Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

FAITH Magazine September-October 2008s


On Liberal Democracy

In a Christian Century interview, Nicholas Wolterstorff, longtime professor of philosophical theology at Yale, says: “I don’t agree, then, with the view of many political theorists that when making up our minds about political issues or debating them in public, we have to appeal to some body of principles that we all accept, or would all accept if we did things right. I don’t believe that there is any such body of principles. It’s not that we Americans disagree about everything. But we don’t agree about enough things to settle our basic political issues by reference to a body of agreed-on principles.” He acknowledges that it is prudent when trying to persuade people who do not share your religious principles to use reasons they do fnd persuasive. Disagreeing with the critics ofliberal democracy, he declares, “I regard liberal democracy as a pearl of great price.” Such an order, he says, is based on a belief in natural rights, and that belief, in turn, has its source in biblical religion. There is also an understanding that the state does not represent a community with a shared vision of God and the good. The American polity is, instead, “an association of such communities”, and this is at the heart of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Each such community pursues its vision of the political virtues of “justice and the common good”. Limited government, respect for natural rights and accountability to the people lead him to the conclusion that “liberal democracy has a very thick moral basis”. One need not agree with NicholasWolterstorff’s politics – for instance, his position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - to welcome his commitment to the liberal-democratic project that makes possible the engagement of disagreements, including disagreements over the merits of the liberal-democratic project.

Natural Law Affirmed

Myron Magnet of City Journal revisits Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammlers Planet in order to revisit the New York City that it so powerfully describes. New York in the 1970s, with 2,200 murders per year, one every four hours, most people living behind armoured doors with three or more locks, muggers on every corner and Leonard Bernstein entertaining the Black Panthers in an exhibition of what Tom Wolfe memorably described as radical chic. What happened to turn the city around to its present vitality commonly described as its golden age? Rudy Giuliani is part of the answer, with his “broken windows” approach to crime. But mainly, says Magnet, people had had enough, especially the unfashionable people from the “outer boroughs”. They knew there was a better way tolive. Magnet: “How did they know it? A residue of the old culture, too strong to die? A pragmatic or instinctive understanding that there is a right and a wrong life for man, which some of the old philosophers called Natural Law? From page one of Mr. Sammlers Planet, Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has ‘its own natural knowledge’. We all have ‘a sense of the mystic potency of humankind’ and ‘an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.’ We all know that we must try ‘to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.’ We must live a life ‘conditioned by other human beings’. We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, asSammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. ‘The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. ...As all know. For that is the truth of it - that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.’”

Obama-Wright Continued

The Obama-Wright affair has not disappeared. Jayson Byassee is assistant editor at Christian Century and an occasional contributor to First Things. Whatever else you think about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Byassee says in Christianity Today, “Jeremiah Wright is a serious Christian.” He contrasts Wright with James Cone, the 1960s proponent of black liberation theology who disparaged a focus on Jesus as Saviour as “Christofascism”, along with others who contend that black folk should fnd their primary identity in race rather than religion. “Wright’s break with America,” writes Byassee, “is no unforgivable sin - only blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that.” “Wright’s recent media tour was so unfortunate,” says Byassee. A friend in the Obama campaign told him,“They’re freaking out at HQ -Wright’s going on tour, and they can’t do a thing to stop it.” Byassee comments, “Wright was throwing Obama, a parishioner and former friend, under the bus - and he knew it.” Byassee concludes: “But coming from a community that’s been told for so long what they’re allowed to say and not say has an impact on you.

Precisely when you’re told to shut up, you preach. At the top of your lungs. For you’ve got fre locked up in your bones. Evangelicals, I think, know something about that.” There is much to what Jason Byassee says. From what I know from him and others, Jeremiah Wright is a serious, albeit woefully wrongheaded, Christian. We have a lot of other brothers and sisters in Christ who are crazier, and even some who think we’re just a bit tetched. The controversy, however, is not over whether Wright is a Christian but whether he is right in saying, as Senator Obama has also said, that he represents the black church and, by extension, the black community. And over why, for twenty years, Obama submitted himself and his family to the wackier elements of Wright’s ministry.

An Anatomy of Dissent

Commenting on the number of lapsed and collapsed Catholics, Father Andrew Greeley writes in America: “What went wrong? What might reverse the decline of the credibility of the Church’s teachers? Whatever happened to the blind obedience that the Vatican always assumed it could count on from the devout laity?” Father Greeley has been around for a long time and can remember when the “blind obedience” myth still had a modicum of plausibility. He goes on to say, “Perhaps the answer is that the Church should have banned higher education for Catholics.” Educated Catholics, you see, think for themselves. Greeley concludes: “It seems that there is a pedagogical law that the taught will not listen to the teachers unless they believe that the teachers have listened to them. The rhetoric andstyle of the curia give no evidence that anyone there is listening.” There are several problems with this, aside from the fact that, as Father Greeley undoubtedly knows, he has been writing the exact same thing in almost the exact same words for, lo, these forty-plus years. Here are a few things that are wrong in this view of what went wrong:

1) The people, including Father Greeley, who incessantly lament the gap between teaching and the reception of teaching are typically the same people who have for years worked to undermine the credibility of the Church’s teaching office;
2) Their measure of whether the Church is listening is whether teaching is brought into line with their preferences;
3) The curia in Rome coordinates and corrects as necessary, but the teachers of the Church are the bishops, priests and catechists who too often find it easier to blame Rome than to do their job;
4) Catholic Americans are about 6 percent of the universal Church, and Greeley’s think-for-themselves educated Catholics who are unhappy with church teaching, usually on matters sexual, are a much smaller part of that 6 percent. It is an egregious instance of chauvinistic hubris to think that the Church through the ages, currently composed of 1.2 billion members of every nation and culture, should change its teaching to please the disaffected of the latter class of Americans. There are many answers to Father Greeley’s question “What went wrong?” Some of the more dubious are to be found in his answer.

Indispensable Reading

You might say it is just in time for the 2008 elections, and you would be right about that. But any time is a timely time for Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. The author is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the publisher is Doubleday, and the price should be no obstacle to a book that offers a fresh analysis of what has gone wrong with the Church in America, a convincing case for encouragement, wise counsel on how to engage the public square and, not incidentally, restored confidence in the ability of (some) bishops to teach on faith and morals. Of course cloning is morally prohibited, but just imagine the difference it would make if there were, say, two dozen or more Archbishop Chaputs. He addresses the hard questionswith candour and clarity. For instance, can a Catholic in good conscience ever vote for a pro-choice candidate? “The answer is: I couldn’t. Supporting a ‘right’ to choose abortion simply masks and evades what abortion really is: the deliberate killing of innocent life. I know of nothing that can morally offset that kind of evil.”

Acknowledging that there are serious Catholics who believe that there can be “proportionate” reasons for supporting a pro-choice candidate, Chaput writes: “One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Dont deliberately kill the innocent, and dont collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false ‘right’ to abortion. We sin if we support pro-choice candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so – that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a ‘proportionate’ reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions –as we someday will.” Render Unto Caesar is about much more than abortion politics. There is hardly a question agitating the Church in America – from higher education and episcopal leadership to the sorry state of catechesis – that is not addressed here with intelligence, courage and a pastoral heart. Read, mark, learn, inwardly digest his words – and pray for more bishops like Charles Chaput.

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