catholic constraints

The Roman Catholic community continues operating in the public square in the most divergent ways.

First, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that “Rick Santorum, who has been Romney’s closest competitor in recent primaries and who is Catholic himself, has not won the Catholic vote in any state for which data are available.” For all of his advocacy of a more muscular Catholic voice, few seem ready to follow. Perhaps it’s a message which resonates more with evangelical Christianity?

Editors for the Jesuit magazine America continue drawing the ire of Cardinal Timothy Dolan for arguing against continued Catholic opposition to Obama’s healthcare mandate. The conclusion is especially snarky: “By stretching the religious liberty strategy to cover the fine points of health care coverage, the campaign devalues the coinage of religious liberty” (my italics).

This is doubtlessly a veiled reference to Matthew 22:17-21:

Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

The Bishops, so the argument goes, are violating the terms of set forth by Jesus Christ on the Church and its place in the larger society.

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Cardinal Dolan Counters

Today, Timothy Dolan railed at length against Obama and the insurance mandate, driving home the Church’s  “religious freedom” message. Maybe the most interesting part is the end:

So, we have to be realistic and prepare for tough times.  Some, like America magazine,  want us to cave-in and stop fighting, saying this is simply a policy issue; some want us to close everything down rather than comply (In an excellent article, Cardinal Francis George wrote that the administration apparently wants us to “give up for Lent” our schools, hospitals, and charitable ministries); some want us to engage in civil disobedience and be fined; some worry that we’ll have to face a decision between two ethically repugnant choices: subsidizing immoral services or no longer offering insurance coverage, a road none of us wants to travel.

Never does he say what they will do. Probably because they themselves aren’t sure. But the rhetoric, that this as an issue of conscience, and these are the dilemas before them, seems in part a response to those who cry hypocrisy when 98% of Catholics report using some form of contraception (Ross Douthat responds to the charge here)

And Dolan, unlike Rick Santorum, seems keen to show that the Church wants as little to do with the political public square as possible:

This has not been a fight of our choosing.  We’d rather not be in it.  We’d prefer to concentrate on the noble tasks of healing the sick, teaching our youth, and helping the poor, all now in jeopardy due to this bureaucratic intrusion into the internal life of the church.

Not to read too much into this line, but is this an intimation of a split between the desires of clergy and laity to bring religion more regularly inside the beltway?

Whose liberty?

The New York Times‘ editorial desk pens against hospitals merging with those of the Roman Catholic Church. The timing is odd: while the RCC is claiming its liberties are undercut by the health care insurance mandate, the Times criticizes Catholic hospitals for impinging the liberty of others: “Catholic hospitals that merge or form partnerships with secular hospitals often try to impose religious restrictions against abortions, contraception and sterilization on the whole system.” Tit-for-tat?

Lost In Translation

I’m reaching a year back in TNR to Peter Gordon’s review “What Hope Remains?” of Jürgen Habermas’s then-recently published works. Perhaps he articulates exactly the direction of this blog.

Habermas’s work, Gordon writes, is committed “to the ideal of a just and rational society.” Where and how, then, does religion fit in this society? Religion may not be wholly irrational, but it’s certainly got something going on that secular reason doesn’t. Gordon then lays out Habermas’s successive responses to the question. First,

…as reason expands its reach, the contents of our religious heritage must undergo a trial of rationalization. The ideas that a civilization once considered beyond scrutiny must eventually be re-fashioned into propositional claims that are susceptible to criticism. Habermas calls this process ‘the linguistification of the sacred.’

The authority of the sacred, then, would be “’gradually replaced’ by the authority of an achieved consensus.” It’s an elaboration on the secularism thesis: religion is reworked into reason-speak, and then accepted or rejected on its success in reason-based discourse. Then something strange happens. Now, Habermas speaks of

 …’translation’ as the only mode of ‘nondestructive secularization’ whereby modern society might salvage the moral feelings that ‘only religious language has as yet been able to give a sufficiently differentiated expression.’

Via ‘translation’ religions become intelligible to secular, rational society. And now rational society must listen. There seems to be two reasons why: (1) religions offer powerful insights for democratic societies in particular, and (2) we don’t have a choice; religion just doesn’t seem to go away. Gordon quotes at length from Habermas in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere:

Religious citizens who regard themselves as loyal members of a constitutional democracy must accept the translation proviso as the price to be paid for the neutrality of the state authority toward competing worldviews. For secular citizens, the same ethics of citizenship entails a complementary burden. By the duty of reciprocal accountability toward all citizens, including religious ones, they are obliged not to publicly dismiss religious contributions to political opinion and will formation as mere noise, or even nonsense, from the start. Secular and religious citizens must meet in their public use of reason at eye level.

But the burden of translation, Gordon notes, seems to fall disproportionally on the religion. It’s one thing to keep an open mind; it’s another to make your views intelligible to others in a language that isn’t your own. 


My friend Lewis McCrary at The National Interest has written an interesting piece on Santorum’s 2008 ‘Satan speech’, in which the presidential candidate delivered a vision of an exceptional America beset by the temptations of none other than the devil.

What Lewis does is to articulate just what that means in political-speak:

Santorum’s America is an abstraction, a country untainted by evil, from its very origins set apart from the world. It is as if the entire continent were inside the garden of Eden and therefore without sin… In this view, America is no longer an earthly city—distinguished but susceptible to a fall—but closer to a heavenly one, entitled to issue moral commandments to less upstanding provinces.

Tom Ferrick Jr. too at the New York Times has recently written on Santorum’s old-world attitudes.

I once wrote that Santorum has one of the finest minds of the 13th century. It was meant to elicit a laugh, but there’s truth behind the remark. No Vatican II for Santorum. His belief system is the fixed and firm Catholicism of the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. And Santorum is a warrior for those beliefs.

Following the above remarks, I’d put Santorum more particularly post Jansenism, a 16th-17th century Roman Catholic movement that sought to put Augustine at the center of the faith – and was crushed for it. For Augustine, The city of man and the city of God had little in common, and America certainly wouldn’t qualify for the latter.

This isn’t just pedantry. If we’re looking to understand the way Santorum (who could conceivably be our next president) “makes case for religion in public sphere“, we want to know what that way of being religious looks like; we want to know what strands of the past he wants to carry forward into the future. Following Sontag in my previous posts, there’s reason to focus less on the concept of “religion” at large and spend more time in the particulars.


Leo Strauss and Susan Sontag might agree on one very odd point: conversation is bad. There’s a fight to be fought between religious communities and secular society; trying to mediate the differences, to find some “common ground” is disingenuous at best and anathema to the struggle for truth at worst.

Susan Sontag begins with the apparent decline of religious life. Trying to prop it up – even if it’s just to make that life more comprehensible to those outside – is an act of misplaced pity. “The attempts of modern secular intellectuals to help the faltering authority of “religion” ought to be rejected by every sensitive believer, and by every honest atheist.”

Leo Strauss declares that, in the “unresolved conflict” between religion and philosophy, we find “the secret of the vitality of the Western civilization.” And he goes on: We have to “live that conflict.”

No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian, nor for that matter, some possibility that transcends the conflict between philosophy and theology, or pretends to be a synthesis of both. But everyone one of us can be and ought to be either one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy

Now the final sentence is odd. What does it mean to be “open” to the antithesis of your being? I’ve not a clue what that mental orientation would look like. But whatever it is, this blog is off the mark. In Strauss’s framework it’s a go at finding “some possibility that transcends the conflict.”

Damn! Religious Fellow Traveling

The work at hand is to clarify the discourse (conversation unfortunately carries the wrong intimations) between the religious life and the secular. That mission requires a fair amount of “speaking for”, or helping clarify the ideas of one or the other. My focus tends to be on the religious voice.

Susan Sontag delivers a crushing blow to the whole enterprise. In her essay Piety Without Content, she asks, “What does it mean to be ‘for’ religion? Put another way, can one teach or invite people to be sympathetic to religion-in-general?” I wish I could simply post the entirety of the essay (or find it online!) but it’ll have to suffice to pull out a few of the most damning quotes:

My own view is that one cannot be religious in general any more than one can speak language in general; at any given moment one speaks French or English or Swahili or Japanese, but not language. Similarly, one is not a ‘religionist’ but a believing Catholic, Jew, Presbyterian, Shintoist, or Tallensi… for a believer the concept of ‘religion’ makes no sense as a category.”

…Neither does it make sense as a concept of objective sociological and historical inquiry. To be religious is always to be in some sense an adherent (even as a heretic) to a specific symbolism and a specific historic community, whatever the interpretation of these symbols and this historical community the believer may adopt.

And most damningly, Sontag writes, “The attempts of modern secular intellectuals to help the faltering authority of ‘religion’ ought to be rejected by every senseitive believer, and by every honest atheist.” How am I to respond? She describes the whole practice as “religious fellow-traveling”, a “piety without content.” I’ll have to put this objection to the side for now.

Strauss Investigations I

There’s been an unfortunate delay on the blog – just jumped continents, and had to close the magazine where I work. Moving forward, I’m looking at Leo Strauss – doubtlessly one of the most essential figures in this investigation.

Strauss, perhaps more than any other in modern times, took seriously the relationship and competing claims between, in his parlance, “Athens and Jerusalem”, or revelation and reason. Thomas Pangle’s introduction to Leo Strauss: Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy identifies the problem to be the focal point of Strauss’ entire thought. Now to what Athens and Jerusalem clearly refer is a bit tricky, and so too their relationship to the pairing of “the religious” and “seculary society” employed on this blog. But we’ll set aside these concerns (and the host of others that may come to mind) for now. Pangle’s introduction neatly describes the problem:

Every attempt by any philosopher to refute the claim, and hence the commands of any revelation… can be shown to collapse into logical fallacy. In every case, the philosopher cannot escape the need to begin by assuming as a premise precisely what he is supposed to be demonstrating as a conclusion; in one way or another, the philosopher always assumes that his human reason can rule out, or at least discover the fixed limits of, what he calls the ‘miraculous.’

… The mature Socrates seems to have been the first philosopher who realized not merely that such a comprehensive account eludes man, but how dire are the consequences for philosophy… his [the philosopher’s] rejection of revelation in favor of reason – is finally rooted in an act of faith, of arbitrary will or decision, and not in reasoining. But then philosophy is trapped in a self-contradiction… Religious piety would seem to remain closer to those simple, original experiences of right and wrong which are the root of the philosopher’s humanity and his very concern for discovering the right way to live. Philosophy stands revealed then as a degenerate form of piety – querulous, exiguous, vain, and insufficiently self-reflective.

Strauss helps us to acknowledge that disagreements between religiously and philsophically-derived ways of being are not just a concern of the public welfare, a question of liberties and social peace. The controversies to which we’re accustomed, like that over federal funding for birth control, are rather instantiations of an enduring philosophical challenge – and one more equally matched than either side might wish to believe. Strauss’s oftentimes derided conservatism, the political fiascos of his purported followers, his advocacy for a particularly old fashion sort of education, must all be seen as peripheral to the overwhelming generosity he held forth to both sides of an argument.

Philip Kitcher’s “Ethics Without Religion”

I was handed off an interesting article entitled “Ethics Without Religion,” written by the esteemed philosopher of science Philip Kitcher. He sees in Darwin’s work an alternative approach to our thinking about ethical behavior:

Understanding the historical roots of our ethical practices can help us to do better in going on from where we are. For the past refinements of our ethics might have been achieved more intelligently, by recognizing the consequences of maxims and policies. That recognition would not be the careful prudence of the self-interested agent, but an attention to the needs of all. Ethical debate requires both an understanding of the factual details, and the constant expansion of sympathies, and it cannot be reduced to the exchanging of dogmas from rival traditions, or to the simple acceptance of irreconcilable disagreement. We have to continue the project begun thousands of years ago, by working through the places at which our inherited ethical maxims conflict. The only tools we have for doing so are our ability to fathom, as precisely and thoroughly as we can, the impact of actions on people’s lives and our capacity to extend our sympathies and to view the situation from a large number of perspectives.

We should see our ethical systems, so his argument goes, not as a pre-established system to be adhered to, but one that we develop – communally. It’s an unfinished project that seems to improve (or at least, be refined) with time. There was a time when slavery seemed like a good idea. Not so much now.

We ought explain and defend the authority of the ethical project as a “human achievement” of which we’re all part. “We have inherited a complex ethical practice from those who came before us, and we take it to be authoritative except where we can find ways of improving it.”

It’s clear he’d like to get the religious voice from the ethical project. Ethics, factually speaking, came not from on high but were rather an evolutionary development. Religious ethical systems, then, occasion a twofold error: (1) they presume their ethics to be pre-ordained and (2) the religious communities tend to wield these ethical systems like a cudgel against those who differ. When individuals make religious pronouncements on ethical matters (abortion, for instance), “We should not only protest the tendentious interpretation of the texts, but also point out that these texts are responses to ethical predicaments of the distant past, possibly adaptive to their own times, but in need of reassessment in ours.”

I sympathize with the desire to protest those “tendentious interpretations.” It’s no small task to get the Bible to say anything conclusively. But where did we get the authority (intellectually or ethically) to deem scriptural texts so thoroughly historically conditioned? That is, why can’t scriptural texts speak on a more trans-historical plain, as Leo Strauss believed all great philosophical works necessarily did? Or as we find each time we study great works in the arts? The very persistance of religion suggests these texts do have something exceedingly relevant to say today. It’s a remarkably historicist position.

Kitcher seems not to recognize that the ethical systems which emerge from religious communities are themselves the result of the process for which he’s arguing – and continually changing. Indeed, what Kitcher seems to take issue with is not religion so much as ideology. Let me take a quote from Michael Oakeshott’s essay “Political Education”:

As I understand it, a political ideology purports to be an abstract, or set of related abstract principles, which has been independently premeditated. It supplies in advance of the activity of attending to the arrangement of a society a formulated end to be persued, and in so doing it provides a means of distinguishing between those desires which ought to be encouraged and those which ought to be suppressed or redirected.

Religious discourses, like political ones, are at any given time more or less dominated by ideology. Perhaps we’re in a time where the tide of ideology runs particularly high in religious communities. But these are hardly grounds to dismiss the ethical voice of religion altogether.

Christopher Hitchens & Evelyn Waugh

Christopher Hitchens begins his essay on the anglo-Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh with George Orwell, who wrote in his notes on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, “Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up. Conclude. Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinons.”

The remainder of Hitchens essay, as the title implies, is an exposition of this very idea: Waugh’s Catholicism hindered his writing. Literature that derives its force from the Catholic tradition is a voice best left out of our written culture. Hitchens employs an array of arguments to make his case. First, Waugh wrote great literature before converting – Decline and Fall. Second, “Waugh’s mastery is most often shown by the breathtaking deftness with which he handled profane subjects.” Once upon a time he could be so with the sacred as well. Third, Hitchens brilliantly illustrates in a series of “writhe-making… passages” “Waugh’s inability to write about sex, along with the insistence of doing so.” Fourth, Catholicism is simply insufficient a “driving force” to carry Waugh’s final work, The Sword of Honour Triology. “The chief virtue of the trilogy “ is “its rigorous portrayal of the splendours and miseries of the great calling of arms.” When it drifts toward Catholicism the trilogy slips. Hitchens identifies its recusant main character Guy Crouchback as a stand-in for Waugh, and finds his soul “insufficiently interesting to merit the introspection it receives.”

Yet Hitchen’s most observant critique of The Sword of Honor seems ancillary to questions of Catholicism. The trilogy, he argues, is a pastiche of Waugh’s own previous novels. Names, places, plots, and attitudes can all be seen elsewhere in Waugh’s corpus. Was anything new said?

Far more work needs to be done on this point, but I believe the compendium-like nature to the trilogy is the very source of its interest – but strictly from a Catholic perspective. The Sword of Honour Trilogy is written across the liturgical calendar, and organized in a set of three (think Trinity) books. In short, Waugh’s re-arranged his life’s work, written both as a Catholic and not, into a strictly Christian form. How do we talk about the result?

Whether this could make for good literature, I couldn’t say. But it makes for fascinating religious document.

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