17 February 2013

On restoring a Catholic moral grammar

The sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a bit of a smack in the gob for me, as I’m sure it was for a huge number of Catholics around the globe. It is difficult for me to know how to take such news, but I have still been thinking long and hard about the matter, and reading patiently the reactions to it. It strikes me that the ‘progressive’ reaction to his resignation has been rather dishearteningly self-serving, in its attempt to steer the conversation toward the bourgeois issues of birth control, the dismantling of canon law for abusive priests and so forth. The ‘conservative’ reaction to Pope Benedict’s resignation has sadly been yet more disgusting, for they laud the man and the office without believing in the necessity of taking either one of them seriously. Fr Robert Sirico’s rather defensive (not to mention traditionally illiterate, semantically relativistic and intellectually naïve, to put it politely) attempts to deny that Caritas in Veritate said what it actually said about the crises of individualism and cost-benefit thinking, and the distributional failures of the market economy as it stands, are old news, for example; now he can use its author as a prop to pose as a defender of tradition and an enemy of relativism against the progressive bugbears. (By contrast, at least a few ‘traditionalists’ were clear about what Caritas in Veritate actually said, even as they trampled a bit over the doctrine of original sin in their attack against it.)

The problem that all of these reactions highlight, of course, is the problem of Americanism. The Americanist heresy is grounded in the idea that the ultimate source of truth is the individual layperson, and that truth can be more readily accessed if each individual layperson is left fully to his own devices in its pursuit. Good ideas will ‘naturally’ accrue followers, and by numerical strength and majority rule one can decide which ideas are truly deserving. It is a well-intentioned heresy, naturally, but good intentions can lead astray much more easily than obviously ill intentions can. And it has been my experience that nothing accrues prejudices, ad hoc rationalisations, vulgarities or downright mean-spiritedness quite like popular opinion can.

The Americanist heresy allows and encourages people to develop an officious, Pharisaical self-regard, and the formation of like-minded cliques who see no need to engage with people who hold contrary views (unless it is to question their mental faculties, diagnose them, medicate them, imprison them or bomb them into submission). The ‘echo chambers’ and ‘epistemic closure’ much lamented amongst American progressives are, in fact, the logical ends of the heresy that each person gets to decide the truth for himself in bad faith, without reference to fact, to the outside world, to society or to any external authority whatever. The fact that we still have an essentially one-dimensional political discourse, polarised between an irresponsibly naïve left-liberalism and a cynical and psychotically exploitative right-liberalism, is also a testament to our nation’s disordered political psychology. Further, each side trumpets individual autonomy as its ultimate moral value and raison d’être. Hmmm.

Those affected by the Americanist heresy, on both sides, are actually more alike than they realise. American Catholic leftists who greeted Caritas in Veritate with enthusiasm only to return to lambasting the Pope on matters of sexual and social ethics are mirrored precisely by the American Catholic rightists who cravenly ignored or wilfully misinterpreted Caritas in Veritate and used the Pope’s teachings on sex and society as cudgels against otherwise well-meaning believers. However, it is also true that those disaffected by various aspects of the Americanist heresy may share more in common than they realise. Social conservatives who lament the passing of a unified moral order immediately have something in common with economic leftists who lament the passing of a more just, stable and egalitarian economic order.

Moreover, some causes which most left-liberals still claim to espouse – including environmental stewardship, opposition to torture, opposition to unjust warfare and opposition to exploitative lending practices to name just a few – are best served by the establishment of authority. The scientific appeal to established empirical facts about the world, and the duty of the community of scientists to take the broadest consideration possible of the entire body of relevant facts in the search for applicable models and explanations is just one such establishment of authority. It is precisely to this authority they appeal when they cite a scientific consensus about the anthropogenic origins of climate change. Likewise, the establishment of a common moral authority is necessary to mount any meaningful opposition to the apostles and apologists of torture, who thrive upon muddying the waters of debate with sophomoric utilitarian counterfactuals (like the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario), and who wield the powerful propaganda tools of Hollywood with TV series like 24 and films like Zero Dark Thirty.

The moral authority is needed to refashion a common moral language and syntax, for such causes to be politically effectual. Classical Christianity, rooted in the tradition of the Apostles and the Early Church Fathers, handed down through the apostolic succession, provides just such a ‘linguistic’ framework. It is a framework which still allows for political dither, yet still insists on a hierarchy of values beginning with the sanctity of all human life, and the right ends of that life that such sanctity entails. It is important to note that in the United States at least, neither current fashionable political ideology has a monopoly over this linguistic framework (though both sides do certainly draw upon it). Such refashioning of our moral vocabulary and syntax will, of course, mean that we are forced to think differently about the way our political system works in practice, and wean ourselves of the ideational idols and one-dimensional Manichaeism which work tirelessly to destroy hope of Christian communion between those of differing political outlooks.

I think Pope Benedict XVI was, in an intellectual sense, all too aware of this need. When he addressed audiences in Europe or America on issues of public concern, it was always in an attempt to situate the debate and its terms within its proper historical context and moral grammar. He ceaselessly endeavoured to posit classical Christianity as the matrix from which our current moral concerns continue to rise, and the touchstone we should look to for solutions to those same questions. His successor will be faced with precisely the same concerns, and will need to lean heavily in the same direction Pope Benedict XVI did.


  1. I like. I can't find anything to disagree with here. Keep at it. - Paul Grenier

  2. Great post. I notice that most of the right-wing Catholic writers argue that if people were more ethical we would have a better economic system without the need for state intervention. This is so naïve it is laughable.

    First, even if we are assume for the sake of argument that most capitalists are good people the logic of capitalism dictates that they sometimes make socially harmful decisions (mass layoffs, working employees to the bone, outsourcing to countries with no labor rights, etc.) in order to successfully compete in the marketplace against less scrupulous competitors.

    But more fundamentally, knowing what we know about human sin and human history, how can we simply say that we must rely on the good faith of private actors to obtain justice? Would Fr. Sirico apply the same logic to the State, which, after all, is also run by sinful humans? Should we simply hope that we get moral politicians who won’t throw us into prison for no reason, or do we fight to change the system to make sure certain rights are guaranteed to us? Were the problems of Marxism-Leninism intrinsic or did they just need better people in the vanguard party?

  3. Paul Grenier: Many thanks for stopping by; very glad you enjoyed it! Hope you continue to comment here!

    John: Many thanks! That was the implicit critique of the traditionalist anti-Caritas paper I linked to: the author's idea was that we can expect private Christian philanthropy to always and everywhere be a morally sufficient response to the problem of poverty, even though the doctrine of original sin, rightly considered, is every bit as distrustful of Christian individuals as well as non-Christians, and moreover casts equally healthy doubts on the initiatives of individuals and institutions.

    And I like your point about Marxism-Leninism, by the way. I may have to borrow that one next time I get into an argument with a Catholic libertarian!