to return to France is as ludicrous as a call to return to the monarchy or the medieval ages.
In a sense, the future will have little to do with France, Britain, Germany, or even Europe in its entirety, though these will remain as historical origins. In such a world, the nation cannot recapture the solidarity of the past. Only something greater can resurrect common life in our impermanence. Only religion and its affiliated institutions will stand a chance to weave myth and tradition back into our atomized lives. The future isn’t French or European Christianity. We have moved beyond. It must be religious; it must be a new Christendom.
london, united kingdom
Pierre Manent replies:
I thank my correspondents for their well-meaning comments and friendly advice. I do not share the London gentleman’s faith, however, in the omnipotence of the market and/or the Internet. Russia and China seem to be able to blunt the Internet’s alleged irresistibility rather easily. As for the market’s omnipotence, even in its promised land, the United States of America, the current political season evinces that big chunks of the public are beginning to have doubts about its unalloyed beneficence, while the government is taking steps to roll back some fiscal tricks (“inversion”) made possible by globalization.
As for the nation being a “relatively recent” concept, it depends on what you mean by “recent.” Most of Western life in the last millennium has taken place in nations, or in political bodies progressively taking the shape of what we call the nation-state. Moreover, even if that is considered a short amount of time in the great scheme of things, the fact remains that the nation is the Western way of actualizing social and political man—that is, our permanent nature and character.
I share Kenneth Leighton’s desire to see religion contribute to “resurrect[ing] common life,” but it is precisely human and Western experience that seem to prove that religious life needs social and political vessels, and that the national vessel is the most capable of bringing together religious zeal and political liberty.
To Benedict Waldstein’s good-natured objection, I would answer that my argument is much less dependent on my country of birth than he seems to think. The relevance of the nation as a political form is not predicated on the availability of any “nationalist hero.” I admit that nations come in many flavors, and that the perspective of an Eastern European citizen will normally differ from that of a Western one. The fact remains—and what is going on in Europe these days is witness to it—that, big or small, confident or anxious, nations elicit deep attachments because they offer the most convenient frame for the development of civic life and the elaboration of a common and refined education.
Now Christendom as a plurality of nations is to be preferred to a “Christian empire” not only for political reasons—freedom and diversity—but also for religious reasons: Byzantium’s “symphonia” involved the subjection of the Church to the emperor. I share Waldstein’s consternation at the inability of Christian nations to unite against the depredations of the Ottoman empire, but it did not happen before the latter had crushed the Byzantine empire. In human politics, there is no foolproof recipe for victory.
Lastly, I would not call the attachment to one’s region “patriotism.” The difference between region and nation is quite simple. However affecting, a region is not a political association: We do not govern ourselves within a regional frame. I find something touchingly quaint about the suggestion that a Venetian should be first of all a Venetian, next a European, and only thirdly an Italian. After all, for more than two centuries now, educated Europeans have mused that the most refined way of leaving this vale of tears was to “die in Venice.”
There is little to disagree with what Peter Berger states in his “The Good of Religious Pluralism” (April). The trouble, though, is what he fails to address: namely, that there appears to be a profound tension between the attempts at integration, on the one hand, and the promotion of a policy of pluralism on the other. In late-liberal society—in which a broader sense of content-driven values appears under pressure, with perhaps the exception of sexual and ecological ethics—the promotion of formal pluralism appears to weaken the viability of a meaningful societal integration. While it was fairly clear, for instance, what “English” or even “European” identity referred to in the mid-twentieth century, regional, national, or European identities have become rather elusive. How can citizens (newly arrived, or autochthonous) become integrated into a society in which a substantialist account of its own identity is missing? Given its detraditionalized and individualistic nature, liberal society in the twenty-first century appears to be reduced to an entity which negotiates, in a merely formal manner (i.e., the rules of “democracy”), the multiple, and, at times, mutually exclusive truth claims of different worldviews, while an overall sense of national or regional identity is under pressure.
Instead of a formal pluralism, such as the late-liberal one, we need a substantialist, content-driven pluralism, which welcomes other worldviews and is willing to enter into dialogue with them, while being committed to the truth claims of one’s own outlook on the world. How exactly this ought to happen without promoting further cultural or real ghettos, and what role should be played by the Christian narrative in such an encounter (especially given the “forgetfulness of Christianity” in liberal society), are some of the questions which need urgent attention.
Rik Van Nieuwenhove
mary immaculate college
Peter Berger doesn’t seem to have a problem with the regnant secularism’s inability or refusal to engage the plurality he cheerleads for. He coaches us to tolerate one another’s religion, an enterprise that will be monitored and adjudicated by a benign secular superstructure. He assures us that the play will be fair.
When my children were small, we read a book entitled “The Get-along Gang,” which taught that although people think differently about things, it’s no barrier to mutual respect and meaningful (as opposed to scorched-earth) tolerance. Save the small but formidable sector of Islam bent on killing those unlike themselves, Christians, Jews, and most Muslims have been doing this reasonably well for quite some time now. Interdenominational and interreligious dialogue continues apace and, frankly, stopped being newsworthy a quarter century ago. With late-to-the-game paternalist wheedling, Berger tells us we need one of those newfangled things called a telephone, and soon.
The most constraining, least tolerant space on American soil isn’t found in religious communities, but in the rigidly secular academy, brimming with gender, green, and “inclusive” dogmatisms, where Berger sits looking at the Boston skyline. More generally, the secular juggernaut’s contribution to “tolerance” has been intolerance to religion and its free exercise, and to gleefully presiding over (as R. R. Reno puts it later in the same issue) a “spreading of Agent Orange” on what had once been a remarkable moral consensus, one that had been primarily—but not exclusively—religiously informed. Secularism has also institutionalized a disturbing and utilitarian nihilism, and secularists aren’t interested in sharing a plurality with us rubes who still think each human has value because he bears God’s image.
Berger wants everybody in the sandbox to play nice while offering us no relief from the militantly secularist kid who keeps throwing rocks and gets to make all the rules.
Protodeacon Michael Myers
saint nicholas orthodox church
fort wayne, indiana
In explaining why it is beneficial for believers to distinguish between essential and dispensable elements of faith, Peter Berger quotes the Talmudic story about Hillel, who, asked to teach a Gentile the Torah while standing on one foot, replied: “Do not do unto others what is hateful if done to you; the rest is exposition, go and learn.” Berger proposes a friendly improvement: the Shema—“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” which would pertain to God rather than only to human relations. Berger ends by extolling the Russian Orthodox priest who rebuts a long Communist lecture on “scientific atheism” by proclaiming “Christ is risen” thus succinctly and, in this story, triumphantly expressing the essence of his faith.
Summaries of the principles of faith may serve several purposes: One is to identify foundational beliefs from which others may be derived. Another, as Berger suggests, is to denominate the most important faith commitments. Both tasks are addressed in various Talmudic and post-Talmudic Jewish texts. And Berger is surely right about the importance of the Shema. This verse was most likely recited, in extremis, by my mother’s family in the 1940s and by countless martyrs over the centuries. It is with this affirmation that I hope, when the time comes, to consummate my deathbed confession.
Hillel, however, was not presenting an encapsulated essence of faith. In responding to an outsider, perhaps a mocker, perhaps a potential convert, he invited his questioner to take the first step towards understanding. He was not derogating “the rest” to a lower level. To the contrary, he was pointing to the prolonged “thick” work of study that follows the first step.
new york, new york
I am rather puzzled by Peter Berger’s admission that it took him twenty years—even given his advanced age—to realize that secularization does not mean the obliteration of religion. As far back as 1912, Émile Durkheim observed in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that “there is something eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the particular symbols in which religious thought has successively enveloped itself.” Well before I published my essay on “The Meaning of Secularization” (The Restoration Quarterly, First Quarter 1969), it was clear that secularity refers to the way religion functions in society, not to another kind of society different from a Christian society, or a society without any religion.
I agree with the affirmation of the benefits of pluralism, one of the signs of secularization, except for the third, which supposedly “encourages different religious communities to become full participants in public life.” This appears to conflict with the tendency of modern, secular societies to attempt to establish a state religion at the expense of other religious communities.
Communism, which must itself be considered a religion, flourished in a secular environment. But obviously it did not encourage even a minimal participation of other religions in the public life. Other manifestations of the tendency to establish one religion at the expense of other options come to mind. These might include the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and the Islamic State in the Middle East. In the Western world, especially in Europe and increasingly so in the United States, there is a concerted effort of elitist, nontheist secularists to establish secularism as a state religion to the exclusion of other perspectives in the public square.
J. Robert Ross
st. petersburg, florida
Peter Berger replies:
My thanks to all writers for such thought-provoking comments. In response to Rik Van Nieuwenhove, I did not intend to write a “eulogy” of pluralism, but rather to suggest that it is not the threat to faith that it is often thought to be. When he claims there is a lack of an assured sense of common identity in European societies, he overstates the situation. Some common identity still exists; what is needed to activate it is, above all, political leadership that avoids the illusions of both the left (an aversion to patriotism) and the right (a tendency toward xenophobia).
To Protodeacon Myers: Obviously I don’t think that I’m engaged in “late-to-the-game paternalist wheedling.” What “game”? If the latter had been so successful as to no longer make it “newsworthy,” Western societies (including their churches) would not be struggling to find a way to deal with the challenge of Islam in their midst (and not just with its jihadist version). As to aggressive secularism, I live in the world of Boston academia, so I’m well aware of the nastiness described in this letter. Again, I think that political leadership capable of mobilizing the great majority (at least in the U.S.) of people not inspired by Harvard Yard is very much needed. Neither political party at this point has been able to offer such leadership: The Democrats under Barack Obama and (putatively) under Hillary Clinton have signed on to the secularist agenda, and the Republicans are hesitating between a fanatic and a buffoon . . .
I’m sure that Shalom Carmy is correct that Hillel was not summing up the essence of Judaism. But observant Jews and believing Christians both face the challenge posed by pluralism. It then becomes rather important to decide what is central to one’s faith and what is more like a historical accident.
I think that J. Robert Ross is a bit off on Durkheim—who was, as far as I know, an atheist, and certainly a militant secularist. After the separation of church and state in 1905, he served on a committee that produced a republican (secular) catechism, Handbook of the Sociology of Morals. That is, he did what this writer criticizes: He worked toward a secular state religion. I have no such project in mind. Rather, I recommend a “secular space,” such as is defined by the First Amendment: In this space, religious people and other citizens can agree on the same values, but for different reasons. Durkheim did teach that a society cannot survive without what he called a “collective conscience” of shared values. I agree with that.