Injustices are done; imprudent, ill-considered policies are pursued. Brutal, cynical men posture as noble leaders. There’s a great deal about public life that arouses our passions. It is easy to become angry, bitter, fearful, and despairing. There’s another side as well. We can harbor great hopes, throwing ourselves into politics with the conviction that we can end poverty, war, and injustice. As religious believers, we need to check ourselves. Jesus teaches that his kingdom is not of this world. Politics do not constitute the highest good. We render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s—and there’s no question which realm commands our ultimate loyalty.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes a strong distinction between worldly existence and the religious life. “Walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). Paul is not designating two different metaphysical locations. The realm of the flesh is just that, a regime or kingdom. It is a set of laws, norms, and expectations that establishes a way of life. Life according to the flesh, therefore, means accepting the world’s parameters: Wealth, power, and status are ultimate, and death is final. By contrast, walking according to the Spirit recognizes the sovereign power of God. Death is not final, and the highest good is fellowship with him.
St. Augustine puts this distinction in his own terms. There are two commonwealths, the city of man, an earthly city, and the heavenly city, the city of God. Both exist in this world, but they have divergent faiths, hopes, and loves. The earthly city’s faith rests in worldly powers; its hopes are limited to the temporal horizon; and its loves seek finite goods. The heavenly city’s faith is in God; it hopes for eternal life; and its love is directed toward God and others in God. Thus, we should not think of the two cities as existing in two different locations, as if the earthly city is New York or America. They do not operate on different planes of existence, with the heavenly city spiritual in the sense of having no earthly embodiment, and the earthly city simply equivalent to any temporal project or endeavor. Instead, the two cities have different orders of love, which, as St. Augustine explains, are intermixed in this life and will be untangled in God’s final judgment.
A reader contacted me recently. He chastised me for speaking too strongly about the current political situation and urged a re-reading of Augustine’s City of God. The gist of his criticisms suggested that he has a superficial understanding of St. Augustine that I have found to be common. It assumes that our elections, legislative battles, and legal wrangling concern only the city of man, and that Christians, insofar as they are loyal to the city of God, must distance themselves from politics. This is not correct. We are social animals, and our civic lives remain integral to who we are, no matter how far we advance in the Christian life. A person who retreats from public life because it is too inconvenient or unpleasant or fails to accord with his nice ideals acts as a citizen of the city of man, seeking his own good—peace of mind, ideological purity—at the expense of the common good. (This is not to say we ought never to forsake politics. We can come to the conclusion that our involvement corrupts our love of God and neighbor.)
During St. Augustine’s final years, North Africa was being conquered by Vandals, a Germanic tribe notorious for its destructive violence. As the battle lines approached Hippo, where St. Augustine had long served as bishop, he traveled to the front lines where the Roman army was facing the barbarian invaders. He sought to convince the Roman generals that they should not abandon their positions in order to retire from the field and return to Italy to dedicate themselves to lives of prayer. For St. Augustine, the issue is not whether to be engaged in the affairs of public life, but how.
We need to examine and re-examine our civic engagement, because the role of the Church in society often changes. During St. Paul’s lifetime and for generations that followed, Christians were a powerless minority in the Roman Empire. But with the ascendancy of Christianity and its conquest of Roman culture, magistrates, governors, and civil leaders sought to exercise their worldly power in a Christian way. By the time St. Augustine became the bishop of a provincial Roman city, many civic functions had devolved to the Church, and he spent most of his mornings deciding legal cases. This led to his great theological reflection on politics, inaugurating a tradition of reflection that continues to this day, developing as we face new difficulties. How can we protect human dignity in a secular culture that makes everything into a commodity, instrument, and object of experimentation, even our bodies? What constitutes the common good in a globalized world?
These questions and others are not easy to answer. We naturally disagree and debate. Last month (“A Dissolving Age”), I argued that an ideology of globalism poses a threat to Christian principles of public life. My conclusion runs against what many assume. Since the end of World War II, Christian leaders have strongly endorsed human rights and called for greater commitment to international institutions. Others have scolded me for criticizing global capitalism, reminding me that it has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last generation. The arguments are sure to continue. (I have more to say about globalism below.)
Nevertheless, we can identify a shared spirit of Christian political engagement. Our final hope is in God. We trust in the divine providence that oversees the affairs of men. This allows us to face the challenges of our time soberly, neither despairing of the possibilities of justice in public life and thus withdrawing, nor seeking to take command of history by embarking on grandiose ideological projects that encourage us to assume godlike powers over human affairs.
We should no more withdraw from politics than the generals St. Augustine counseled should have retired from their commands. It is not “un-Christian” to make political judgments—judgments that are fallible and invariably implicate us in worldly affairs touched by greed and the lust for power. But we must always remember that the rulers of this world are passing away. Our engagement and interventions in public life should be sincere, yet not ultimate, vigorous and intelligent, but with a spirit of charity born of the knowledge that God’s wisdom—often mysterious and hidden—prevails in the end.
Globalism vs. Nationalism
“Nationalism can be a healthy and constructive force.” So argue Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry in “For Love of Country,” the lead essay for the February 20, 2017, issue of National Review. The great and the good, however, increasingly regard national loyalties as dangerous impediments to international peace and prosperity. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has called borders “the worst invention ever made by politicians.” By his way of thinking, nationalism leads to an insular mentality, diminished prosperity, and war.
It’s not just Eurocrats who rage against nationalism. Progressives promote multiculturalism as a utopian vision of global cooperation. Free-market conservatives promise greater growth if we remove barriers to the development of a more global market for goods, capital, and labor. And then there’s the notion that America is merely a creedal or propositional nation, which tends to turn our country into a political philosophy. “All of these intellectual currents have fed the view that nationalism is atavistic and sinister,” Ponnuru and Lowry say. Even conservatives, who during the Cold War were almost always ardent flag-wavers, now distance themselves from nationalist themes and rhetoric.
This is a mistake, Ponnuru and Lowry argue. “For conservatives, the sensible and moderate form that nationalism has taken in America should have particular appeal.” Nationalism reinforces solidarity among citizens. It makes political, economic, and cultural leaders more accountable to the nation’s interests. But most importantly, nationalism speaks to a deep truth. “People aren’t just atomistic individuals bouncing around in a free market; they are members of communities with attachments to faith, family, and civic associations that give their lives meaning.” We have a need for community, and “the nation is a community writ large, and it is natural for people to love it.”
The occasion for this defense of nationalism was Donald Trump’s inaugural address. As nearly all commentators noted, Trump did not pivot toward a more conventionally Republican message. Instead, the newly installed president reiterated his campaign themes, most of which revolved around a renewed American nationalism. As he said at one point, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” Not that National Review’s editors are endorsing Trumpian nationalism tout court. As Ponnuru and Lowry observe, Trump’s nationalism is often narrow and inarticulate. “The country’s founding ideals, history, and institutions barely enter into his worldview.” Even Trump’s evocations of solidarity, which fit snugly with patriotic themes, “can get lost in the combative haze created by his truculent persona and aren’t as convincing as they would be if his nationalism were softened and elevated by traditional invocations of our civic creed.” These are effective criticisms of Trumpian nationalism. (I would add a theological objection to the notion of “total allegiance” to America, or any other country, for that matter.) They strike home because they are based in affirmations of what needs to be affirmed rather than hysterical reactions to Trump.
“For Love of Country” marks an important change for National Review. Throughout the last year of electoral tumult, the magazine adopted an anti-Trump line, taking him to task for violating the orthodoxies of limited-government conservatism and pointing out his many character flaws. This editorial suggests a rethinking. The character flaws are still there, of course. But Ponnuru and Lowry allow that Trump saw something important. In the early twenty-first century, American political debates, left and right, became increasingly post-patriotic. We stopped tending to what holds us together—the nation as a social, cultural, and even moral project. Thus, Trump was essentially right to run an “America First” campaign that ignored the usual conservative talking points, however crude in tone and lacking in policy detail.
The essay is a sign that the fundamental terms of political debate in America are changing. For William F. Buckley’s generation, the great question was framed by the Cold War: Would the future be totalitarian or free? When Buckley was at his full powers, American liberals weren’t self-proclaimed “statists,” and they certainly weren’t totalitarians. Nevertheless, his way of framing our political debates was sound. Liberals were willing to tolerate a greater amount of centralization and government control in order to achieve their goals of advancing racial and sexual equality, fighting poverty, and promoting other social goods (or what they imagined to be social goods). Conservatives, by contrast, gave priority to freedom, arguing for limited government and greater liberty.
My generation inherited this framework. Over time, however, it became less and less salient. The fall of the Soviet Union made the choice seem less dire. Bill Clinton famously announced, “The era of big government is over.” To a great extent, progressives shifted toward lifestyle liberation, especially gay rights, which meant that conservatives no longer cornered the market on freedom. Then, last year, Trump swept aside conservative orthodoxies. Now, the choice is not between statism and freedom but between globalism and nationalism.
Looking back, the shift is plain to see. In his 2013 inaugural address, President Obama championed the many American qualities that will allow our nation to thrive in “this world without boundaries.” He was not proposing to eliminate passports. Instead, Obama was expressing a widespread sentiment that regards borders, limits, and boundaries as necessary but regrettable, while openness, diversity, and limitless diffusion are inherent goods. Trump’s inaugural address stands in marked contrast. He spoke of renewed borders, solidarity, and national reconsolidation. This does not mean putting a stop to global trade or shutting down immigration, any more than Obama meant to “destroy America,” as some conservative pundits insisted. But the inauguration speeches, only four years apart, reflect a stark difference in emphasis. It is a simplification but not a distortion to characterize that difference as one between globalism and nationalism.
We’ve yet to reckon with this change in our public debates. The stakes are still unclear, though we all feel they are high, which is why there’s so much sound and fury right now. Until recently, the conservative intellectual establishment was frozen in a Reagan-era conservatism that had been reduced to tired talking points that masked what was really operative, which was faith in globalism. Ponnuru and Lowry’s editorial constitutes a first step toward conservative rethinking, which is essential. We need a long season of reflection about why and how we should restore borders, limits, and boundaries—as well as which ones. Work needs to be done illuminating the links between Buckley’s concerns about statism and the threats to freedom posed by a post-national borderless world.
Thought also needs to be given to the ways in which globalism disenfranchises ordinary people and empowers the technocratic elite. It’s an interesting paradox that the most ardent supporters of a “borderless world” live in gated communities, don’t mingle with others on public transportation, and channel their children toward a narrow set of elite educational institutions. Self-governance is an essential feature of a free society—and globalism is an enemy of self-governance. John Q. Public is not stupid. He senses these dangers, which is why voters in Europe and America are swinging toward nationalistic forms of populism.
Many in our establishment have become hysterical. We’re hearing denunciations—“racists,” “fascists,” “demagogue”—rather than sober analysis of the political realities Trump and the nationalist politicians in Europe are exposing. I’m grateful Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry are reorienting National Review toward what’s actually going on. The Cold War gave drama and relevance to Buckley’s way of framing our fundamental political choices. But it ended a generation ago. It should surprise no one that our choices must be made against a different horizon.
Soft Truths, Vague Boundaries
Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation meant to restate Catholic teaching on marriage and family, has stirred up a controversy about divorce, remarriage, and the sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church. In a notoriously vague section, Francis gives the impression that those who divorce and remarry can, in some circumstances, receive the Eucharist. There have been official challenges. Four cardinals formulated five dubia, a formal way of requesting clarification. John Finnis and Germain Grisez wrote a detailed letter (published on our website) asking the Holy Father to condemn eight positions they argue can be supported by the ambiguities of the papal document. In recent months, bishops and episcopal conferences in different parts of the world have offered divergent, even incompatible interpretations. On the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, is the Catholic Church entering a new season of schism?
I don’t anticipate a breakup, but the controversy is serious. At root, it is a referendum on John Paul II, or at least one aspect of his legacy. That long and fruitful pontificate reached its most countercultural point with the publication of Veritatis Splendor, the encyclical on moral theology. That document issued an unequivocal affirmation of moral truth as an objective reality. It surveyed a number of modern moral theories known as proportionalism or consequentialism, as well as arguments that the real subject matter of moral reflection should be the inner state of the individual rather than his outward behavior. These theories have important differences. But they’re united in their basic dynamic, which is to soften moral demands, making them more flexible and adaptable to difficult circumstances. Veritatis Splendor rejects them all.
This rigorous view of moral truth runs against our nonjudgmental, therapeutic age. But Veritatis Splendor was still more radical. John Paul II exulted in the moral rigorism of the Church’s perpetual teaching that some acts are intrinsically evil and should never be done. Drawing on the New Testament’s account of Jesus’s command to the rich young man—sell all your possessions and follow me—Veritatis Splendor champions the spiritual heroism that makes great sacrifices in order to obey truth’s unalterable demands. The modern secular world tends to flatten out existence by encouraging us to live in accord with the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. The Church’s unflinching commitment to moral truth beckons us to transcend that limited horizon. The Ten Commandments are not sad limitations. The unalterable “thou shalt not” stops us in our worldly tracks, shocking us out of our comfortable, wealth-sated complacency and calling us to higher things.
Veritatis Splendor made quite a stir when it was released in 1993. I was a young theology professor at a Jesuit university at the time. Most of my colleagues silently dissented. Over time, I came to see that the vast majority of moral theologians in Europe and North America rejected the encyclical. A few did so openly. Bernard Häring was among the most outspoken. He angrily denounced the encyclical as a naked assertion of papal power exercised to prop up Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical prohibiting artificial means of birth control. Häring went on to condemn John Paul II’s moral rigorism. An inflexible notion of moral truth subjects ordinary Christians to severe burdens, and this imposition “is unlawful and possibly a great injustice.” Others took the more cautious route of arguing that John Paul II had mischaracterized the complex moral theories that allowed for exceptions, and therefore they remained legitimate ways of thinking. Most ignored the encyclical and continued to teach the moral theories John Paul II had condemned.
At the time I was not a Catholic. Nevertheless, I was somewhat taken aback by the scope of dissent. Many, perhaps most, Catholic theologians whom I knew did not want to believe that there are inflexible moral truths. In retrospect, however, that’s not surprising. The Catholic Church is a universal church. Its theological and pastoral culture, however, remains closely tied to Western culture. Over the last three generations, the West has become increasingly ambivalent about strong truths, seeing them as divisive and judgmental. The influential intellectual and cultural movements of recent decades have sought a view of truth that’s more fluid, open, and inclusive. This is obvious when it comes to sexual morality. But it’s evident in other areas as well. Many want a more flexible view of suicide, one that allows people to take their own lives if they face pain or despair. Divorce—the focus of controversy surrounding Amoris—should be treated as “tragic,” not wrong. In this issue, Christopher Caldwell reports on the softening, nonjudgmental language professionals now encourage, even require, when talking about drug addiction (“American Carnage”). At every turn, our dominant culture weakens strong truths.
The majority of Catholic theologians, priests, and bishops have gone along with this pattern of weakening. All the changes in the Church since Vatican II have been in the direction of relaxation and softening. We have sharp rhetoric about social justice, but the preferential option for the poor is an open-ended exhortation, not a precise moral demand like the condemnation of taking innocent life as an intrinsically evil act. But most of the energy in Catholic moral theology has gone into making arguments showing that what used to be prohibited can actually be licit. There have been exceptions, of course, such as the Dominican Servais Pinckaers, who wrote beautifully about the fullness of the Catholic vision of the moral life. But as a rule, the discipline of moral theology, when it’s not hectoring us for failing to be sufficiently progressive in our political judgments, has for many decades specialized in permission. This has been the Catholic Church’s way of bringing her moral teaching into conformity with the spirit of our age.
The ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia concerning divorce, remarriage, and the sacraments participate in the preferential option for permission. One can understand the impulse, given the cultural assumptions that currently reign. Are we to say out loud that a Catholic who has remarried without receiving an annulment is committing adultery when having sexual intercourse with his “wife”? Aren’t the scare quotes around “wife” an insult to adults who are trying their best to live good, decent lives? What church could survive such a countercultural legalism? So Pope Francis retreats to weasel words such as “accompaniment” and in his own way recapitulates the super-subtle scholasticism of the theorists of exceptions who came to prominence after Vatican II.
Closely related to this softening of moral truth has been a relaxation of church discipline. Before the modern era, the Catholic Church’s governance, structures, and self-understanding were intertwined with secular institutions. As Christendom dissolved and the modern nation-state began to claim a monopoly on legitimate authority, the Church worked to disentangle herself and establish a sacred polity distinct from worldly authorities. The culmination of this project was the 1917 Code of Canon Law, one of the great achievements of modern Catholicism. The code was superseded by the 1983 code, but the latter operates in the same spirit. It establishes a clear frontier between the Church and the world, and canonical discipline maintains that boundary.
With the trend toward flexible truths came ambivalence about boundaries. The Eucharist is the sacramental center and spiritual summit of Catholicism. Insofar as the Church is a set-apart, supernatural body, the Eucharist is naturally encircled by disciplines that protect its celebration from invasions by the profane, just as the Code of Canon Law firms up the boundaries between the Church and the world. Those disciplines were much relaxed after Vatican II. Liturgical ideologies of that era encouraged a more relaxed, casual approach to Eucharistic celebration. The physical boundary of the altar rail was often removed. Translations into the vernacular were deliberately demotic and banal. Music was written to make the experience more contemporary. The border between the sacred and profane was deliberately made uncertain and porous.
Pope Francis follows in this post–Vatican II tradition, which we’ve all experienced because it’s the dominant tradition of the past fifty years. The Church is a field hospital, a temporary, moveable structure like so much in our contemporary world. The hospital tent needs to have open flaps to bring in the wounded, and the spiritual physicians don’t have time to check credentials or worry about fine questions of canonical legitimacy. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Amoris is insouciant about the question of the integrity of the Eucharist and the need to maintain a steady discipline concerning its celebration and reception. When it comes to the Church, Pope Francis follows in the tradition of the majority of priests and bishops who went along with the removal of altar rails. He’s not a fan of clear boundaries.
John Paul II was an outlier. Though pope for more than two decades, he was a minority voice, at least in the West. Since Vatican II, most Catholic theologians—dogmatic, moral, and liturgical—have been on the side of the dominant secular culture, making things softer, weaker, and more porous. It’s foolish to invest too much time trying to parse chapter eight of Amoris. It’s a muddle—like most post–Vatican II Catholicism. That this document—and by implication, this pontificate—is not being swallowed happily by today’s Church suggests that some, perhaps more than we realize, do not want still more flexibility and permission.
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