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60Out of a Dark Woodhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/06/out-of-a-dark-wood
Mon, 01 Jun 2015 00:00:00 -0400How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem by rod dreher regan, 320 pages, $29.95
Camus Between God and Nothinghttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/01/camus-between-god-and-nothing
Wed, 01 Jan 2014 00:00:00 -0500I happened to be in Paris several years ago on the evening they were giving out the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. Early the next morning, I turned on the television to see who had won. The first news story was not about film stars, but the posthumous publication of Albert Camus’s novel about the French settling of Algeria,
The First Man
. The French love to be in love with their intellectuals, but that news story, that early, on that morning, about a man already dead more than thirty years, says something ?about Camus.
]]>France’s Surprising Resistance to Gay Marriagehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/01/frances-surprising-resistance-to-gay-marriage
Tue, 15 Jan 2013 00:01:00 -0500 Napoleon, who was a brilliant strategist, often told subordinates that they should treat the pope as if he had 200,000 men at arms. In other words, the answer to Stalins cynical remark”How many divisions does the pope have?”was about ten, give or take, and they were extremely loyal and prepared to die.
This didnt stop Napoleon from kidnapping Pius VI in 1799 when he refused to give up temporal authority (Pius died in France a few weeks later partly because of his imprisonment). His successor, Pius VII, believed in democracy and signed a Concordat with the First Consul, soon to be Emperor. But he, too, was arrested, as were several cardinals. All of which, more or less, came to an end when Napoleon fell and was exiled to Elba.
Relations between Church and State in France, however, have remained testy ever since, including this weekends confrontation over the effort of François Hollandes French Socialists, who control all the important levers of political power at the moment, to impose so-called gay marriage on the nation”and while theyre at it, gay adoption, and government-funded artificial insemination for lesbian couples. That was too much for many.
In classic French fashion, a huge number of people went into the streets”
descendre dans la rue
being almost a formal political process in France. Numbers are always contested, but about 800,000 and perhaps as many as one million people”five times Napoleons figure”marched three different parade routes to the Eiffel Tower Sunday.
Five years ago, almost to the day, I wrote on this page about then-President Nicolas Sarkozys speech on the occasion of being installed as an honorary canon at St. John Lateran in Rome. He emphasized a theme he had written about several times earlier: The French are neglecting their heritage by ignoring Frances Christian past. Furthermore, he said, the Church should be more prominent publicly. French society needed what only it could bring.
French friends warned me that it would make no significant difference. In a way, they were right. But its no small matter when a president speaks of the public importance of religion in a country like France. And its no small matter when nearly a million French show up publicly to demand what, many assume, they never would today.
The simple math is astonishing.
Frances population is a fifth of Americas, which means the demonstration may have been the equivalent of five million Americans demonstrating in Washington.
In a kind of before-the-fact, backhanded compliment, the Socialist government has announced the formation of a surveillance agency, the National Observatory of Secularism, which will monitor religious groups (including the Church) in order to dissolve cases of religious pathology.
The opposition”which includes more than Catholics and other Christians”showed itself in the
Manif pour tous
or Demonstration for All), the countermovement to
Marriage pour tous
(Marriage for All), which like its American equivalents is trying to push gay marriage as an equality issue. Its hard to appreciate what a radical turn this level of organization means in Europe”and in France, still a cultural bellwether, in particular.
According to reports, one thousand buses were rented, five of the high-speed French TGV trains privately reserved to bring in people from all over the country. An imam from the north of France alone filled several dozen buses. And organizers had elaborate protocols worked out that advised marchers how to respond if confronted or attacked by the several gay militant groups who tried to disrupt previous demonstrations in November and December. There was even a comedian”Frigide Barjot”who got into the act leading the protesters.
The debate has taken place at a rather high level by American standards. The Church has defended a certain anthropology of marriage and received in reply some arguments that anthropology itself reflects a multitude of forms of marriage (but not, it ought to have been said, gay marriage in the modern sense). Writing in
Danièl Hervieu-Léger, a sociologist, warned the French bishops, in an insincere show of concern, that, like the opposition to contraception in
, opposition to gay marriage now is another milestone . . . on the way to the end of Catholicism in France.
The reality may be quite the opposite.
The French bishops were careful not to make this a fight over religious doctrine, but no one is unaware that Catholics”as well as Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and a small contingent of non-believers (even a few gay voices)”fed into the opposition and the demonstration. As usual, the secular view is that the state is the defender of secular morality, which it has promised to impose on the nation, especially the schools. But believers have now been energized.
Still, this whole sad episode will also have many bad effects, not least on the once universal principle that democratic states are open to all. Traditional believers may be partly disenfranchised in the process, but it will clarify, as is already happening in America, that the modern state is not neutral between faiths and irreligion.
The state now has an ethos of its own that it will impose by the classic methods of modern tyrants: surveillance, destruction of bodies of resistance, and the heavy-handed imposition of state ideology.
Two-thirds of the French favor legalization of gay marriage. But as in other areas, democratic majorities can be as tyrannical as any regime. And the regime went several steps too far in pushing adoption and artificial insemination for lesbians.
Its remarkable that these steps are being pushed forward when something on the order of 19,000 mayors and their associates have come out against gay marriage and opening adoption to gay couples, a group called Mayors collective for children (
Collectif des maires pour lenfance
). Concern that children have a father and a mother (No mother, its depressing!) has been high in France.
Barring some miracle, however, Hollandes government will work its will on the French”hes shown himself quite high-handed on many fronts. But the opponents will go down fighting. And
, they will not go away.
Thu, 01 Nov 2012 00:00:00 -0400 You cannot help but like a serious thinker who demolishes the pretensions of various fashionable currents of thought, starting with the 1968 French student rebellion, by pointing out the anti-human strains at their very heart. Or who, at the height of the academic infatuation with deconstruction, waves away Jacques Derrida as merely Heidegger, plus the style of Derrida. Or who renders, page after page, similarly incisive judgments on the terminally self-important. Thats why Ive had a soft spot for the French philosopher Luc Ferry since he, together with Alain Renaut, took apart a lot of nonsense in
La pensée 68
, later published in English as
French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Anti-humanism
. They demonstrated, in quite readable forays through the wilder thickets of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, Bourdieu, and many other intellectual celebrities, that they all shared, willingly or not, a misguided attack on the very idea of the human.
This assault, they suggested, could be divided into two main streams. The first is the Marxist effort to debunk humanistic values, such as the pursuit of material prosperity, liberty, and individual dignity, as the ideological product of bourgeois economic, political, and social forces. The second is the impulse, found primarily in Nietzsche and Heidegger (sometimes despite the latters efforts), to deconstruct the idols of post-Christian secular ethics that were, allegedly, a groundless continuation of a naive religious or metaphysical view of humanity.
In the intervening years, the names have changed, though its surprising how much of modern intellectual life continues to play out within the frontiers established by old masters of suspicion and their successors, without the emergence of any truly great new thinkers. Except for figures like John Paul II and others who have tried to defend a richer notion of the human person”which includes a robust sense of human dignity and uniqueness, an openness to transcendence, and an awareness of the quite palpable threats both to individuals and to whole societies that arise when transcendence is ignored”humane values are still largely drowned out by the old critical theories, now joined by new ones that invoke evolutionary biology and neuroscience, which render the concept of the human person essentially empty.
This is, of course, a serious problem for many reasons, not least because we saw in the twentieth century the kind of body count that a departure from the religious and humanist traditions, for all their theoretical difficulties, could run up. Ferry is not a believer, though he presents Christianity with a warm Gallic clarity in a recent volume,
La Tentation du Christianisme
The Temptation of Christianity
, never translated). He cannot give in to that temptation, he thinks, because Christianity is too good to be true and also makes us slightly less lucid in our reasoning than does philosophy straight with no chaser. Or maybe, he muses, he just hasnt been given the gift of faith.
In any event, he would like to preserve the humanistic values he recognizes as indebted to the Christian tradition, even as he goes about trying to find a place for them in a chastened, post-Nietzschean humanism. Though ultimately he parts ways with Nietzsches philosophizing with a hammer, he believes it impossible to avoid both the great Germans critique of modern humanism and the need to propose something post-Nietzschean and after deconstruction that can support a life worthy of human beings.
His current international bestseller,
A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living
, is aimed precisely at this ongoing reassertion of humanism. In a lucid and accessible little volume, he tries to offer spirituality for the reflective contemporary nonbeliever who has lost faith, usually because of some modern philosophical analysis or scientific discoveries. In Ferry, however, theres none of the mockery and incomprehension of religion to be found in the new Anglo-atheist school led by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al., or even in the old French fire-breathers like Bayle, Diderot, and Voltaire.
For him, the Christian temptation is powerful and possesses its own appealing rationality. Thats the main reason it triumphed over ancient philosophy for close to 1,500 years. Along with figures like the Swiss writer Alain de Botton and the French materialist André Comte-Sponville (with whom Ferry wrote
La Sagesse des Modernes
), he recognizes that religiosity responds to a human need and that those in the modern age who cannot or will not believe must explicitly seek to create a non-theistic humanist equivalent to fill the void. The French title of
A Brief History of Thought
To Learn to Live
, and was clearly intended to invite readers to read philosophy for the spiritual light it may shed on everyday existence.
This is something of a new development in the post-Christian Western world, and is likely to gain some traction with the nones, the growing numbers of agnostics and nonbelievers in America and elsewhere. The French went through a similar intellectual exercise once before, in the nineteenth century, with Auguste Comtes religion of humanity, complete with its own secular trinity, Positivist priests, sacraments, and even feast days and liturgies keyed to a new calendar. (Comte renamed the months after great human beings: Moses, Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, and so on), and reset the years, starting over from 1789, the date of the French Revolution.) The artificial religion of humanity, as might be expected, mostly failed, though it has survived in the wilds of Brazil, where there are still outposts of this odd sect.
Comte had noticed something previous religious rebels (and their contemporary descendants) had not: Religion, for all its problems, has played an important role in every human society. The merely critical rejection of past beliefs was too weak to displace them. Whats needed is something equally strong, something positive that offers a more defensible and fruitful substitute. In that spirit, Alain de Botton has proposed in popular journals and in his recent book
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion
various replacements for religious functions, including atheist cathedrals for meditation and agape tables at restaurants. In other contexts, Botton has shown a keen sense of irony about modern life. The fact that he doesnt feel the implausibility”and more than slightly comic side”of this and other proposals says, perhaps, that the felt need for a spirituality that is not explicitly tied to a system of beliefs is very powerful indeed as we slide deeper and deeper into post-Christian societies.
Ferry does not propose anything quite so fully developed”or precious. Its precisely for that reason that his ideas are likely to have a greater cultural effect. He focuses on trying to discern the theoretical underpinnings of a new non-theistic humanism. And insofar as he stays strictly within the bounds of philosophy, its a quite useful exercise.
A Brief History of Thought
looks at five philosophical responses, in historical sequence, to three questions that every philosophy claiming to be the pursuit of wisdom tries to answer: What is the nature of the world (theory), How are we to act in it (ethics), and What should my ultimate goal be (salvation)?
In a necessarily brief and simplified gallop through history, he shows how the ancient Greek philosophers, Christians, early modern humanists, Nietzsche, and deconstructionists have sought to answer these three perennial questions. He concludes with his own vision of how a postmodern humanism might be constructed despite the inadequacies of the previous solutions.
Ferry takes Stoicism as the exemplary form of Greek philosophy, regarding it as similar in several respects to Buddhism, particularly in its detachment from the world. In his telling, it answers the first of the three questions with an idea of the
as a divine and eternal order. Stoic acceptance of whatever the universe brings, therefore, is merely a rational recognition of the order of things. And in Stoic ethics, the ordering of our emotions enables us to achieve a tolerable happiness in this life and a sort of eternal survival in the return of the elements of our being to the universal order. In this perspective, even a Greek figure as different as Aristotle appears mostly to provide rational grounds for the Stoic engagement with life.
Ferry admires much in this philosophy, particularly its unflinching realism about the world and its hope to relieve suffering humanity. But he also thinks it limited”human beings will always desire more than this high-toned resignation”and now impossible to practice, because for us modern science has shown the universe itself to be not an ordered and beautiful whole, but chaos.
Christianity, of course, also gave powerful answers to the perennial human questions, not least the pervasive anxiety that Greek philosophy most sought to abolish: the fear of death. The transcendent Christian God”a person, not the impersonal Stoic
”created the world and set order in it solely out of an overflowing love. Christianity promised personal immortality to even the humblest of human beings and introduced an idea almost entirely absent in the ancient pagan world: the divine worth of every person as made in the image and likeness of God. Moreover, Ferry takes pains to emphasize something many uninformed modern readers might miss: Christian salvation also promised resurrection of the
, not a disembodied spiritual heaven. So in Christianity, the material world is not merely something to be endured, but itself will eventually be redeemed.
Ultimately, he believes, modern philosophy and the impact of modern science exploded the supposedly naive metaphysics on which Christianity is based. (Aquinas and his careful examination of the nature of faith and reason in thinking about the nature of God play almost no role in this account.) But Christianity contributed some real benefits that Ferry, in his secular humanism, still wishes to preserve. For instance, humanist thought has tried to hold on to Christianitys assertion of individual human worth and the value of earthly life despite humanist rejection of the Creator and creation. Ferry sees these secularized Christian ideas as already present in most modern forms of humanism and wishes to defend them against assaults from several anti-humanist quarters.
The departures from traditional religious and metaphysical views among the moderns, like Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant, led to what we might call religions of earthly salvation, notably scientism, patriotism, and communism. Ferry says he always found such substitutes faintly ridiculous, and he agrees with Nietzsche that these are idols constructed to preserve the essence of traditional ethics and salvation without the substance.
In Kant, most notably, a rigorous ethics is combined with a perhaps even more rigorous argument that we can never know the nature of the material world or of God. For Kant, that left room for faith. But for many who came after him, it seemed that there was not and cannot be knowledge of the beginnings and ends of things. So the old search for a theory of the world and for salvation was largely voided and transmuted into a purely human ethics of disinterestedness and universality that Ferry sees as
Modern humanism seemed to have constructed a viable system of earthly salvation by positing the human individual as being of basic worth (a holdover from Christianity) and reason as a force for enlightenment and emancipation. But the critical spirit unleashed by Descartes once in motion could not be stopped, somewhat like an acid that continues to eat into the materials with which it comes in contact, even after water has been thrown over it. The humanist critical rationality ate into itself particularly through the masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud: As with psychoanalysis, postmodern philosophy learnt above all else to distrust self-evidence, received ideas; to look behind, above, and sideways if necessary to bring to light the hidden agendas which underpin all values. That philosophy largely undermined the masters of suspicion.
At the end of the day, he is not a Nietzschean. Ferry believes Nietzsches notion of
, sheer love of whatever happens (a kind of latter-day Stoicism), quickly implicates us in accepting evil and massive crimes. Ferry argues, however, that the great postmodern task for philosophy is both to accept the Nietzschean insights”particularly that the usual humanist values have no foundations without a certain metaphysics and that humanist values make us soft without the counterbalancing embrace of sheer vitality”and still take our stand on bedrock notions of morality and humane action.
The Nietzschean experts will have to assess whether its possible, as Ferry attempts to do, to separate out the grand style, the nobler and saner elements, from the dross and the crackpot. The latter, enthusiasts of Nietzsche notwithstanding, were not always wrongly or simplistically appropriated by the Nazis. Ferry himself records Nietzsches gloating over a natural disaster at Nice, and much other casual hatred of humanity can be found in his work. But more important for Ferrys project, its a difficult question to answer whether it will be possible to salvage some form of humanism from the Nietzschean demolition of idols and belief in the sordid genealogy behind all ideals and truths.
The post-Nietzschean humanism Ferry proposes seeks, in its approach to theory, to avoid the kind of comprehensive theorizing Nietzsche sought to demolish. In answer to the question, What is the nature of the world? Ferry replies: There isnt one. In other words, he dismisses allegedly naive religious or metaphysical foundations for the human person as misguided and, after Kant and Nietzsche, impossible anyway.
In his answer to the second, ethical, question, however, Ferry does not allow theoretical agnosticism to relativize real moral judgment. Any decent person, he says, who witnessed the rapes and massacres at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War would see them as wrong. And wrong in two senses: wrong in that our subjective reaction to them is revulsion, but also objectively wrong in that the revulsion is a reaction (and the proper one) to something outside of us that actually exists in the world.
Finally, in answer to philosophys third question, he asserts that there is no salvation above or beyond us. Such salvation as may be found must be a salvation on earth that hopes and fears less and tries to participate in Nietzsches innocence of becoming (to live authentically in the moment)”except when such acceptance of fate would be an abrogation of the responsibilities laid on us by our moral judgments.
It would be easy to mock Ferrys philosophy: The world is chaos and we cannot know it, but well try to be nice towards one another, stop the more obvious atrocities when we can”or at least refrain from committing them”and otherwise chill out and live in the moment.
Ferry, however, does not deserve casual dismissal because he clearly wants to preserve something humanly stronger, truer, and deeper, though he cannot seem to do so without more substantial bases than hes indicated in what is intended to be a popular treatment of difficult problems. He speaks, for instance, about the deification of the human, and suggests that the reverence once paid to the divinity is now (and should be) accorded to human individuals, in documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in the humanitarianism of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But a non-Nietzschean genealogist might notice the debt to Christian notions in these efforts”a debt that may come due the further we get from the source. Even more to the point, the Universal Declaration owed a lot to Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, and other believers, and the Red Cross, as even its name suggests, depended on the Christian sensibilities of its Swiss founder, Henri Dunant.
What is most needed, Ferry suggests, is wisdom, in the sense of a concrete vision of how to live as a human being. Just as Stoicism offered a kind of spiritual practice for people facing physical and mental suffering, Ferrys humanism offers a secular spirituality that would tap into the kind of love and benevolence usually associated with religion. This is precisely the kind of life, though described in more sophisticated philosophical terms, that many of the nones among us, those who have left religious belief and still retain enough of the old culture to aspire to lives of dignity and worth, will be seeking for some time to come.
This kind of humanism not only doesnt denigrate religion, it even looks back at it with some wistfulness. Unlike the New Atheists kind of humanism, it offers an alternative that believers might find easier to coexist with. But we should not be under any illusions: There are some areas of overlap between traditional religion and this newly reborn humanism, but just as many serious divergences. For example, one of the most neuralgic points in the modern world does not concern massacres and atrocities. All decent people condemn those, even if remedies are not always ready to hand.
But what of questions like choosing to kill babies in the womb? For much of our Western history, abortion was a crime. By modern humanitarian lights, in international bodies like the United Nations, and even in large sectors of our own society, its now thought of as a fundamental right”even more fundamental than the First Amendment right to religious liberty. Similarly, secular and religious humanists have clashed over same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and other questions of no little moment.
Without some substantial notion of the human person to hold it together, humanism itself may quickly shatter into several different visions that are mutually”even militantly”antagonistic. Its hard to be in respectful dialogue, or conversation of any kind, with people who you believe are engaged in a war against women or hate crimes against homosexuals, or are perpetrating genocide in the womb.
We need something other than alleged neutrality in such cases. Ferry cites the famous anthropologist and father of structuralism Claude Lévi-Strauss who, asked by a
journalist about Nazism, could only see it as just another human variation: Well, very painful for people who are Jews, but . . . He was of a generation that believed it could only avoid an uncritical Eurocentrism and colonialist mentality by an absolute relativism. Any decent person will immediately smell a rat here. And Ferry finds the aroma detestable. To ignore evil out of hatred of ones own culture is doubly mistaken and corrupt.
Ferry is seemingly aware of this difficulty, but has no clear positive response to it. He recently argued in
, for example, that we must defend our own civilization despite its many flaws because the available alternatives are demonstrably worse. (Yes, take note: French philosopher defends the West.) While our pursuit of wealth has harmed the physical world and locked some people into poverty in developing countries, in Ferrys view, the extensive resources we have at our disposal thanks to development allow us to care for the environment and provide the surpluses and know-how to help others find their own path to human dignity.
our dogmatic multiculturalists, not all cultures are equal.
But the difficulty with his basic position lies in his contention that the West is superior because our old continent invented something unique and precious, singular and grandiose: a culture of individual autonomy without parallel, a demand to think for oneself, to leave behind, as Kant said about the Enlightenment, that infantile childhood in which all religious civilizations, all the theocracies and all the authoritarian regimes in general, have kept humanity, down to the present day. Freedom is a wonderful thing. You cannot be a responsible adult without the freedom to make consequential choices about how to live your life. But weve had enough experience over the past two centuries with this alleged humanity come of age to be deeply skeptical.
Freedom is a precondition to human flourishing, not an end. We say we believe in freedom, but we do not believe in the freedom to make many choices: to kill, to steal, to bully, to enslave. For freedom to have any real value, we have to possess already some common sense of what ought to be done with that freedom so that it does not merely become an instrument of vice”a worry that has grown much more urgent as the old principles that shaped how we exercise our freedom have receded and the space has been filled with things previously thought unimaginable in Western culture.
I happened to be walking in the park behind Notre Dame shortly after reading Ferrys
A Brief History of Thought
when I saw a teenaged girl, French, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan Absolutely myself. It struck me as, in a way, a popular expression of something Ferry is both seeking to challenge and perhaps unintentionally encouraging. Philosophy and religion both urge us to learn who we are (know thyself, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,
). But a lot depends on why this knowledge is pursued. Much of the post-Nietzschean claims of autonomy”from God, nature, and the constraints of the social”turns into a mere assertion of will. Without robust standards, there may not be a way to distinguish between superficial self-indulgence and serious philosophical work.
Ferrys case for a divinized notion of humanity is a serious effort to reply to the post-Nietzschean, post-structuralist, post-postmodern, pulverized and flattened human world in which we live. Ultimately, if his argument fails, its not from lack of serious effort but from the nature of things. Ferry is right that we cannot say things are absolutely relative because we know many that are not: genocide, slavery, torture, persecution. Moreover, we know that they are wrong not simply because we human beings cringe at the suffering these actions produce. We are ready to say not only that our values forbid such acts, but also that theres something outside ourselves that makes them wrong.
Its telling that he warns us that we should not say we human beings need these moral insights, because that would make it appear as if they were only a matter of our preferences. Nietzsche and others have, he believes, done an irreparable demolition job on using the argument from need. (In a parallel way, he counsels believers that its a self-defeating argument to say that we need God.) Better, he says, to state that we cannot do without them, in the sense that they form a quasi-divine notion of what it means to try to live a fully human life in the world in which we find ourselves.
The weak natural law argument toward which Ferry is groping is a hothouse product, and despite his clear intentions, it will only be of serious use to a few select souls. Most decent people perceive those same truths of morality without the benefit of the new philosophical clergy. Despite their alleged metaphysical naivete, their steady assumption that its all rooted somewhere”in God”which goes beyond Ferrys minimalist humanist program, also seems to be something that we cannot do without. The disasters of the twentieth century should lead us to look deeper. As Benedict XVI has been arguing, maybe we should all start acting, not as Kant thought, in a way that is moral even if God does not exist (
etsi Deus non daretur
) but rather, even the nonbelievers, as if God existed (
veluti si Deus daretur
Its good that a new generation of chastened humanists like Ferry, Alain de Botton, and a few others have rediscovered some truths that seek to compensate for the loss of religion in certain rarefied precincts. And theres much to be said for trying to repackage them for our moment in history. It may keep some of the worst demons at bay and preserve a few islands of sanity for a brief period, but then wind up, like other recent humanisms, a shipwreck on the rocky shoals of the human.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor-in-chief of the online publication
The Catholic Thing
. He is currently writing a history of the modern Catholic intellectual tradition.
]]>Problems with (Some) Catholic Social Thoughthttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2012/07/problems-with-some-catholic-social-thought
Mon, 30 Jul 2012 00:01:00 -0400 Reinhard Marx, the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and Freising, is a genial man with a sense of humor, as Ive learned in conversations with him. Given his last name, it was a clever stroke to title his 2008 book on Catholic social thought
Das Kapital: A Plea for Man
. As head of the German bishops committee on social questions, he has been a strong advocate for curbs on what Europeans often refer to as savage capitalism.
Cardinal Marx spoke recently at a luncheon sponsored by Georgetown Universitys Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Unfortunately, his counterparts in dialogue were mostly Catholics of the social justice variety, which meant that the cardinal largely heard from people who already agreed with him“albeit without his degree of sophistication.
Participants queried him about what steps Europeans should take to solve their several crises. Cardinal Marx strongly favors sweeping measures. He thinks that Europeans need to do something for Spain, for example, where unemployment among the young is an astonishing 50 percent.
It would be wrong to simply dismiss an entire nation as being outside the realm of solidarity, he rightly argued. But it was on this precise point that, had he heard some American voices about the actual practice of institutions“and about not being deluded by bromides about international solidarity“the Cardinal might have come away enriched himself.
After all, it wasnt a lack of European transfer payments that sent Greece and Spain into crisis. Rather, the crises were largely of these nations own making, involving the endless inflation of social initiatives, health care programs, pensions, and unemployment insurance, until this ill-advised form of solidarity began to founder.
Such measures attract support from believers
because people, despite a dominant American meme, arent exclusively committed to freedom. As we can see from recent history, theyre willing“in many different nations and cultures“to trade some liberty for security. The problem arises when temperate steps towards increasing security turn into a network of roads, back alleys, and superhighways to serfdom“which is what Europe now has.
Its worthwhile for Americans to hear European voices
like Cardinal Marx, of course. But it is also important that Europeans who come here are challenged, as well“particularly by our American cautiousness about the tendencies of states, institutions, and power structures in general. But as the audience tried to egg him on at Georgetown, it was clear that Marx had no concrete proposals, at least none that he wanted to state publicly, other than unspecified action.
Partly, this was a proper caution on his part, since the Church is not a school of economics or transnational politics and can only speak in general terms about the need for solidarity and subsidiarity in pursuing justice. Yet Marxs assertion that the experts could work out all the details shows a fundamental asymmetry in Catholic social thought.
When less statist thinkers examine CST, they find its minimalism just fine because it allows flexibility in pursuit of the common good. More liberal interpreters, by contrast, grow frustrated with the limits of the theory because theyre invested in believing that CST offers concrete“almost obvious“policy solutions.
It doesnt. It has principles that have to be turned into policies and tested, in various circumstances, in the real world.
In addition to this weakness,
there is a danger that the broad language of CST will simply provoke yawns from the secular world. Cardinal Marx, for instance, made much of the fact that Catholics believe in the infinite worth of every human being. He probably intended this to cover human life everywhere from the womb to the nursing home and the various places in between where human life is threatened today. Pope Benedict XVI, too, said recently that every human person is a gift from God, with similar overtones implied.
Nevertheless, the Church and other Christian groups should use this line sparingly and only for specific purposes. Our culture already does a pretty fair job in producing large numbers of people who think theyre Gods gift to the world. Appearing to tell them what they already think about themselves neither attracts them to Christianity nor helps overcome narcissism. Indeed, at Georgetown, some in the audience took precisely this line to as implying that we ought to get away
from Catholic moralism, which actually asks something of individuals, and simply show people what a wonderfully rich alternative“which is to say an activist, leftist political position“Catholic social teaching supposedly represents.
These are among the several reasons Christian humanism has been so weak in the competition with other current forms of humanism. Dignity and worth rhetoric worked well in Cold War politics, but even the great John Paul II was more successful in helping to bring down the explicit Communist insult to the human person than he was in turning the self-indulgent West away from its own idolatry of individual choices and whims.
Its a hard slog in this culture to say to people that they have to bow down to the will of another, even if the other is God. But without carefully working out the implications of Christian thought about both personal and social morality, the Churchs witness will melt, as it already often does, into a vague, sentimental, and impractical do-goodism.
]]>The China Syndromehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/06/the-china-syndrome
Thu, 09 Jun 2011 00:01:00 -0400 The Internet brings us relentless cataracts of overwhelming, undesired, and often unwelcome information. But once in a great while the immense swirl of digital 0s and 1s assembles itself into something surprising”and leads to unexpected truths. One such moment materialized recently when I came upon a news
that the University of Notre Dame bans sales on campus of objects made in China and even forbids companies like Nike from putting the ND logo on sports items made in that country. The reason? China does not permit independent labor unions.
Now, depending on your political inclinations, you will probably think that this news item falls somewhere between, on the one hand, an all-too-rare effort at social justice for poor workers in developing areas (only ND has implemented such a ban), and on the other hand a pretty weak and misdirected gesture over economic rights when Chinese Catholics and other Christians, together with Tibetan Buddhists, the Falun Gong, and even traditional Confucians, are continually harassed and sometimes even killed for exercising what many believe to be the first human right: freedom of religion.
I confess to falling closer to the latter end of the spectrum, though I hope I bow to no one in my anger over the full range of violence, oppression, and sheer human abuse meted out by the Chinese Communists to whole swaths of their own people, religious and not.
For me, the offense of Chinas human rights abuses is compounded by the smooth-talking spin doctors from China who show up periodically in Washington with some of newest and lamest excuses for what is in fact straightforward, old-fashioned tyranny. Except for the smartest man in the world, Henry Kissinger, who is still defending”and profiting from his relationships with”prominent Chinese leaders (see his new
), anyone literate enough to follow even our dumbed-down news sources can easily learn about the repeated brutality and strong-arm tactics in the allegedly civilized Middle Kingdom.
Consider abuses engendered by the One Child Policy alone:
In China, women who become pregnant a second time can be forced to abort even months past the point of viability. Parents who somehow succeed in having a second child anyway are fined, usually an amount equal to five years salary, and children born without a birth permit are officially designated non-persons.
Cultural preferences for boys have led to
more baby girls than boys being aborted, and the resulting imbalance has made marriage for tens of millions of future Chinese men an iffy prospect. As in the rest of the world, the lowering of the birth rate now also threatens both traditional arrangements by which there were enough younger people to care for the elderly, and the newer social programs that require large numbers of active workers to pay for support of the poor, marginalized, and old.
In response to criticism, the Chinese government has called connection between such problems”which have also included trafficking in stolen children”and the One Child Policy, ignorant and simplistic.
How fortunate that Chinese children actually allowed to grow up and enter the workplace at least will know that they have a labor relations advocate in South Bend, Indiana.
Why hasnt Notre Dame, an institution that likes to believe it is where the Church thinks thought about its responsibilities to its co-religionists and many others suffering at the hands of one of the few truly brutal Communist regimes still in existence? And why arent many more Christian and other socially aware campuses in an uproar over Chinese mistreatment of religious believers of all kinds?
I have the feeling that if you went to Notre Dame and followed out the case far enough, someone would say that putting pressure on the Chinese over religious persecution might foul up the Vaticans diplomatic efforts with the regime. And indeed it might”just as John Paul IIs more muscular stance towards an equally persecuting Soviet bloc upset the ineffective
put together through careful diplomatic measures by his predecessors. And brought down Communism.
But Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges show little deference towards Rome in many other areas. And when the Chinese bad guys are not just holding down workers wages or denying them collective bargaining powers, but killing believers over what Chinese authorities know might become uncontrollable social initiatives”they studied the whole
phenomenon very carefully”whats really holding you back?
Im sorry to say that its something like academic etiquette. Defending workers rights is what good liberal academics ought to do. Defending religious rights is, well, kind of parochial. Besides, the gay alliance and womens groups (despite forced abortion and anti-female sex selection) and no doubt some members of the theology department probably dont much want to be involved on the side of protecting the institutional Church, much less to see it portrayed as some kind of victim”even if its members are victims in the literal sense, not the campus-bound Pickwickian sense.
To be fair, hardly none of this means anyone on Americas campuses
condones the persecution of Chinese believers. In the abstract”and especially if its a question of non-mainstream American faiths, not Catholics loyal to Rome and Protestants faithful to the Bible”our campuses stand for tolerance and respect. And were the question put directly, I have no doubt they would even denounce persecution of traditional Christians, Protestant and Catholic.
But its telling that the question is rarely asked. There was a time when Christianity was considered a foreign invader in China. In 1900 alone, during the Boxer Rebellion, 100,000 Christians were killed for their beliefs. In the more than century since, however, indigenous Christian churches in China have survived and grown rapidly, despite all pressures, even recent sharp spikes in arrests and repression.
Most Americans just now are more concerned about the amount of money we owe the Chinese. Still, there are debts and debts. We owe Chinese believers a lot more than money. Trying to get workers a fair deal for their labors is an honorable effort, in its way. But if we fail to defend religious freedom, we havent really understood the core of human dignity, and we will inevitably distort or ignore other freedoms as well. Without an understanding of religious liberty, we dont really know what freedom is, or what its for.
]]>A Spanish Lessonhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/05/a-spanish-lesson
Tue, 10 May 2011 00:01:00 -0400 For most people, the Spanish Civil War is ancient history and the rare soul who bothers to look into it finds a kind of pre-Cold War throwback, (allegedly) pitting faith and fascism on the one hand, against unbelief and communism on the other. Furthermore, partisanship led to some truly awful artistic and historical accounts of the struggle, even leaving aside the Communist propaganda.
Ernest Hemingway, always an uneven writer, produced some of his worst pages in
For Whom the Bell Tolls
, set in Spain during the war (the movie version only partly saved by Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergmann). George Orwell, a usually honest man, only gets things about half right in
Homage to Catalonia
. But at least he reported (truthfully) that, in England, whole schools of thought about Spain arose on the basis of journalistic accounts of events that, he knew for a fact, had never happened. Though there have been some correctives in recent years, the real story seems doomed to partisan misrepresentation forever.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with this cultural history, therefore, has to approach the new film about the early life of St. José Maria Escrivá,
There Be Dragons
, with caution. (The filmmakers cover themselves with the usefully elastic explanation that the film is based on actual events.) Despite manifold ways to go wrong, on the whole, it goes right, though with significant weaknesses.
The trouble with There Be Dragons revolves around two problems facing many works of art
: the difficulty of portraying holiness with plausibility; and the perhaps even more difficult question of how to treat the competing demands of justice and reconciliation after events like the Spanish Civil War.
negotiates both, to a fair degree, not least because it works its way toward one of the few believable movie conclusions involving Christian forgiveness.
Let no one doubt the need for reconciliation. Spain has had plenty of problems over the years, not least its inability to modernize until fairly recently. Yet the Black Legend that English speakers have been taught since the Spanish Armada has obscured some important truths. In English-speaking countries, Spanish Catholicism is often portrayed as corrupt, tied to an exploitative upper class, and led by a hierarchy that was more concerned about social privileges than preaching the Gospel. Only an ideologue would deny that theres evidence of all this and more.
sometimes bends over backward to concede that the Republican revolutionaries had a point in their anger against the Church.
In secular circles, thats much exaggerated and taken for granted, but heres a lesser-known side of the story. Some of the Spanish hierarchy may have been corrupt, but none of them abandoned their posts when the violence hit. Every bishop in Republican territory was killed, except two, who happened to be outside the country. In Madrid-Alcalá, 1,118 priests died; 279 in Barcelona; 327 in Valencia, between a quarter and a third of priests in just those cities.
This in addition to the slaughter of whole convents, cloisters, seminaries, religious houses containing people who, of course, had done nothing wrong. When John Paul II asked dioceses around the world to report on people martyred in the twentieth century in preparation for the third Christian millennium, about half the files”6,000 or so”sent to the Commission on New Martyrs were from Spain. Some have claimed Spanish priests were crucified, though there is no solid evidence.
We do know that Christians were, for the first time since the ancient Roman spectacles, thrown to wild animals, this time bulls in the
. And priests, in a macabre variation on bullfighting custom, had their ears cut off for trophies after being killed in the ring. The British historian Hugh Thomas, a fair judge, said of Spain, At no time in the history of Europe, or even perhaps of the world, has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown.
Dragons largely plays this history down
(perhaps too much so given how little known it is) because it seeks to show something quite different: real reconciliation. It may seem that its a bit late in the day for that except in abstract terms. But when Muslim terrorists set off bombs during rush hour on commuter trains in Madrid right before the 2004 general elections (191 dead, 1,800 wounded), the two Spains were still very much alive.
Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznars religion-friendly government was rejected in favor of a Socialist government among the most radical and anti-religious in Europe (When Pope Benedict XVI visited Spain last year, Prime Minister Zapatero arranged to be out of the country and later publicly inflamed historic divisions by asking whether the people wanted a pope or a parliament”as if these were mutually exclusive options).
In a way, of course, public reconciliation is always needed in every country, but”as Spain shows as the most extreme case”especially in Western, formerly Christian nations, we face heated clashes between believers of a fairly traditional kind and a militant band of secularists. Fortunately, in most countries, it hasnt come to civil war. Not yet.
One element that emerges convincingly from the film is how much public reconciliation depends on private forgiveness. Theres been a whole spate of forgiveness studies in recent years in psychological circles, arguing the benefits of forgiving, letting go, and moving on. Perhaps so, but, as we know, most real forgiveness depends on knowing you have things yourself to be forgiven for, and that emerges most forcefully in religious, not secular, contexts.
Contrary to what most people believe, Opus Dei”the religious institution founded by St. José Maria”at least in my limited experience, is very cautious in comments about the Spanish Civil War. Members tend to shy away from identifying with the pro-Church Nationalists
, perhaps because they know they would be tarred with a Fascist brush.
But its a hard line to walk. The Republicans hanged José Maria in front of his mothers house
”or thought they did, having picked up a guy who had the misfortune of looking like the future saint, an episode not in the film. And they drove him”as the film shows”as a young man with a group of his early followers out of Spain over the Pyrenees into Andorra, then France, from which he returned to Pamplona, a safe haven because controlled by Francos forces.
There Be Dragons
is drawn from the old maps of the world that suggested there were monsters in distant, as yet unexplored regions. The film applies the phrase to the dragons within every person, of whatever political stripe or religious persuasion. It works in the end because the youthful figure of the saint seems really to have deeply embraced the truth that the Church must be the Church of all the people and a source of reconciliation, especially where the divisions run deep among people related to one another. As a religious argument, it is consummate sense. In political terms, the picture is much cloudier and it is perhaps not by chance that Manolo, the old Republican opportunist, who is a kind of foil to José Maria in
, only finds forgiveness and peace for his misdeeds decades later”on his deathbed.
]]>Sarkozy and Secularismhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2008/01/sarkozy-and-secularism
Thu, 03 Jan 2008 00:00:00 -0500A few years ago, I was in the middle of giving a lecture in Paris about religious persecution and martyrdom during the twentieth century when a woman stood up and shouted, The French state has been repressing and killing Christians ever since the Revolution¯and it has to stop! Her outburst had more to do with her own pent up frustration than anything in particular that I was saying, but it immediately struck me that she had given voice to a feeling of religious disenfranchisement in France that we almost never hear about. Nicolas Sarkozy did not exactly express the same frustration when he went to Rome on December 20, but when the president of the French Republic makes an extended plea for the public affirmation of the value of faith in a high-profile venue, some equally unexpected
cri de coeur
has just come over the European horizon.
]]>Expiating Our Eco-Sins?https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/09/expiating-our-eco-sins
Thu, 20 Sep 2007 00:00:00 -0400The pope has stepped up his rhetoric in favor of it. The retired cardinal archbishop of Washington recently expressed sweeping public support. The National Association of Evangelicals regularly issues policy statements outlining the urgency of action. But perhaps religious fervor for curbing global warming and protecting the environment more generally reached a confusing peak this week when a member of the Council for Culture at the Vatican, Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, announced that offsetting carbon emissions¯which the Holy See will be able to do almost completely in the future thanks to a donation of land in Hungary to be planted with trees¯is roughly parallel to doing penance for your sins.
]]>Remembrance of Deaths Past ¯ and Presenthttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/06/remembrance-of-deaths-past-and
Tue, 19 Jun 2007 00:00:00 -0400We often hear these days about the problems and misdeeds of organized religion. We much more rarely hear about the arrogance and downright atrocities of organized irreligion. Yet during the twentieth century, self-proclaimed scientific atheism in the form of communism killed 100 million people. As the old Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky used to say, people consider the Spanish Inquisition a blot on Christian history. And beyond doubt, it is. Yet the Inquisition killed, over three centuries¯and after legal proceedings that are not ours, but were not mere show trials either¯about as many as the Soviet Union killed on an average day. The high body counts of international communism were and continue to be a huge blot on the history of human rationality.