Citing mass disenfranchisement in a “papal-episcopal oligarchy,” Bronwen McShea (“Bishops Unbound,” January) argues for institutional representation of “entire classes of lay and clerical members of the Church” currently “at the mercy of episcopal authority.” She writes that traditional secular checks should again be imposed upon unaccountable, corrupt clerical leadership.
Yet history’s verdict on what Joseph Ratzinger identified as the “extremely dubious tendency to play off the state against the Church and to enlist it as a refuge of freedom” is far from being as one-sided as McShea would like us to believe. What of Constantius’s Arianism? What of the practical effects of investiture? What of a certain Defender of the Faith’s confiscations, justified by assertions of traditional right? What of “conscientious” dissent and the rise of an “alternative,” empowered, academic magisterium in the wake of Humanae Vitae?
Critique that focuses, as McShea’s does, on dialectics of “empowerment” and accountability to shareholders is revolutionary, whatever footnotes to “creative ways suited to present-day conditions” may murmur to the contrary. It should be self-evident that our already suffering familia, torn by domestic crises, could do without yet another “revolution.”
Many of us are still living with the sad consequences of lay enfranchisement. My diocese’s former chancellor was for several weary years a “woke” laywoman who wore priestly vesture around the office, and our diocesan convocations were gatherings of empowered laity. This led to vocational crisis, religious practicing “body-prayer” and “craniosacral therapy” rather than the Rule, a liturgy shackled in postmodern schmaltz, dwindling mass attendance, and widespread apostasy of the youth: in short, a ghostly, fading apostolate.
After Judas’s betrayal, the Apostles did not set up an institution to represent the aggrieved. Paul did not urge checks and balances in the wake of Peter’s stunning, if momentary, reversal on the question of ritual purity. Despite horrific abuse, restoration of fatherhood as fatherhood and of la familia Cristiana as family remains the only way forward.
In “Bishops Unbound” (January), an astute assertion of the historical contingency of many of the Church’s externals, Bronwen McShea notes that the construction of our jurisdictional Church mirrored the simultaneous construction of the sovereign state. I venture to add a complementary layer to this argument.
Ultimately, medieval Christendom’s unity was found not in a positive juridical structure, but in the virtues of faith and charity. Law did not structure society or bind it together. Rather, law—procedural, administrative, or criminal—was an intervention in response to conflicts which tore at the supra-legal unity of society. Both the temporal and the spiritual powers made law, enforced with their respective swords, but this law was not the essence of their power. The positive law was largely the remedial application of power to backsliding segments of society.
As Vincent of Beauvais wrote: “Any prince or prelate legally rules those under him, not in so far as they are human, but in so far as they have become brutish.” The end of such law, as Aquinas explained, was the restoration of men to virtue and so to freedom from law and from others’ jurisdiction (but not from their authority).
In this way, the internal and the external in man were dynamically related. Proper external law led to just internal habits, and improper law led internally to vice. Positive juridical structures, therefore, had as their end the non-juridical reality of peace in truth, and where this reigned, the law was appropriately silent. This was behind the overlapping fields of power and the discontinuous structure of episcopal, papal, and lay law McShea describes. Law was necessary, but it was not universal or absolute; it was not the skeleton of the body politic, and most of the life of Christendom was not regulated from above.
This changed in modernity. Modern sovereignty is ultimately premised on the assumption of the irredeemably depraved nature of man. Coercive law becomes the structure of society not because the nature of law itself changes, but because its domain, sin, is extended to encompass all the social space. This is obviously present in Hobbes, but is also present in less frightful thinkers like Max Weber or Ludwig von Mises, for whom self-interest is the sine qua non of rationalization. The juridical comes to structure all when vice is posited as universal and constant.
The Thomistic perspective helps us see a tragic irony here. Laws constructed on the assumption of constant vice, laws that seek not to eradicate vice but to accommodate it, are precisely the type of external pressures that would lead to internally vicious men. The sovereign concept is self-fulfilling. The more the sovereign order is realized, the more the conditions that justify it come into being.
In other words, the clergy’s adoption of an absolutist juridical structure has led not only to a loss of pragmatically desirable checks and balances, but also to a mechanism that facilitates corruption. McShea articulates this when she points out that a parish priest’s best path to advancement is often through flattery of the appropriate powers: And we know the effects flattery has on the powerful. This is a self-constituting downward spiral. The point is not that virtuous men cannot rise through the ranks of the hierarchy and become true pastors. Rather, the point is that men prone to the temptations of juridical, bureaucratic structures can also rise. It is easier for men who are good at “working the system,” men whose relationship with the Church is primarily juridical, to succeed when the system is based on the modern notion of sovereign power. They become good at climbing the ladder and develop the skills and dispositions necessary to run massive juridical entities. When our Church is structured like a state or a corporation, is it really a surprise that some of our more successful pastors act like politicians or CEOs? Conversely, isn’t it the case that part of the holiness of our most holy leaders is found precisely in their resistance to such a dynamic?
McShea is right to suggest that a relative weakening of clerical power through the reassertion of temporal power is desirable, but she is even more right that we ought to be hesitant to endorse the secular state’s actions against the Church. (The state is, of course, the juridical institution par excellence.) Similarly, the solution to our current problems is likely not to be found in adding layers of juridical oversight, lay or otherwise, to the bureaucracy, but in the weakening of the jurisdictional structure itself and a return to a unity that looks more like a family and less like a government.
Andrew Willard Jones
franciscan university of steubenville
Bronwen McShea replies:
I thank Andrew Willard Jones for developing points I could not devote more space to in my article and heartily second his final sentence with respect to the Church’s long-term needs. I am skeptical, however, that a loosening of the Church’s centralized structures can unfold without short-term juridical and bureaucratic tinkering—especially when the pursuit of justice for victims and perpetrators of (and episcopal accessories to) decades of worldwide clerical sexual predation is at stake. Adjustments to certain Canon Law principles and procedures would help, perhaps, as would review boards, independent of chanceries, with powers of discovery and financial oversight.
Pope Benedict XVI has advocated lay “co-responsibility” with the clergy and more “consolidation of a mature and committed laity,” lamenting their lack in the post-conciliar Church—all the hierarchy’s flattering of laypersons in speech, and through clericalized forms of liturgical participation, notwithstanding.
Matthew Castricum might consider Benedict’s remarks in this vein before dismissing me as a revolutionary. I write in a spirit of Augustinian realism regarding all mortals who hold power and are tempted—especially when their power becomes unchecked—by that libido dominandi famously treated in De Civitate Dei. Revering tradition, I look for wisdom in forgotten riches and complexities of Church history. To that aim, my narrative was deliberately revisionist: I did not delve into the Investiture Controversy, or examples of laypersons unbound, because much ink is devoted to them versus the history I highlight. Regardless, just as a Catholic outlook opposes overthrowing the hierarchy simply because some dreadful popes and prelates have existed (Alexander VI, McCarrick), it should eschew squelching deliberations on re-enfranchising the laity, and restoring ecclesial subsidiarity, based on sensational examples of tyrannical kings, lay theologians, and chancery employees run amok.
One can agree with Castricum about problematic Catholic institutions and the need for reinvigorated Christian fatherhood and family life and acknowledge that the balance of power over the Church’s common life has tipped too far in the episcopate’s direction. I would caution, too, that good Christian families have never been able to face down evils plaguing the Church all alone: They have stood with unnumbered priests, religious, and lay leaders and reformers fighting corruption, creating new institutions, and becoming saints—sometimes with bishops and popes leading them, other times in spite of powerful prelates ignoring the signs of the times.
In “Lincoln Lost, Douglas Won” (January), Allen C. Guelzo references the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 to distinguish between two concepts of democracy: democracy as an end in itself and democracy as a means for achieving or protecting rights. He notes that while Lincoln “won” the debates by winning the White House two years later, “it is Douglas’s procedural republic, and not Lincoln’s moral one, which has prevailed in our time.” As an example, he cites the abortion issue, in which a woman’s so-called “right to choose” has prevailed over the moral question of whether it is right to kill children in the womb.
Events of the past quarter-century have added a new wrinkle to the debate. Pro-abortion activists now insist that abortion is not simply a regrettable necessity but a positive, life-enhancing good. The Democratic party’s national platform used to say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” but now “rare” is gone. They showcased their new “no apologies” approach at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, boasted about aborting her first child. There was no more talk about “painful necessity” or potential birth defects: She aborted her child, she said, simply because it was “the wrong time” to allow the child to be born. To applause and cheers she concluded, “I made the decision that was best for me.”
Of course, it wasn’t the best decision for the child, but the paramount moral tenet of the pro-abortion forces is women’s “reproductive rights.” The Obama administration added them to the annual list of rights reported each year by the U.S. State Department. The Trump administration removed them from the list, but House Democrats responded by introducing the “Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act,” which would harden them into statutory law.
Ironically, it is the Republicans today who are using procedural means and procedural arguments to defend their positions. Their focus now is defending the autonomy of majorities in state legislatures to pass legislation regulating and limiting the reach of abortion, while securing the appointment of “originalist” judges in hopes that their approach will undo some of the damage wrought by Roe v. Wade.
new york, new york
Allen C. Guelzo replies:
George McKenna’s letter highlights the movement of the abortion argument from “unpleasant necessity” to “positive good,” which eerily reflects the development of the pro-slavery argument from the 1820s to the 1850s. One could easily substitute “the right to own a slave” for “the right to an abortion” in many pro-abortion writings and still have the rest of the document make perfect sense. Like the pro-slavery argument, the pro-abortion argument has had to (a) dehumanize the unborn child so that, in defiance of all visible evidence, it can be described as something non-human, and (b) claim that one’s decision to dispose of this “non-human”—by sale or by confiscation of its labor in one instance, by brutal elimination in the other—is entirely a matter of individual personal autonomy, exercised as “rights.” No appeal to natural law or natural right is permitted, and democracy is thus debased to mere process.
That Republicans today, as McKenna complains, try to fight process with different processes is not unlike how some Republicans dealt with slavery, since not all of them were necessarily high-minded—especially when it came to the subject of race. A large portion of the Republican coalition in Lincoln’s day opposed slavery not on principle, but because they disliked the thought of economic competition with black slaves. Other Republicans used “personal liberty laws” in their state legislatures to frustrate the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law, which parallels the state legislative initiatives McKenna mentions in his ultimate paragraph. But enough of the Republican leadership. Lincoln, for one, Salmon Chase, for another, kept the beacon of natural right flaming as the true guide for opposing slavery, and in the end, they triumphed. Nil desperandum?
Yoram Hazony (“Conservative Democracy,” January) believes “conservative democracy” should displace “liberal democracy” because it better describes traditional constitutionalism, which he thinks contemporary liberal political theories have betrayed. He takes his place alongside a number of critics of liberalism, on the left and right, who hold that the liberal tradition has exhausted its possibilities through abstract individualism coupled with a belief in infinite progress. The Bible, public religion, the nation-state, and the traditional family are all under attack. Hazony, known for defending a benign version of nationalism and a strong sense of community and belonging, has identified issues which ought to concern all of us—the faults of contemporary liberal society are clear.
Unfortunately, he proceeds by offering a highly selective definition of “liberalism,” including very selective characterizations of the great liberal thinkers of the past four centuries. The liberal tradition is not reducible to a few tendencies; it is a tension-ridden inheritance, with both libertarian and communitarian elements intertwined in conflict as the modern state system developed in Europe and North America. We should remember that modern liberal thought emerged to rein in the power enjoyed by governments in pursuing centralization and advancing technology of control. Liberal thought promoted the idea of individual rights as fundamentally limiting the scope of governmental power, especially by promoting the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of women and unleashing the potential creativity of the widest range of human beings.
John Locke, for example, asserted that we are by nature free, equal, and independent, but he also said that God intended us to live in society and peace. Thomas Hobbes said that the first law of nature is to “seek peace.” They did not promote the extreme autonomy we see today. Neither did John Stuart Mill. That political authority is understood to rest on consent and recognition was not taken by Locke to mean constant resistance to order and good government. On the contrary, he understood the right of revolution as a safeguard against the excesses of governmental power by reminding office holders for whom they were to maintain law and order, thus contributing to a longer reign of peace and stability.
The best of the liberal tradition is “conservative democracy.” We should pay careful attention to the resources of the liberal tradition which remain essential, understanding the liberal tradition as a revision within the ancient heritage rather than a rejection of it.
colorado springs, colorado
Yoram Hazony lays out a case for “conservative democracy” which is more convincing in terms of policy than principle. I wholeheartedly agree with his criticisms of contemporary liberalism and his policy recommendations for conservative democracy. But I am skeptical of the historical genealogy he sketches for conservatism.
Hazony attributes to liberalism an excessive optimism about the universality of reason, contrasted with conservatism’s reliance on historical-empiricism. But this generalization doesn’t hold up. It is hardly the case that “liberals” ignore historical-empiricism (such as Locke, et al.): They merely derive different conclusions from history than conservative thinkers (often the wrong ones). For example, concern with the historical sins of biblical religion—real or imagined—often informs liberal attitudes toward religion.
Hazony also counterpoises conservatism’s embrace of biblical tradition with liberalism’s commitment to universal reason. But this seems too broad. One could argue that a belief in reason as universal is central to the biblical tradition: The Gospel of John identified God with the Logos, and thinkers like Philo and Maimonides saw reason as compatible with revelation. It is hard to believe they would object to the idea that “reason is powerful, universal, and reliable,” which Hazony ascribes to liberalism. Furthermore, the Bible was central to “liberal” thinkers such as Locke, Spinoza, and Kant as well as to “conservatives”; one could even argue that their theological starting points led to their excessive confidence in universal reason, and perhaps to the antagonism toward religion Hazony rightly discerns in contemporary liberalism as well.
Finally, Hazony frames nationalism in purely cultural terms, as “anchored in a common cultural inheritance, especially a traditional language, law, and religion,” and stipulated that it “is not based on race.” Given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this is understandable. But in practice, how feasible is it to separate language, law, and religion from racial or ethnic affiliation in democratic societies? One can think of a few successful examples—the United States most obviously—but they are few and far between, historically speaking. (The Latin word “nation” relates to birth, after all.) Is this cultural conception of nationalism viable outside the Anglophone tradition of conservatism? And what would that mean for the viability of “conservative democracy” if it isn’t?
kansas city, missouri
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