♦ Students at Indiana University were atwitter on a recent Friday evening. Someone reported seeing a white-robed Klansman with a whip roaming the streets of Bloomington. Warnings were tweeted. One read: “iu students be careful, there’s someone walking around in kkk gear with a whip.” The dangerous man turns out to have been a Dominican friar, Fr. Jude McPeak, who serves as an associate pastor at IU’s St. Paul Catholic Center. His whip? It was the long string of rosary beads dangling from his tunic belt.
♦ Traumatic times at Georgetown. Some buildings were “defaced” with pro-Donald Trump graffiti chalked onto brick walls. The offending messages: “Support Officer Wilson” (referring to the police officer acquitted after shooting and killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri), “Trump ’16,” and “Build the Wall.” Ever vigilant, Georgetown’s Office of Student Affairs has “reached out to students who may be affected.” Georgetown policy prohibits anything that might be seen to threaten or offend members of the community. The matter will be taken up at the next Speech and Expression Committee meeting.
♦ The closer he gets to taking over the Republican party, the more staunchly I cleave to my anti-anti-Trump position. As I wrote nearly three months ago on our website (“Trumpageddon!”), “Trump is a creature of today’s political and cultural establishment.” Fox News and people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have contributed to the transformation of politics into entertainment. On TV’s political shows it’s common to interrupt, shout, and denounce. Bill Clinton is a political celebrity, slimy personal behavior notwithstanding. Donald Trump should not surprise us. He’s a person of our times, not an invading alien.
♦ Let me repeat, I’m anti-anti-Trump, not pro-Trump.
♦ If you’re interested in an intellectually serious defense of Trumpism (if not Trump), take a look at the Journal of American Greatness, an online venue for running commentary on the current political scene. It can be found at www.journalofamericangreatness.blogspot.com.
♦ In the Public Square, I mention “The Fusion of Civilizations: The Case for Global Optimism” by Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers, published in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. A friend describes it well: “It’s neoliberalism uncensored.”
♦ The review by Daniel J. Mahoney of Jürgen Habermas’s collection of recent essays, The Lure of Technocracy (“Cosmopolitan Dream”), encouraged me to pick up the volume. Habermas is not a bloodless neoliberal convinced that the world will unite around the project of maximizing utility. He knows that we’re political animals, and he sees that a more globalized future must have a political dimension, not just technocratic administration and problem-solving.
♦ At one point, Habermas endorses the development of a post-national world order, which is “indispensible if unbridled global capitalism is to be steered into socially acceptable channels.” At first glance, this seems right. We need a global political system to counterbalance a global economic system. But Habermas assumes an older form of capitalism, one more stable and predictable than its newer form as a force of technological disruption and creative destruction that now penetrates very deeply into societies and cultures around the world. We’ll need rooted social realities to tame the deracinating dynamism of global capitalism. A world political order is the opposite of that, as are all cosmopolitan ambitions. Which is why those ambitions are almost certain to become a tool of global capitalism, not a counter-force.
♦ If I had to choose between Habermas and Mahbubani and Summers, I’d opt for the former. He at least seeks a future in which we’ll argue about how to distribute wealth and power—an essential task of politics. Being an old Marxist, Habermas envisions post-national politics organized along class lines, now expanded internationally. This preserves the inherently contested nature of political life rather than dreaming, as do Mahbubani and Summers, about a technocratic, administered global society. Nevertheless, I’m afraid Habermas misconstrues the human condition. Politics isn’t just about how to distribute social goods. Public life is also and more fundamentally about how to preserve and transmit a cultural inheritance. That’s why nations and peoples and cultures aren’t likely to go away—or to fuse.
♦ J. Budziszewski, writing about social justice on his website, The Underground Thomist:
It is a trifle for the upper strata to promote sexual liberation; those who have money can shield themselves (to a degree, and for a while) from at least some of the consequences of loose sexuality. The working classes do not have that luxury. In a country like this one, serial cohabitation and childbearing outside of marriage contribute more to poverty, dependency, and inequality than a million greedy capitalists do.
Do you . . . really want to raise up the poor? Then do as the English Methodists did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: First live the Commandments. Then go among the people and preach them. Start with the ones about marriage and family.
I do not say this is all you should do, but if you won’t even do so much as this, then the rest of your social justice talk is hypocritical. You may as well admit that it is all about you.
To which I say, Amen.
♦ The mention of social justice reminds me again of the wise observation Michael Novak made during a talk about his new book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, coauthored with Paul Adams. Justice is a virtue, not a state of affairs, and therefore social justice is a habit of pursuing justice in ways that are “social.” It’s a commitment to involve others in political engagement and problem-solving. A leader committed to social justice does with rather than doing for.
♦ That reminds me of my favorite line from this issue. It’s in Russell Moore’s perceptive remembrance of Merle Haggard: “He stood with, not for.”
♦ A precinct-by-precinct report on the New York primary on April 19 provides some interesting information, including the Republican results in a precinct in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Kasich: 0. Trump: 0. Cruz: 1. Let’s just say it’s a heavily Democratic part of town.
♦ The nineteenth-century historian Lord Macaulay was a great prose stylist. Here’s his characterization of the Society of Jesus:
Inflexible in nothing but in their fidelity to the Church, they were equally ready to appeal in her cause to the spirit of loyalty and to the spirit of freedom. Extreme doctrines of obedience and extreme doctrines of liberty, the right of rulers to misgovern the people, the right of every one of the people to plunge his knife in the heart of a bad ruler, were inculcated by the same man, according as he addressed himself to the subject of Philip or to the subject of Elizabeth. Some described these divines as the most rigid, others as the most indulgent of spiritual directors; and both descriptions were correct. The truly devout listened with awe to the high and saintly morality of the Jesuit. The gay cavalier who had run his rival through the body, the frail beauty who had forgotten her marriage vow, found in the Jesuit an easy well-bred man of the world, who knew how to make allowance for the little irregularities of people of fashion. The confessor was strict or lax, according to the temper of the penitent. The first object was to drive no person out of the pale of the Church. Since there were bad people, it was better that they should be bad Catholics than bad Protestants. If a person was so unfortunate as to be a bravo, a libertine, or a gambler, that was no reason for making him a heretic too.
Rings true to me, and I don’t read it as a wholesale criticism or dismissal of Jesuits. Macaulay is right about the Jesuit tendency toward extremism, which is not necessarily a vice in some circumstances. There’s also something admirable about their flexibility—and obedience. Keeping as many as possible within the Church? Surely that’s a good goal.
♦ A friend sent me the Macaulay quotation after I wrote on our website (“A Stubborn Givenness”) about the ways Pope Francis’s Jesuit formation influences his papacy. Not always for the better. A Jesuit must focus on his apostolic calling, certainly a source of the Society’s strength. One upshot, however, is the Jesuit habit of treating all things as instruments in the service of his calling, including, in some extreme circumstances, the Church’s core teaching and practice. This tendency characterizes Francis’s papacy. The Church is on “permanent mission,” and pastoral effectiveness too easily becomes the be-all and end-all. Everything must be mobilized, even what we once thought Catholicism’s permanent, fixed features.
♦ Two Jesuit friends, Vincent L. Strand and Sam Zeno Conedera, wrote in response to my criticisms of the Holy Father’s Jesuitism. (You can read their letter on our site, “Jesuits Respond to R. R. Reno.”) They dispute my claim that Jesuits are particularly prone to an almost universal pragmatism, pointing out the ways in which St. Ignatius strongly affirmed divine law and the Church’s interpretation of it. Ignatius allowed for exemptions from choir—collective recitation of the Divine Office—but retained the obligation for each individual Jesuit to the Breviary.
It’s a well-framed defense of the Jesuit tradition. But I find myself only half-persuaded. I regard St. Ignatius as one of the great figures in Catholic history. The extraordinary successes of the Society of Jesus testify to the power of the deep interior conversion that St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises encourage. This provides the foundation for a profound spiritual freedom to obey Christ in all things. As is the case with all religious orders, however, the special gift tends toward exaggeration. St. Ignatius recognized that his own approach can lead to willfulness and instrumentalization. For this reason, he places a special emphasis on obedience to one’s superiors, as well as the Society’s complete and direct subordination of its mission to the pope’s authority. These checks don’t always work. (How the latter works for a Jesuit who is pope is very hard to see.) When they don’t, we get Jesuitism.
♦ In this month’s Public Square, I made much of Pope Francis’s appeal to the ideals of marriage. A friend reminded me, however, that in Evangelii Gaudium Francis establishes the following as one of four criteria for promoting the common good: Realities are more important than ideas. That expresses exactly my point about the stubborn givenness of the Church in contrast to ethereal notions such as “ideals” of marriage and Gospel “values.”
♦ Some might say that Pope Francis contradicts himself, or at least lacks the habit of scrupulous consistency. It seems to me that inconsistency is something of a consistent policy for Francis. He speaks of the Church as a “field hospital.” All situations are emergencies, as it were, requiring improvisation. Improv has been his style since being elected, whether during interviews on airplanes or meeting with or making phone calls to those on the “peripheries,” largely done without regard for how the symbolism fits with historic Church teaching and practice.
♦ A longtime subscriber noted an error in this section last month. While musing about Trump and racism, I referred to “Americans with only a high school degree.” The problem: High schools issue diplomas, not degrees. I stand corrected.
♦ Suicide has become more common, reaching its highest levels in recent decades. A study issued by the National Center for Health Statistics looked at various sectors of the population. Suicide increased significantly among women ages forty-five to sixty-four, up more than 50 percent since 1999. Suicide among middle-aged men has risen dramatically as well, up almost 50 percent. Parse by race, and with the exception of American Indians, who saw the greatest increase of any ethnic group, the increases are mostly among whites. There’s no analysis of education levels in differing suicide rates, but I’m willing to bet the increases come from those with at most a high school diploma. Trump voters.
♦ First Things will host our second annual Intellectual Retreat here in New York City August 5–7. Our theme will be love. See the advertisement in this issue. Last year’s Intellectual Retreat, which focused on freedom, was a resounding success. The discussion groups were expertly led by faculty from Northeast Catholic College. They’ll be back again this summer. Last year’s Intellectual Retreat was sold out, so be sure to sign up now if you want to reserve a spot.
♦ It’s not too late to register for our upcoming Intellectual Retreat at UCLA May 20–22. The theme is the search for happiness. Registration information can be found at firstthings.com/events.
♦ We’re all feeling the political and cultural earthquakes. It’s easy to become consumed with efforts to defend our faith (and our moral sanity) against aggressive efforts to drive us from the public square. This needs to be done. More important, though, is clarity about what we want to affirm. The Intellectual Retreats provide an opportunity to discuss—and relish—first things.
♦ The Intellectual Retreats are part of a larger plan. We’re also expanding our schedule of public lectures in many cities across America. Our goal is to strengthen the First Things community of conversation and reflection.
♦ Our deputy editor, Elliot Milco, has been commissioned to survey all ROFTERS groups. We’d like to get a clearer idea of what’s going on so that we can think about how better to serve our readers. If you’re a ROFTERS organizer, please write to email@example.com and let us know how your group is doing. Or give us a call at 212-627-1985. Ask for Elliot.
♦ David Hart will take a break from his regular role on the Back Page. Senior Editor Mark Bauerlein wrote the closing piece for this issue. Matthew Schmitz will pen the next one. They’ll share the Back Page in coming issues. Meanwhile, the indispensable David Hart remains indispensable, and we plan to publish his magisterial essays, reflections, and reviews regularly.
while we’re at it sources: KKK false alarm: thetab.com, April 6, 2016. Georgetown graffiti: thecollegefix.com, April 24, 2016. American greatness: journalofamericangreatness.blogspot.com. Neoliberalism uncensored: foreignaffairs.com, May/June 2016. Real social justice: undergroundthomist.org, April 12, 2016. New York primary: nytimes.com, April 20, 2016. Macaulay: Matthew Walther. Jesuit response:firstthings.com, April 22, 2016. Suicide stats: cdc.gov, April 2016. New York retreat: firstthings.com. UCLA retreat: firstthings.com.