Aristotle, Thomas, and the “City of Rod”

Rod Dreher has released his book, The Benedict Option, setting forth one more time that which he has set forth many, many times in various essays and blog posts. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a leading voice among Catholic leftists, has reviewed the book at great length and, frankly, panned it. Dreher has responded to Bruenig’s review at equally great length, and you can read the whole exchange at the links above. (We will not bore you by summarizing all of Bruenig’s critiques and Dreher’s responses.) However, our attention was grabbed by one passage in Dreher’s response:

As I say in the book, Christians have to stay engaged in ordinary politics, if only to protect our religious liberty interests. (I believe we have to stay involved for other reasons too, but even if you don’t agree, you can at least agree that religious liberty is absolutely vital.) But we cannot put as much trust in politics as we have in past eras. The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) For someone who claims—as Dreher does—to be encouraging Christians to recover a premodern tradition to fight the corrosive influence of liberalism, this is a stunning statement. Indeed, it constitutes nothing less than a rejection of the premodern tradition regarding politics. Let us put it another way; Bruenig is not the most stringent critic of Dreher on this point—Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are.

A very brief review of the relevant points is perhaps in order. You no doubt know, dear reader, that Aristotle taught that man is a political animal and that the state arises from nature (Politics I.1, 1253a3–4). Aquinas follows this teaching when he observes, in the context of the natural law, that it is proper for man to know truths about living in society (ST Ia IIae q.94 a.2 co.). And this point remains noncontroversial in the tradition. Leo XIII, for example, reaffirms that it is natural to man to live in society in Immortale Dei. The great pope further reminds us that, in nature, rulers are necessary for the direction of society, even if a particular kind of ruler is not necessary (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 co. & ad 3). And the ruler makes laws in order to make the members of the society good (ST Ia IIae q.92 a.2 co.; Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–28). Finally, politics, Aristotle tells us, is simply the practical art of making good laws (Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–25, 1181a22–b1; cf. ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co. & ad 3).

With these very basic principles in mind, the extent of Dreher’s error becomes obvious. Man participates in politics, either as ruler or ruled, naturally (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 ad 1). The notion that man could withdraw from politics naturally is ridiculous (cf. Politics I.1, 1253a4–6). The notion becomes more ridiculous when one considers that the civil power comes from God, regardless of the political mechanism for its exercise and transmission. We won’t beat this dead horse further by discussing the duties of the state to God and true religion, to say nothing of the indirect subordination of state to Church. The bottom line is that the idea that a Christian could—much less should—limit his or her political engagement simply misunderstands what politics is. Now, one may say that one ought to express his or her engagement in a given way—a Catholic may vote for a pro-abortion politician only in certain circumstances when his opponent’s position on another grave matter requires it—but if that is what Dreher means, you could have fooled us.

Especially because Dreher goes on to say:

Right now, a lot of Christian conservatives believe that we dodged a bullet with the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I agree that things aren’t as dangerous for us now as they would have been under Clinton. But it’s simply delusional to think that Trump is going to turn things around. Even if he were a saint, he couldn’t do that. As Bruenig makes clear early in her review, there is increasingly little space for us Christians, at least those who don’t go along with the latest iteration of liberalism, in the public square.

Richard John Neuhaus hoped that we would have a place there. That project has failed, it seems to me. What now? Yes, we still have to be engaged in politics, but what happens when and if we lose? We don’t suddenly cease to be Christian, or to have the obligation to serve Christ, even if we have to suffer for it. How are we going to do that? How will we find the faith and the courage within us to know when we are being asked to believe or to accept something that we cannot if we want to be faithful? Where is our “Here I stand, I can do no other” line? How will we know when we are being asked to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, living as we must as resident aliens in Babylon, and how will we find it within ourselves to go into the furnace singing, as did Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego?

(Emphasis supplied.) Given all of this, it is passing hard to imagine that Dreher simply meant to say that we have to temper our engagement, while remaining politically active as nature requires.

It is, however, not hard at all to see how Dreher loses the thread. A sharp friend of ours has observed that Dreher’s work as a journalist has influenced his thinking on this point. Recall what he said a little bit before what we just quoted:

The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) In essence, Dreher’s complaint is that American Christians are bad at politics. One does not have to be a journalist reporting on politics and culture—like Dreher—to see that the deal that conservative Christians have cut, knowingly or not, with Republicans has not been a good deal historically. This is obvious. And we will not bore you with all the ways in which it is obvious. You can recite them as well as we can. But it is clear that Dreher’s reporting on this situation has affected how he thinks politics work in general terms.

And this, of course, is the great temptation for a traditionally minded or integralist Catholic (or Christian more broadly): the culture—political, popular, and otherwise—of the United States is undoubtedly disordered. Part of this disorder is the hostility to Christians generally and orthodox Christians specifically. But it extends far beyond that. And confronted with this, the temptation for a serious Christian is to react to the situation itself. But this is ultimately the wrong approach. St. Thomas tells us that law—and therefore politics—is an exercise of reason ordered to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.2 co. & ad 1). While there is certainly room for the application of discretion and judgment, consistent with the common good and the divine and natural law, in given circumstances, one must be careful not to jettison the conclusions of reason itself based upon those circumstances.

Dreher falls into just that trap. He observes correctly that the culture of the United States is bad, and he reacts to this situation by deciding that Christians should participate in politics only on limited terms. No. Dreher is right that the way out is by recovering the premodern tradition, but recovering the premodern tradition means understanding that political participation is natural to man.

A suggestion for Lent

As you may know, dear reader, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. We are sure that you have all manner of mortifications and penances planned for your spiritual improvement. We would not presume to suggest to you anything in addition to those mortifications and penances you have planned for yourself. But we do wish to suggest a Lenten exercise of an altogether different sort: take some time this Lent and read John Paul’s 1994 Encyclical “On Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching,” Veritatis splendor. Increasingly we are convinced that a knowledge of Veritatis splendor is absolutely essential for this moment in the Church. More than that, it provides a crash course in freedom and the moral law, which seems especially appropriate for a penitential season. It is lengthy, but manageable if, say, one reads a little bit of it over forty days or so.

An Ash Wednesday reflection

Matthew Walther is one of the funniest writers working today. If you have not read his columns for the Washington Free Beacon about the 2016 presidential election, you have missed a great treat. (It’s not too late, though!) He is also a very serious, traditionally minded Catholic. Today, at the Catholic Herald, he has an excellent column about his return to the Church, sparked by T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. It would be unfair to excerpt it, so we will say instead that you should read it there.

We observe, in passing, one bit in particular from Walther’s essay: the music at the Ash Wednesday Mass he attended was in Latin. And his is not the only story we have read in which the majesty of the Church’s liturgical tradition has drawn Catholics back to the Church or made converts of non-Catholics. (If anyone validly baptized can be said to be a non-Catholic.)

 

A very brief provocation

In keeping with our recent theme of ressourcement of an Aristotelian-Thomistic political vision, we have been sketching, mostly for ourselves, some theses. However, in preparing these (impossibly) rough drafts, we had occasion to review this passage of the Summa:

as stated above, a law is nothing else than a dictate of reason in the ruler by whom his subjects are governed. Now the virtue of any subordinate thing consists in its being well subordinated to that by which it is regulated: thus we see that the virtue of the irascible and concupiscible faculties consists in their being obedient to reason; and accordingly “the virtue of every subject consists in his being well subjected to his ruler,” as the Philosopher says (Polit. i). But every law aims at being obeyed by those who are subject to it. Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice; then the law does not make men good simply, but in respect to that particular government. In this way good is found even in things that are bad of themselves: thus a man is called a good robber, because he works in a way that is adapted to his end.

(ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co.) (Emphasis supplied.) It seems to us that this passage contains, in germ, much of the framework for Aristotelian-Thomistic politics generally. (And, if not the passage, then the whole of q.92 a.1.) But this is a discussion for another time.

We have been taken with a more interesting notion: perhaps we should start taking St. Thomas at his word when assessing various political settlements.

De Koninck and the modern age

At Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has a very interesting comment by Jacques Maritain about Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good (1943). Most followers of De Koninck know that Fr. I. Thomas Eschmann, O.P., wrote a scathing critique of The Primacy of the Common Good, called In Defense of Jacques Maritain. Eschmann’s defense was published in 1945. De Koninck responded in 1945, with a very lengthy tract, In Defense of St. Thomas. Pater Waldstein notes that, in a 1945 letter to Étienne Gilson, another eminent Thomist, Maritain largely approved Eschmann’s critique. It is not clear whether Maritain had seen In Defense of St. Thomas when he wrote to Gilson. This may clarify somewhat Maritain’s position in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann, which remains a little shadowy.

Then again, it might not. Another sharp friend of ours pointed us to a chapter from Ralph McInerny’s 1988 collection of essays on Maritain, Art and Prudence, in which Maritain, writing in 1947, thanks Eschmann for his defense, but ultimately claims not to hold the positions criticized in The Primacy of the Common Good. McInerny also discusses a list of theses set forth by Yves Simon that purports to mark out the common ground between De Koninck, Maritain, and Simon. The letter Pater Waldstein cites helps form an interesting perspective on Maritain’s response to De Koninck. On the one hand, Maritain rejected the suggestion that he actually held the positions at issue in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann. On the other hand, Maritain certainly approved on Eschmann’s response to De Koninck and thought it wrought by the master hand, so to speak.

At any rate, we encourage you, dear reader, to read The Primacy of the Common Good, if you have not, and, if you have an appetite for controversy, In Defense of Jacques Maritain and In Defense of St. Thomas. Volume two of McInerny’s edition of The Writings of Charles De Koninck contains not only The Primacy of the Common Good, but also Eschmann’s response and De Koninck’s reply. (It also has De Koninck’s fascinating Ego Sapientia, which discusses the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as applied to Our Lady, and his brief Notes on Marxism.) Pater Waldstein admirably summarizes the importance of De Koninck’s work, especially as conceived in opposition to “Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and . . . Neo-Pelagianism,” as Maritain puts it.

 

For a Catholic—indeed, for anyone operating in the western tradition—man is a political animal (Politics I.2, 1253a2–3; ST I-II q.72 a.4 co.). And, from this fact, as McInerny argues, man belongs to his community. To say otherwise is strange and results in strange, usually bad, consequences (Politics I.2, 1253a19–39.) Concern for the common good is, therefore, both inescapable and necessary. Yet much of the modern project—we would say “political project,” but to do so would be to equivocate on the nature of politics—is an attempt to escape concern for the common good. De Koninck discusses any number of errors about the common good—the most pernicious of which is, of course, totalitarianism—and you can, dear reader, see these errors propounded in any number of venues.

As Pater Waldstein observes, De Koninck’s critique of personalism has the note of prophecy about it. It is essential, therefore, to return to authors like De Koninck when contemplating the state of things and the possibility of a way forward. But, as we have said before, the state of theological and philosophical education among Catholics is shocking. Not only have we lost the recent social magisterium of popes like Leo XIII but we have also lost the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. The reaction of the Council and the post-conciliar Church against neo-Scholasticism and “manualism” has gone beyond blotting out the baroque neo-Thomism that so terrorized the Council fathers when they were in seminary to blotting out Thomism itself. And it shows: Catholics are entirely unprepared to grapple with the problems of modernity, including neoliberalism and neo-individualism. They fall into various errors, as a result, some of which are, to our mind, much worse than the problems confronted.

We observe, perhaps idly, that most of these errors seem to find their roots in imperfect understandings of the common good. Funny how that works.

 

Young Catholics and “The Young Pope”

We have watched several episodes of Paolo Sorrentino’s series, The Young Pope, which Matthew Schmitz has reviewed at First Things. Ultimately, we find The Young Pope to be neither as good nor as bad as claimed, and it unfortunately suffers from the all-too-typical HBO treatment. (Too much sex, if we may say so without scandalizing you, dear reader.) But many young Catholics are very enthusiastic about it. Schmitz rightly connects the reaction of many of the show’s viewers to a “sense of dislocation and disinheritance” among young people. He asserts,

Among the young people I know, there is a vague, floating sense of dislocation and disinheritance. They have been schooled in rebellion but have nothing to rebel against. This is the cause, I think, of the enthusiasm many young people show for ritual, ceremony, and all things traditional. Having been raised in a culture of unending pseudo-spontaneity, they have had time to count its costs. They prefer more rigid forms.

Of course, Christ is not another Confucius seeking the restoration of earthly order. He disrupts our easy lives by asking us to order them toward him. Sometimes this will mean pitting father against son, but after years of mistrust between Catholics old and young, I think we need a new Elijah, a man who will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is correct. In this regard, one may draw a line between the enthusiasm for The Young Pope—and traditionalism more generally—among young Catholics and a broader rejection of Boomer liberalism and hedonism among young people.

From what we have seen, The Young Pope is a show that defies easy characterization. “Cardinal Voiello,” the scheming secretary of state, is not a one-dimensional villain. Indeed, he’s quite human. Likewise, “Pius XIII” is not a plaster saint; he’s irascible, demanding, and sardonic. Among other things. And the themes of the show, as far as we can tell, extend well beyond the questions of traditionalism and liberalism that Schmitz discussed. (Candidly, we stopped watching the show for a variety of reasons, most of them related to the unnecessary sexual content.) But, in our estimation, the characters in The Young Pope are all haunted, to a various extent. Sorrentino does not create a sun-drenched world, free from concerns, into which the fanatical “Pius XIII” is thrown like a sudden thunderstorm.

And it is the soft, lazy libertarianism of the Boomers that haunts the show more than anything else, both in the specific case of “Pius XIII” and in the Church more broadly. (We will not expand further on that point, lest we spoil some plot points for you.) In a sense, the show is an extended fantasy about what happens when someone rejects liberalism as a conscious reaction to the post-1968 world. Schmitz observes,

The Young Pope hits on what life has been like for the children of the baby boomers. They are a generation of orphans, and not just because so many of their parents divorced and remarried. The baby boomers defined themselves by revolution, and even after that revolution failed, they refused to take on the stern trappings of authority. Rather than forbid and command, they sought to be understanding and therapeutic. They refused to take on the hard roles of father and mother, and so they made their children into orphans.

(Emphasis supplied.) Perhaps Schmitz overstates it when he says that this has rendered a generation or more “orphans,” but the basic idea is sound. Parents who prefer to be therapists and confidants more than parents have an effect on their children, for good or for ill.

But it is more than a mere abdication of authority, especially within the Church. Certainly St. John Paul and Benedict XVI projected authority—and were, we observe, wildly popular among young Catholics. No. It is a sense, we think, that something of great value has been hidden. This extends beyond liturgy and ceremony to doctrine. We could point to specific doctrines, but to do so would understate the problem. It is the idea of doctrine itself—and the implicit requirement that one conform one’s belief and conduct to that doctrine—that has been hidden in many places and replaced with a soft, condescending “do your best” attitude. It is, as Schmitz says, an understanding, therapeutic mentality—and it is ultimately infantilizing. And this is, we think, part of the attraction of a “Pius XIII” figure: when he tells us, in effect, that our best is not good enough in a matter as important as our eternal salvation, whatever else he may be doing, he is not infantilizing us.

Would that his example were more widely followed. We note that the upcoming Synod of Bishops has taken as its theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”  However, in what we will call “The Young Pope Moment,” the Synod bureaucracy shows little understanding of the situation or, indeed, of the young people they’re supposed to be talking about. This strikes us as strange, since the Synod secretariat appears to grasp, if a little dimly, the problem. The preparatory document observes,

Young people do not see themselves as a disadvantaged class or a social group to be protected or, consequently, as passive recipients of pastoral programmes or policies. Many wish to be an active part in the process of change taking place at this present time, as confirmed by the experiences of involvement and innovation at the grass-root level, which see young people as major, leading characters together with other people.

Young people, on the one hand, show a willingness and readiness to participate and commit themselves to concrete activities in which the personal contribution of each might be an occasion for recognizing one’s identity. On the other hand, they show an intolerance in places where they feel, rightly or wrongly, that they lack opportunities to participate or receive encouragement. This can lead to resignation or fatigue in their will to desire, to dream and to plan, as seen in the diffusion of the phenomenon of NEET (“not in education, employment or training”, namely, young people are not engaged in an activity of study or work or vocational training). The discrepancy between young people who are passive and discouraged and those enterprising and energetic comes from the concrete opportunities offered to each one in society and the family in which one develops, in addition to the experiences of a sense of meaning, relationships and values which are formed even before the onset of youth. Besides passivity, a lack of confidence in themselves and their abilities can manifest itself in an excessive concern for their self-image and in a submissive conformity to passing fads.

(Emphasis supplied.) But the remainder of the document reverts to the now-standard language of discernment and accompaniment.

In fact, at no point does the document suggest that the answer to “a willingness and readiness to participate” is a clear proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, much less the uncompromising demands of a “Pius XIII” figure. Indeed, the document trades in more “understanding and therapeutic” language:

Pastoral vocational care, in this sense, means to accept the invitation of Pope Francis: “going out”, primarily, by abandoning the rigid attitudes which make the proclamation of the joy of the Gospel less credible; “going out”, leaving behind a framework which makes people feel hemmed-in; and “going out”, by giving up a way of acting as Church which at times is out-dated. “Going out” is also a sign of inner freedom from routine activities and concerns, so that young people can be leading characters in their own lives. The young will find the Church more attractive, when they see that their unique contribution is welcomed by the Christian community.

(Emphasis supplied) It goes on to observe:

As opposed to situations in the past, the Church needs to get accustomed to the fact that the ways of approaching the faith are less standardized, and therefore she must become more attentive to the individuality of each person. Together with those who continue to follow the traditional stages of Christian initiation, many come to encounter the Lord and the community of believers in other ways and later in life, for example, coming from a commitment to justice, or from contacts outside the Church with someone who is a credible witness. The challenge for communities is to receive everyone, following the example of Jesus who could speak with Jews and Samaritans and with pagans in Greek culture and Roman occupiers, seizing upon the deep desires of each one of them.

(Emphasis supplied.) Such language, more at home in 1967 than 2017, would be funny—if only its consequences were not so well known in the Church. We have had fifty years of felt banners, uninspiring liturgies, and horrible music on the backs of “leaving behind a framework which makes people feel hemmed-in” and being “more attentive to the individuality of each person.” And to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the modern history of the Church, such language portends more of the same. And all of these things add up to the infantilization we discussed above.

In other words, the Church, confronted with a generation of young people who are fed up with the standard liberal approaches to religion (gotta be hip! gotta be up to date!) sure sounds like it is getting ready to offer more of the same liberalism. Perhaps the Synod process will result in clarifications, not least from pastors with actual pastoral experience, to say nothing of experience with young people. But we are not sanguine about the possibility. We suspect that the Synod secretariat will produce a relatio that looks like the preparatory document and a post-synodal exhortation that looks like the relatio. This is certainly what happened at the last Synod, as you may recall. This seems to us like a profound miscalculation at a time when young people generally, but particularly young Catholics, are sick and tired of infantilizing liberal solutions.

We do not expect the Church to take note of a program like The Young Pope, to say nothing of the reaction to the program. But the dissatisfaction with tired liberal modes of expression and engagement can be found without the help of “Pius XIII.” One need not tune in to HBO or check Twitter after the show to discover that young people want a Church unashamed to claim tradition. One needs only go to tonsures and ordinations for the traditional orders. Or to look at the young people (and the large, young families) in the pews at Extraordinary Form Masses. Or to see that the response of young Catholics to certain innovations in recent years has been far less than enthusiastic. If the Church offers more of the same, 1960s-vintage answers to the questions of these young Catholics, we suspect that the Church will be forced to revisit all of these questions sooner rather than later. As the preparatory document says, young people “show an intolerance in places where they feel, rightly or wrongly, that they lack opportunities to participate or receive encouragement. This can lead to resignation or fatigue in their will to desire, to dream and to plan.”

Young Catholics, it seems to us, are making known their desire to participate.

Another new essay worth your time

The Josias, after another relatively quiet period, is on a roll lately. A few days ago, they ran a really very insightful and provocative essay by John Francis Nieto. Now, they have an equally insightful and provocative essay by our old friend, Pater Edmund Waldstein. The essay, touching upon the immigration question currently the source of much debate and disquiet in the United States, connects the natural law right of migration recognized by Pius XII in Exsul Familia Nazarethana with the universal destination of goods. He also provides some fascinating, helpful background on the debate between globalism and nationalism, which is part and parcel of the immigration question. In other words, it’s a must-read piece if you want to discuss current events from a Catholic perspective.

We will not spoil it for you by quoting excerpts. Instead we will urge you to go to The Josias and read it.