Friday, March 09, 2007

Today's Quote, March 9, 2007

"Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine. Heretics are true to their principles but change to and fro, backwards and forwards in opinion; for very opposite doctrines may be exemplifications of the same principle. Thus the Antiochenes and other heretics sometimes were Arians, sometimes Sabellians, sometimes Nestorians, sometimes Monophysites, as if at random, from fidelity to their common principle that there is no mystery in theology. Thus Calvinists became Unitarians from the principle of private judgment. The doctrines of heresy are accidents and soon run to an end; its principles are everlasting."

-- John Henry Newman

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Today's Quote, March 7, 2007

"The American Bill of Rights is ... the product of Christian history."

--John Courtney Murray

Murray continued: Catholics and the American Consensus

The next chapter in Murray's book, which is actually Chapter One and titled ":E Pluribus Unum the American Consensus" was more relevant to Murray's purpose than to ours. Murray specifically wished to show that Catholics not only fit readily into the American project but were indeed especially well fit to it.

He starts off by making a not unfamiliar argument for the Christian roots of the American political order. This is persuasive as far as it goes. But even more to the point, he argues that the reason Catholics feel so at home in America is that the "American political community was organized in an era when the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous. Claiming no sanction other than its appeal to free minds, it still commnaded universal acceptance. And it furnished the basic materials for the American consensus."

To be sure Locke was an innovator in that tradition, but also brought it new vigour. And since the natural law tradition is essentially the Catholic tradition it should be no surprise that we are comfortable in it and with the core principles of a government founded on it. There are lively arguments to be had here, but they would not be to our purpose.

He does make one intriguing remark by way of allowing for the influence of secualarist thought on the American consensus. He concedes that there was always secularist dissent. "But the secularist dissent is clearly a dissent."

That is the key point that has changed. Vigorous, self-conscious secularists may still be a minority, but their ideas are increasingly the only ones allowed in the public culture.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Today's Quote, March 6, 2007

"To be at peace befits love; but to make peace is the work of ordering wisdom."

-- St. Thomas Aquinas

Murray continued: The war between pluralisms becomes the war against pluralism

Yesterday we ended by noting that Murray saw two great threats to civil society in America, such society being understood as “men locked together in argument.” The first was the barbarian, whether skeptic or zealot, “the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs.” For barbarism “is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.”

But in the U.S. specifically he goes on to say there is another challenge to the civil argument and thus civil society: diversity of religion: “[W]ithin the great sprawling City that is the United States the achievement of civil society encounters a special difficulty—what is called religious pluralism.”

The challenge of religious pluralism is in part intellectual: “We have no common universe of discourse. In particular, diverse mental equivalents attach to words in which the constitutional consensus must be finally discussed—truth, freedom justice, prudence, order, law….”

But more challenging even than these disagreements and misunderstandings are the divisions and deep emotional wounds of history between Jew, Catholic, Protestant and secularist. “we not only hold different views we have become different kinds of men as we have lived our several histories.”

As a result “the fact is that among us civility—or civic unity or civic amity…is a thing of the surface. It is quite easy to break through it.” Citing Voeglin, “our pluralist society has achieved its structure through wars and the wars are still going on.”

The proof that we are engaged in a war rather than an argument says Murray is that we are not really “men singly engaged in the search for truth.” Rather our various ideas and versions of the truth are to a large extent simply our way of articulating and staking out positions in our long standing war. Our variant ideas “are entrenched as social powers; they occupy ground; they have developed interests; and they possess the means to fight for them. The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige which not seldom become primary…. To each group, of course, its influence seems salvific; to other groups it may seem merely imperialist.”

This sketch of a war of deep beliefs and interests raging beneath a thin cover of civility seems at least as accurate a description of our own times as of Murray’s. That’s certainly true as regards the intensity of the conflict. But what has changed enormously, what indeed creates the new political situation is the alignment of parties.

Murray identified four parties or “conspiracies”. They were the obvious ones: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Secularist. But Murray paid most attention to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants who distrusted each other's motives not only religious but political. This focus made sense in his day. The Protestant establishment still existed and was willing as ever to say no to Catholics on any political issue particularly dear to them and especially Catholic schools. The Protestant anti-establishment—evangelicals, fundamentalists, et al--was overwhelmingly and almost hysterically anti-Catholic. Catholics, for their part, still defined evangelization as saving people from Protestantism.

As for the other two parties, he gave scant attention to the Jews, the smallest and most cautious of the four. On the question of the secularists he was, as I have noted, extremely insightful on their rejection of pluralism. But he did not consider them central to the contest at least under the aspect he was considering. This becomes particularly clear in the last few paragraphs of this introductory chapter in which he asks whether the problem—that our pluralism is little more than an uneasy truce defined by a history of warfare rather than a genuine civil argument—can be solved.

In answer he says, “my own expectations are modest and minimal.” We cannot, he argues, hope to base American society on a “unanimous consensus."But, he argues “we could do at least two things. We could limit the warfare and enlarge the dialogue. We could lay down our arms …and we could take up the argument. … The free society … has inaugurated a new history. Therefore it might be possible to lay the ghosts of the past—to forget the ghettos and the autos-da-fe; the Star Chamber and the Committee on the Public Safety; Topcliffe with his bloody question and Torquemada with his rack; the dragonnades and the Black and Tans…the Know Nothings and the Klu Klux Klan…”

To be sure the, the secularists are formed by this history too. Religious wars and persecutions represent religion to the mind of many secularists, and thus he was asking them to let go of the old history too.

But Murray’s very object, to build up civil public argument among “real pluralisms” confirms that his concern was with the religions, because the secularists were characterized precisely by their rejection of pluralism.

Earlier he had contrasted the secularist view of society with the Catholic tradition that society is properly ruled by two authorities, the spiritual as well as the temporal. This assertion he says must be “doubly anathema” to the secularist because:

“It clashes with the socio-juridical monism that is always basic to the secularist position…. 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.”

Flash forward forty-seven years and two things are remarkable. The first is the extent to which Murray’s modest hopes for a dialogue of real pluralism are now being realized, and in some cases exceeded as between believing American Catholics and Protestants, and even believing Jews.

The Protestant establishment has largely disappeared; most of those who would once have been a part of it have joined the secularist party. Serious American Protestantism now consists mostly in the heirs of the Protestant anti-establishment of Murray’s day. The genuinely Catholic party, like the Protestant party, is much smaller than it was having also lost huge numbers to the secularists.

But as we all know and would be tedious to elaborate, the degree of political cooperation and even religious dialogue between these two remnants has already become an important fact in American society and seems likely to grow more so.

Just as remarkable is the cause of this rapprochement. Vatican II and positive prayerful effort on both sides have done their part. But the overwhelming practical stimulus to cooperation has been the vast increase in numbers and in power of the secularist party and its inclination to show that power in a triumphalism that would do any ultra-montanist proud.

In short those with a real stake in pluralism have been pushed into an alliance by the overweening power of the one party that utterly rejects the pluralist idea.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Today's Quote, March 5, 2007

"The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden."

-- G.K. Chesterton

I'm baaaaaaack

Almost four months ago I stopped making daily entries to this blog for what I thought would be a few days. The thing that stopped me was John Courtney Murray’s “We Hold These Truths” which I had never read before. It seemed clear to me that I could not really move ahead with the project of thinking through a Christian Democratic politics for America without confronting Murray.

Given his reputation for liberalism, I expected the confrontation might be a hostile one. (It’s true that I have renounced conservatism. But as Joyce once said in a similar context “sir I have lost my faith not my mind.”)

To my surprise, I found Murray’s core insight to be a much more articulate version of the raw impulse that moved me to launch this project in the first place. More than forty years ago, it was quite clear to Murray that the note that distinguished American secularists from believing American Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, was that the secularists and the secularists alone rejected pluralism, even in principle.

Seeing that Murray had “got there first” and had gone on to develop the argument brilliantly, persuaded me the next topic for the blog would have to be a serious grapple with Murray, or at least a recounting of his argument, which might take a while. The word “serious” was fatal. I actually began to take notes and outline the piece—not really consistent with blogging. And then came Christmas and then some extra end of year tasks at work. And now I am back and Murray remains to be grappled with.

So I begin. I no longer pledge “serious” and I certainly don’t pledge “daily.” But here goes.

Murray’s Intro is titled “The Civilization of the Pluralist Society.” He opens by observing that it had become popular in his day to ask, rather skeptically, whether America is actually a free country. But he can’t engage that question immediately for the simple reason that the “norms of freedom seem to have got lost in a welter of confused controversy.”

That certainly has not changed. But this very inability to establish the terms of the discussion of freedom suggested to Murray another question.

We can, he said, “ask if American society is civil” because the basic standard of civility is not in doubt. He offers a simple but persuasive definition in a quote from a Benedictine Thomist, Thomas Gilby. “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.”

Expanding on Gilby, Murray argues that the “specifying note of political association is its rational deliberative quality, its dependence for permanent cohesiveness on argument among men” which makes it different “from all other forms of association found on earth.” The polis to be sure is not purely rational, for a political community is first a community, but its reliance on rational discourse is distinctive. Thus the climate of the city is cool and dry “with the coolness and dryness that characterize good argument among reformed and responsible men” It lacks the warmth of family or of passionate love or friendship.

But if civilization is men locked in argument, what is the argument about? Murray suggests three main themes.

1. Public affairs, the res publica, those things that are for the advantage of the public which call for public decision and action by the government.

2. The affairs of the commonwealth that go beyond the necessities of public order but bear upon the quality of the common life, which may or may not be reached by law but are certainly not exclusively addressed by the law. The pre-eminent affair is education.

3. The most important and difficult is the constitutional consensus whereby the people acquires its identity as a people and society is endowed with its vital form, its “sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”

Thus the “state of civility supposes a consensus that is constitutional …. This consensus is come to by the people; they become a people by coming to it.” They come to it “by the methods of reason, reflecting on experience.”

The consensus has a specific type of content “It is an ensemble of substantive truths, a structure of basic knowledge, an order of elementary affirmations that reflect realities inherent in the order of existence. It occupies an established position in society and excludes opinions alien or contrary to itself. This consensus is the institutional a priori of all the rationalities and technicalities of constitutional and statutory law. It furnishes the premises of the people’s actions in history…”

“The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt…. We hold these truths; therefore we can argue about them. …” Agreement is not the end of argument but its beginning. “There can be no argument except on the premise and within a context of agreement.”

The “public argument within the City and about the City’s affairs begins with the agreement that there is…a heritage of essential truth, a tradition of rational belief that sustains the structure of the City and furnishes the substance of civil life. It was to this patrimony that the Declaration of Independence referred….”

We hold these truths, he says, both because they are a patrimony and because they are true. But for both those reasons the consensus, though the condition of the public argument, is also dependent on the continuation of that argument. The argument must continue because it keeps the patrimony fresh in our minds. And the argument must continue because otherwise we will forget why we hold these truths to be true.

Thus to ask whether the US is a civil society is to ask what is the state of the argument? It is to ask do we have the consensus we need, the truths we must hold in common so that the argument can continue, and especially so that it will, as he argues later, be truly an argument and not just a thin cover for civil war.

You know, as in “culture war.” (Told you he was prescient.)

He then identifies two great enemies of the civil argument. The first is the barbarian, who rejects the possibility of rational argument altogether. I have quoted this bit before in quote of the day but it is too good not to give again:

“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 is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed.”

And then there is this bit, that sounds like nothing so much as the Holy Father at Regensburg: “The barbarian is the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs.”

We all recognize the barbarian. But the second threat to the argument is even more insidious. And will be the subject of my next post.