Monday, November 20, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 20, 2006

"Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe, to know what he ought to desire, and to know what he ought to do."

St. Thomas Aquinas "De duobus praeceptis caritatis"

No I can't give a translated source because I encountered this in a wonderful little book by Josef Pieper who rendered the heart of St. Thomas's thought into 532 epigramatic quotations filling less than 90 pages including white space. The book is called "The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas".

I am stalled on blogging because I feel like I can't go any further without trying to summarize for myself what I learned from Murray, and I haven't had the several hours work that would take, especially when I am determined to keep things short.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 17, 2006

"[I]f post-modern man, like modern man, rejects the Christian mode of existence, the result will be that an explicitly non-Christian mode of existence will progressively come into being at the heart of human life. It will have its own structure and its own substance. And since it exists, it must manifest its existence and its dynamism. And it will do so in all the violence of the chaotic. Violence is the mark of the Architect of Chaos, the Evil One, whose presence in the world is part of the structure of the world.... It was Nietzsche, I think, who said that the non-Christian man of modern times has not yet fully realized what it means to be non-Christian. But in these last decades the realization has been dawning, as we have watched the frightening emergence and multiplication of that 'senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless' man whom Paul met on the streets of non-Christian Corinth..."

John Courtney Murray, 'We Hold These Truths'

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 15, 2006

"[T]he political experience of modernity has essentially consisted in an effort to find and install in the world a secular substitute for all that the Christian tradition has meant by the phrase, the "freedom of the Church."

John Courtney Murray, "We Hold These Truths"

"Two there are, august Emperor, by which this world is ruled on title of original and sovereign right--the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal power."

Gelasius I to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, in 494
Quoted in Murray, above

Yes, I know the notion of a quote of the day implies every day. But I have been so deeply engaged by Murray that I could not come up for air.

Here's the short version: Murray's reputation is as a modernist who tried to reconcile Catholics to pluralism. This is an insupportable reading. What he in fact did was claim pluralism--very convincingly--as an outgrowth of Catholic Christendom and natural law translated to the infant circumstances of the U.S. And he showed how secularists would necessarily be anti-pluralist and their predominance would see the restoration of a society consumed by the unitary state including a secular state religion universally imposed.

Not bad as prophecies go.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 9, 2006

"It seems to have been one of the corruptions of intelligence by positivism to assume that argument ends when agreement is reached."

John Courtney Murray, 'We Hold These Truths'

But What About the First Amendment?

An essentially sympathetic friend perusing the blog comments that she could never think of herself as a Christian Democrat because “if the establishment clause means anything it has to mean my country is not a Christian democracy at its deep core.”

There is a lot in that pithy remark and I do not pretend to have a profound or complete answer. But I do have a superficial and partial answer.

Suppose for a moment a congress of Christian American leaders, belonging to diverse and disagreeing denominations gathered together to create a new governing document for our nation. What would be the first topic on their minds and what would they do about it?

Simple: The first topic, indeed the main point of such a congress would be to answer the question “how do we form a united government when we disagree profoundly on questions that go as deep as the relations of man with his Creator? How do we ‘e pluribus unum’?”

And the answer would be: “We pass the First Amendment.” It would be the first thing they would do, the thing without which they really could not expect to do anything else, democratically.

It was almost the first thing the Christians who founded this country did do, after agreeing on the basic machinery.

A people without strong religious feelings would never need the First Amendment. But a democracy of many Christian denominations could hardly do without it. Christians, at least American Christians, would want it for themselves even if there were not (which God forbid) a single non-Christian in the country. Christians would want the First Amendment even if they re-named the country (which good taste forbids) the United Christian States of America.

Now there are two narratives about how we got the First Amendment: the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative and the common sense prudential narrative (AKA the lawyers' story). Under the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative, of which Roger Williams is the usually the most heroic hero, not only religious liberty but non-establishment are understood to be invincible implications of at least Protestant theology and perhaps of the Gospels themselves.

If that narrative is historically true then the First Amendment is distinctly Christian as a matter of actual historical fact. But even if the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative is a mere latter day adornment to an eminently practical effort of law making, it remains true that the First Amendment is something a Christian nation, or at least a Christian America distinctly needs--at its deep core.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Today’s Quote: November 7, 2006

“In secularist theory there can be only one society, one law, one power, and one faith, a civic faith that is the ‘unifying’ bond of the community, whereby it withstands the assaults of assorted pluralisms.

"The secularist has always fought his battles under a banner on which is emblazoned his special device, ‘The Integrity of the Political Order.’ In the name of this thundering principle he would banish from the political order (and from education as an affair of the city) all the ‘divisive forces’ of religion.”

John Courtney Murray: ‘We Hold These Truths’

Secularists vs. Pluralists

Murray’s insight is that of the four contending religious ‘pluralisms’ in the US, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Secularist, the secularist is the only one that rejects pluralism even in theory. In America, by the latter half of the twentieth century, only the secularists were triumphalists.

This seems quite true to me, but I missed it until very recently. And it was very specifically realizing that secularists reject pluralism that caused me to stop thinking of myself as a political conservative and begin thinking of myself as a political Christian.

For a very long time, I assumed that when secular liberals used the word ‘tolerance’, they meant something like what most people mean by pluralism. And therefore it seemed to me that if we could show liberals how certain conservative initiatives to decentralize political decisions, or even move them out of the realm of politics altogether, were advances for pluralism we could win their support. (School vouchers are the paradigm, but many, even most, conservative initiatives fit the pattern.)

In brief, I thought that if we could show liberals that in America subsidiarity was almost a synonym for pluralism, they would endorse it. When they refused I tended to attribute their refusal to a hidden motive such as the Democratic Party’s fealty to the teachers unions or a deep anti-Catholic bigotry they could not admit to. This was unfair. For their motives were not hidden at all.

Because, as Murray knew, their word ‘tolerance’ did not mean pluralism at all. For the secularist, ‘tolerance’ specifically means not only denying religion a place in public life but denying religious belief or morality a place in the public conversation.

Murray died almost forty years ago (in 1967). ‘We Hold These Truths’ was first published in 1960. In his day Murray could still describe the secularists as at most a dissenting voice. Back then the Protestant faction still appeared to be the country’s most powerful, and the acrimony between Catholics and Protestants still the most important tension within the American pluralism.

Today the secularists, while still not the largest faction, are unquestionably the most powerful, largely because the terms of the debate have been skewed in their favor. The secularist war on pluralism comes closer to victory every day.

So I stopped being a conservative and became a Christian Democrat because there is no pluralism--or peace--to be had with secularists. They want to win it all. They are unhesitant about imposing their values on us by the power of the state. Their ambition is naked and unembarrassed. Our only choice is to go for the gold, not as Catholics and Protestants of course, but as Christians, with as many Jews along for the party as we can convince to come.

Of course this is already happening. I am late to the party. But if a newcomer is entitled to an opinion, I’d say the one thing this party may need is, well, a Party, or something very like it. If what we want is a Christian country—and our only other choice now is a secularist country—then we should fight under a Christian flag.

As between Christian and secularists, the civil language of pluralism, (which in the past required us to call by other names the Christian principles upon which America was founded) is now a lie. By continuing to adhere to the lie we confuse and demoralize ourselves and, in our lack of frankness open ourselves to the slanders of the secularists. And we cede to the secularists their greatest weapon, control of the terms of debate.

As among ourselves, let an ever more amicable pluralism, and as much genuine ecumenism as we can manage, with God’s help, be our commitment. But as between the secularists and ourselves let us not be deceived, we fight to win, as they have been doing all along.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 6, 2006

"This is perennially the work of the barbarian, to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived, and to do this not by spreading new beliefs but by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed..."

John Courtney Murray, 'We Hold These Truths'

Murray, whom I am just now reading for the first time is surprisingly unlike his popular reputation, and very good so far--RV

Friday, November 03, 2006

Today's quote

“[R]ealization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality.... The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called “good–intention” and so-called “meaning well” by no means suffice. Realization of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation…and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity.”

“Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent”

Josef Pieper, 'Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue'

Passion for the Prudent

Obviously I have been reading the Pieper book on Prudence (thanks to a suggestion from my Holy Family Parish friend Jim Jacobs). At some point I hope to do a precis for this space if I can keep it short enough. For now I wanted to say something about today’s two quotations, by way of distinguishing an American Christian politics from both today’s liberalism and today’s conservatism.

The first quote, about good intentions not being enough, was at the heart of the post-War conservative movement. The great fault of liberals in those days—and the reason they were skewered so easily by, e.g,. my boyhood hero and later friend and mentor Bill Buckley—was that for them politics seemed to be wholly a matter of motive. If, for instance, you were a good person and wanted to help the poor you favored an expansion of welfare programs. If you favored the working man you favored the minimum wage.

The obvious corollary to this simple-minded view was that anyone, e.g. conservatives, who demurred must therefore hate the poor and wish ill to the working man. For liberals this world view had two results. They did not govern very well—because they were too little interested in the unintended consequences of their programs. And they began losing elections because they could not to take seriously the arguments of their adversaries, whom they dismissed as moral lepers.

So I joined up with the clear-eyed conservatives. Conservatism in those days was the best available political expression of the realist tradition in philosophy, and thus represented a commitment to prudence, the particular virtue of statecraft.

But that brings us to the second quote “Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent…” The heart of Pieper’s argument is that in the Christian tradition prudence is not mere tactical skill and certainly not mere reticence or moral miserliness. The prudent man is not Odysseus “the great tactician.” The prudent man is the man who, knowing the good for man in general, also understands the concrete reality of a given set of circumstances well enough to know how to choose for the good in those circumstances.

It is on this point, being willing and able to paint a picture of the good life for man that conservatives tended to fall short. I think this was forgivable under the circumstances. Socialism, was alive and dangerous, at home and abroad. And we had no prospect of winning political power. Naturally we focused on reducing the slice of life addressed by politics rather than on expanding a political vision. Conservative causes like school vouchers or, more broadly, strict adherence to the Constitution’s text, were all efforts at replacing acrimonious politics with pluralism or what Bob Bork famously called “neutral principles.” Tax cuts in those days were not mostly about boosting GDP, but about shifting resources from public ideas of the good to private ones.

We may have been right at the time. But what does seem clear to me is while a Christian politics must differ from liberalism in its embrace of prudence, it differs from conservatism in that its first, highest, and even most political (or evangelical) work is to paint the picture.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Thunder and Lightening

The purpose of a Christian Democracy is to make it easier for people to lead good lives and achieve eternal salvation. Since virtue is the fulfillment of nature what we mean by this is to make it easier for people to lead truly human lives, to be more like what we are meant to be.

This is hardly a grim prospect. Even the most glancing look at Christian doctrine suggests that a people trying to live the teachings of Christ would belikely to treat each other quite decently, even pleasantly.

Nor is there any reason to presume that the first resort, or perhaps even the last resort of a program of “making virtue easier” would be to punish vice. A Christian government certainly might, oh, crack down on internet pornography if this seemed a prudent course of action; but it might just as well think it prudent to legalize prostitution (as St. Thomas Aquinas famously suggested).

The last couple quotes of the day have been from Josef Pieper’s short book. Pieper, no liberal to be sure, eloquently denounced the casuistic moral theology that “becomes a science of sins instead of…a theory of the Christian idea of man….If such a casuistic doctrine of sin is combined with the moralism of isolated “observances” and “abstentions”…there arises that phenomenon (which was, after all, not completely invented by Nietzsche) of a rather vindictive and insubstantial nay-saying which serves at best to prey upon the consciences of the immature…”

No says Pieper, the orthodox Christian understanding of virtue, or even of the benefit of individual good acts, is rather focused on becoming something than doing something. “The ethical deeds of man are not more or less fixed manual techniques, whose end is the shaping of some work, but steps toward self-realization.”

The proper goal of a Christian democracy is not to pillory the man who rejects virtue but to ease the path of the man who aspires to it; not to compound the misery of men in the grip of their vices, but to build a society in which it is a bit harder for the vices to breed in the first place.

The urgent work of the Christian Democrat is to announce not denounce; to say what we are after--not who we are after.

But if we thus propose restraint compared to the usual habits of the state, this is not from timid moderation or merely passive tolerance. It is not indifference, it is not dullness, it is not the meaningless of saying 'we all really mean the same thing.' What we announce is thunder and lightening. It’s just that our thunder and lightening is Good News.

Quote of the Day

" the mold and mother of all virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good."

Josef Pieper, 'Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue'

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Who are you going to arrest first?

In the current political climate if you announce that what you want is a Christian nation, even a Christian Democracy, the first thing you will be asked is something on the order of "Who are you going to arrest first?", "Which ordinary human pleasures are your top targets for extinction?" and of course "Who will run your Inquisition?"

I am sorry to say these silly questions actually require a serious answer directed not only to obvious adversaries, or hoped for friends, but even to ourselves. Even those few Christians who allow themselves guilty fantasies of a Christian politics are often demoralized by the deep rooted assumption that a Christian politics must be a politics of busybodies and worse, moralistic, and repressive at its core, and thus of course un-American.

There are two answers, one positive and one negative. The positive answer is the answer to the question "What should a Christian democracy actually do," which is what this blog is largely about and entails an ongoing discussion.

The negative answer, however, is simply that there is no justification for the assumption as an assumption. It may prove true that some future Christian government would prove authoritarian and bullying even by the standards of governments generally. It may prove true--but the reasonable assumption runs the other way. It might be true, as so many people seem to believe, that Christendom when it existed scored very high on the historical index of repression, but it would need a close look at the history to prove it.

It would need a close look, because a quick look says just the opposite. We have just survived a century in which 100 million people more or less were slaughtered by atheism. We have just lived through an era in which all totalitarian regimes were agreed in their ambition to destroy religion, or at least any religion that retained a God capable of challenging the state. Almost all the history we really know, the history we don't have to read because we or our parents and grandparents lived through it, goes directly contrary to the standard assumption that Christian governments are more disposed to repression than secular regimes.

What is true of history is even more true of philosophy or theology. A first glance at Christian doctrine leads rather to the assumption that Christian governments would be more likely to respect basic human rights for the simple reason that Christian governments, unlike secularist governments, can actually offer some reason for believing in those rights. A rebuttable presumption to be sure, but the ball is in the anti-Christian court. And until they can hit it more impressively than they have to date, there is no reason for Christians to be demoralized about their ability to govern--as Americans.

Quote of the Day

"The highest and most fruitful achievements of Christian life depend upon the felicitous collaboration of prudence and charity."

Josef Pieper, 'Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue'