Matthew Schmitz presents many admirable points in his article, “Benedict Lives” (March 2023). Always respectful of opponents and careful to offer their viewpoints accurately before giving his own, Pope Benedict constituted a model of responsible theological dialogue.
Although raising many worthwhile points, the author limits his discussion of Amoris Laetitia to the popular reaction against it as “ambiguous” and “dismaying” because it “seemed to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried without specifically authorizing it.” Such considerations arise from an interpretation that Benedict himself evidently rejected. Austen Ivereigh reported that the pope emeritus told Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in July of 2017 that “John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and Francis’ Amoris Laetitia formed a ‘diptych.’”
In their analysis of Amoris Laetitia, journalists often mistakenly focused on general doctrinal principles, as if Pope Francis were trying to change doctrine. Francis clearly held to traditional teaching, but moved the discussion from principles to concrete dilemmas that can develop in people’s lives. Dilemmas have no morally pure solutions. In a dilemma, the moral actor has backed into circumstances in which the only ways forward are morally impermissible. What to do then?
When Francis allows for a merciful outcome, such as tolerating a second marriage (though not approving of it), he does not change moral doctrine in the least, nor does he bless second unions. He simply recognizes what Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae (§14), that “sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil. . . .”
The theology behind mercy in these situations has a long pedigree and is nothing new. Those who are interested in tracing its lineage can consult my book, Mercy and the Rule of Law.
Rev. Gerald J. Bednar
Matthew Schmitz replies:
Fr. Bednar rightly calls our attention to the complexities that attend the application of moral principles. Catholic leaders can and should be sensitive to these things while reminding Catholics that we harm ourselves when we receive Communion unworthily.
Sebastian Milbank’s “Deadly Virtues” (March 2023) enlightened and puzzled me. The seven virtues made no appearance in my schooling, so I appreciate Milbank’s coverage. His assertion that modern right–left divisions proceed from the disagreement among two differing groups of French revolutionaries accords with my own understanding of that era. Other points require clarification.
If 1789 is “Year Zero,” can we “understand this divide as a theological wound”? The National Assembly, absent nobles and prelates, was uninterested in theology. The theological emphasis is to be found in “the divisions established between faith and works during the Reformation.” Two hundred and seventy years separate the Reformation and the Revolution.
Milbank states that the conflict between the world-profane-works camp and the Church (religious-faith-prayer) is what leads to our contemporary right and left. I was surprised, but after reflection I agree. The “woke left”—he refers to them also as “progressives”—displays attitudes of moralism, universalism, and self-righteousness, which characteristics were, until recently, charged against Christians. Have the secular liberals and Christian conservatives exchanged places?
Yet, the faith–works divide predates the sixteenth century. James’s remarks in his letter aimed to overcome that false dichotomy as early as the first century of the Christian era.
Milbank identifies only two wrong-headed groups: woke progressive leftists and the Nietzschean right allied with nationalist Christians. Does this latter group differ from or is it synonymous with traditionalist Christians? Be that as it may, the final three paragraphs prompt more serious concerns. Are “the soul” and “the imago Dei” he links in a tossed-off phrase synonymous, or do they constitute two different aspects of the human condition? And finally, we are urged to “find ways to bridge the chasm, and unite Christian civilization once more.” How? It seems that reuniting “Christian civilization” might exceed our collective capabilities.
K. F. Stewart
Sebastian Milbank replies:
I’m so glad K. F. Stewart enjoyed the piece, and he raises a number of interesting questions, so excuse me if I don’t address them all adequately. Those involved with the French Revolution were far from indifferent to questions of theology and Church–state relations. There were fierce debates about whether the new Republic should be atheistic, deistic, or Christian, resulting in such experiments as the Cult of the Supreme Being. Beyond that, there has been considerable scholarship on the relationship of theology and Christianity to the revolution, most notably the influence of Jansenism. In any case, my argument is that modern right–left politics are implicitly theological—with older assumptions and structures long surviving their original context.
Naturally, the faith–works distinction is ancient, and I hope, as it was a subtle point, that it was clear in my piece that this distinction has not suddenly emerged, but rather gradually evolved into a starker, more violent and antagonistic division. The culturally and intellectually productive tension of aristocratic and priestly classes is now continued implicitly in far more myopic modern-day left–right divisions—or such, in any case, is my hypothesis.
Where traditional Christians sit in relation to this division is the really key question, and I’m very glad Stewart asked it, as I think it’s the line of thought I most hoped to provoke. Sometimes, of course, traditional Christians align politically with nationalistic thinking, and sometimes not. I certainly don’t draw a negative judgment from this, but I do think it imperative for Christians to find ways to transcend the left–right binary. I keenly understand that reuniting Christendom is a matter beyond any individual. But we can begin by interrogating our own thinking and politics, and by asking if we are speaking from the Christian tradition or simply obeying the logic and habits of partisan politics.
Finally, on the soul. The imago Dei is not precisely a synonym for the soul. Animals and even plants have souls in the Aristotelian formulation (animal and vegetative souls). The imago Dei properly delimits and defines the human soul through the resemblance of the human mind to the divine and angelic intellect (angels too, it is important to remember, bear the imago Dei). Anyone might intuit that they have a soul (children naturally tend to think in these terms), but the imago Dei defines the supernatural source and destiny of that soul.
The class traitor is a venerable figure in moments of crisis: the patrician who crosses class lines to champion the cause of the plebeians, the popularis needed to break through an impasse and reorient society to the common good. In “Cursed by the Boomers” (March 2023), R. R. Reno adopts the analogous posture of the generational traitor: indicting the Baby Boomers as only an insider can, while calling for a reorientation of American politics away from the “win-win ideologies that baptize [the Boomers’] material success as public service” and blind them to the real damage they have done to the nation.
Reno’s description is laudable, but I hesitate at his prescription. Why invoke the “tragic sense,” the realism that grounded the Greatest Generation, as the alternative to Boomer idealism? “The tragic sense” is true as far as it goes. But there are other, and better, ways to limn the mentality that a new generation of leaders will need if they are to pursue the common good effectively and persuasively. To confront and reform our decadent oligarchy, such leaders must be able to inspire and encourage—instill spirit and courage in—the rest of us. I prefer Reno’s dour realism to the drunken idealism of his unrepentant fellow Boomers. But the Gen X leaders who, I hope, will soon set the direction of society should sound more like Marc Andreessen (“it’s time to build”) and Charles Haywood (“the conquest of Space by mankind”)—with policy goals like Blake Masters (“you should be able to raise a family on one single income”)—than Reinhold Niebuhr. My generation does not remember the Cold War. My students hardly remember the world before 2008. Younger Americans are not so much tempted by the idealistic excesses of the twentieth century as dispirited by the decay of the twenty-first. We have resignation, caution, and critique in spades. We lack what John Adams called “an honorable, laudable and virtuous ambition.”
Pavlos L. Papadopoulos
wyoming catholic college
R. R. Reno replies:
I’m all for spirit and courage. But I don’t think Reinhold Niebuhr runs counter to can-do ambition. Blake Masters thinks we need to restore the economic conditions under which one income can support a middle-class family. I agree. But getting there will require trade-offs. We can’t cheerlead for ever more women in the workforce, nor can we pretend that a lax immigration policy doesn’t suppress working-class wages. Niebuhr reminds us that we can’t be and have everything. We must decide what we want to achieve as a country—and put our shoulders to the task. In my estimation, young people are dispirited because so much was promised at so little cost, when in reality little was delivered, and at high cost. We got rainbow inclusion at the cost of a functional sexual morality and stable family life. We got American supremacy in the globalized economy at the cost of middle-class prosperity. An honorable and virtuous ambition rests on a foundation of realism, which, given our fallen condition, is sober-minded. Let’s put our hands to the plough, but let’s not pretend that the soil is anything other than hard and rocky.
Singer and Seer
I enjoyed reading Paul Kingsnorth’s article, from the March 2023 issue, on the tradition of monastic hermits in Ireland (“A Wild Christianity”). In particular, the section about the saints being called to return to the world (even if they go back to the wild for their last years) reminded me of Skellig Michael, the Irish island monastery. In the twenty-first century, this hermitage is better known for being the setting of Luke Skywalker’s retreat from the galaxy in the Star Wars sequels! Like the monks, Luke insists he wants to live out his life on the planet of Ahch-To, despite the call from his sister. While the Irish hermits patterned themselves on the literal Desert Fathers of Egypt, Luke’s hermit life is patterned on his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m of the school that was disappointed by the illusionary nature of Luke’s “return,” and this article helps me articulate why.
I have read an obscenely large number of articles and books on the decline of Christendom and the West, and even rushed in to write one myself, where angels fear to tread. But I have read absolutely nothing as close to the bull’s eye and as far from the bull’s opposite end as “A Wild Christianity” by Paul Kingsnorth, who, being a true poet, is not merely a singer but also a seer. Thank you, Gandalf.
chesnut hill, massachusetts
Deadliness of Doing
Ephraim Radner (“Practice Without Purpose,” March 2023) reminded us of Michael Oakeshott’s 1959 essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” in which Oakeshott states that poetry offers relief from what he variously calls the “deadliness of doing” and the “danse macabre of wants and satisfactions.” For Oakeshott, the poetic experience is a momentary experience of delight, a brief release from inexorable temporality. In his 1929 essay “Religion and the World,” Oakeshott expressed this with his critique of what he calls “worldliness.” Worldliness, he said, inhibits the possibilities of the present moment, imposing continual guilt about the past and anxiety for the future, which are conditions endemic to the human condition. To live against the world is not to escape the world, but to see beyond it. For Oakeshott, poetry was a brief encounter with eternity. This was his understanding of the Augustinian reflection on time.
colorado springs, colorado
Ephraim Radner replies:
Timothy Fuller understands Oakeshott better than anyone I know, and, in his own life, teaching, and writings, has witnessed to the truths that he shares with Oakeshott. I am grateful for his articulation of these key elements in Oakeshott’s thinking. The “deadliness of doing” is a disease that has spread more widely in our culture and era than at many other points and places in history, not because people once did less than now, but because their doing was not always invested, as it is today, in an exhaustive enterprise of achievement. My introduction to and reading of Oakeshott—in part inspired by Fuller’s own commendations—has been a salve to my intellectual and spiritual constitution. Along with someone like Josef Pieper (very different as they may be), Oakeshott is one of the few philosophers of culture and politics who has taken seriously the fundamental character of our common life and times as a gift to be received and enjoyed rather than manipulated and applied. Everything about our lives and “worldly” aspirations pivots on this recognition and its reflection. That such reception involves an “encounter with eternity” makes the stuff of our lives, in their momentary and delighted experience, not only poetry but divine grace. Would that more of my own life could be grasped with such a sensibility!
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?