Sunday, August 31, 2003

Notes For Catholics Who Can't Tell the Difference Between
the Democratic Leadership Council or Heritage Foundation and the Magisterium


1. "[The Catholic Church] saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshiped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's." (Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, On Ranke's History of the Popes.)

2. While the political, economic, and cultural life of the Church is inextricably linked to the West, that link doesn't exist because the Church is dogmatically committed to Western civilization:
"My thoughts turn to our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Churches . . . I intend to address their heritage of faith and life, aware that there can be no second thoughts about pursuing the path of unity, which is irreversible as the Lord's appeal for unity is irreversible. . . . The cross of Christ must not be emptied of its power . . . This is the cry of the end of the 20th century. It is the cry of Rome, of Moscow, of Constantinople. It is the cry of all Christendom: of the Americas, of Africa, of Asia, of everyone. It is the cry of the new evangelization. . . . I am thinking of the Eastern Churches, as did many other Popes in the past, aware that the mandate to preserve the Church's unity and to seek Christian unity tirelessly wherever it was wounded was addressed to them. A particularly close link already binds us. We have almost everything in common; and above all, we have in common the true longing for unity." (John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, ¶ 3).
3. The Church refuses to become embroiled in dogmatic conflicts over specific political, economic, or cultural forms of human society:
a. "[S]o long as justice be respected, the people are not hindered from choosing for themselves that form of government which suits best either their own disposition, or the institutions and customs of their ancestors." Leo XIII, Diuturnum ¶ 7 (1881).

b. "Christ, to be sure, gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one. . . . in virtue of her mission and nature she is bound to no particular form of human culture, nor to any political, economic or social system . . . ." Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, ¶ 42 (1965).

c. The Church may be said to have rejected what Oakeshott called the "politics of faith," a divinely-sanctioned project for the perfection of the human person according to a single pattern of social, political, and economic life.

d. It's interesting to note that this consciousness has not so much been influenced by the Church's contact with non-Western societies than by the Church's contact with the passionate and frequent upheavals of Western civilization. The watersheds and catastrophes which figure in Lord Macaulay's observations, for example, are taken entirely from the history of the West. Yet they are sufficient to illustrate the Church's wisdom in pursuing a destiny which is independent of particular social orders.
4. The Church's independence from specific culture, politics, or economic orders does not mean, however, that she is indifferent to them:
"The purpose which He set before [the Church] is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself comes a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law. As a matter of fact, when circumstances of time and place produce the need, she can and indeed should initiate activities on behalf of all men . . . For this reason, the Church admonishes her own sons, but also humanity as a whole, to overcome all strife between nations and race in this family spirit of God's children, an in the same way, to give internal strength to human associations which are just. . . . With great respect, therefore, this council regards all the true, good and just elements inherent in the very wide variety of institutions which the human race has established for itself and constantly continues to establish. The council affirms, moreover, that the Church is willing to assist and promote all these institutions to the extent that such a service depends on her and can be associated with her mission. She has no fiercer desire than that in pursuit of the welfare of all she may be able to develop herself freely under any kind of government which grants recognition to the basic rights of person and family, to the demands of the common good and to the free exercise of her own mission." Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, ¶ 42 (1965).
a. The Church's mission is to civilize men interiorly, according to the life of a Heavenly polity, not to impose on them any immutable form of social, cultural, or economic order derived from the priorities of a temporal polity. Underlying this perspective, by the way, is a thoroughly Trinitarian conception of Christianity and the universe, in which unity creates diversity which manifests participation in a unity. (See, e.g., Don Alonso Cortez' Catholicism, Authority & Order). I don't know how much reading you may have done on this, but time forbids me to do more than to allude to a deeply-held Catholic belief that rigid uniformity (Oakeshott's "politics of faith") is hostile to mankind's openness to the divine mind.

b. For example, Rerum Novarum and Castii Conubi will declaim general Gospel principles of human dignity in economics and marriage, and Libertas will speak of Gospel principles of politics, but magisterial documents cannot be honestly read for endorsements of or detailed instructions about, particular banking systems, specific marriages, or perfect schemes of social legislation.

c. People miss this fact entirely when they upbraid the Church for the "inconsistency" in its condemnation of American-style slavery and its refusal to condemn medieval-style serfdom or all forms of servitude. Yes, one can make an argument that the economic legalisms involved are similar. But in practice, the Church condemns what hinders the dignity and salvation of man (as understood by the Church) and tolerates what either does not hinder it or can only be eliminated by imposing even greater obstacles to human fulfillment.

d. This perspective sounds nonsensical because we don't really have the idea of a conscience any more. A conscience mediates between general moral laws and specific cases, and is often called (in older theological books) a "judge" precisely because it interprets and applies law to specific instances of individual conduct. The Church preaches the general moral law, and when human social arrangements violently transgress that law, the Church will act and condemn them. But in other cases it is for the laity to exercise a sort of secular ministry by which the general moral laws enunciated in, for example, Rerum Novarum are put into practice in the "specific cases" of Belgium, Thailand, etc.
5. The upshot of this or -- if you prefer -- the "bottom line," is that regarding a specific form of political, economic, or cultural life as the summum bonum of Catholic teaching is an inauthentic witness to Catholicism. The Church has (dogmatically, I would argue) condemned the proposition that any such form exists. It's one thing to argue that this law, or that cultural aspect, of a society serves Catholic teaching better than alternatives given limiting factors like place, people, or time. But arguing that there is a perfect "Catholic Constitution," a perfect "Catholic real estate economy," or perfect "Catholic day-care legislation," and that our only Catholic duty is to discover and implement them, takes a great deal from Marx and very little from the Magisterium.
a. This isn't an argument for general relativism. The moral teachings and principles of the Church are immutable, practical, and binding on all men at all times.

b. But it is an argument for specific relativism, the relativism of judging things according to a standard which they do not set in and of themselves. The moral principle of "private property" is immutable, but the means by which society protects, limits, and fosters the institution to achieve the purposes of that immutable law are not graven in stone.

c. Remember Mit Brennender Sorge: Any idea or conception of human social arrangement that "exalts . . . a particular form of State . . . above [its] standard value and divinizes [it] to an idolatrous level . . . distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God." Christians flirt with that kind of divinization whenever they argue that capitalism (however conceived) and democracy (however conceived) are the regimes of God Himself, offered to man through the Incarnation and Redemption of Jesus Christ.
6. I feel pretty confident in maintaining that contrary conclusions are distinctly Protestant and distinctly American.
a. Because Protestantism denies the existence of a living magisterium with its attendant heirarchical and person-based politics, a political culture based on Protestantism is fascinated with the idea of virtue generated by processes which operate independently (even despite) human character. (See, e.g. FEDERALIST PAPERS, No. 51, arguing that good government rests upon the "policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives," a policy which "might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.").

b. Because its liturgical, theological, and social dimensions are metaphorically focused on "scripture alone," Protestantism tends to conceive of life as a repetition of Bible stories. Thus it is, in the United States, tempted to imagine that America is a new Israel to whom the Law has been given or (in more extreme cases) an historical Logos: "The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity," said John Quincy Adams, who ranked the 4th of July as the "most joyous and venerated" festival "next to the birthday of the Saviour of the world." It was nice to have included Jesus, but see Mit Brennender Sorge.

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