Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stratford Caldecott, R.I.P.

From Kathy Schiffer comes the news that Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott died July 17, at 60 years old, after a long battle with cancer.

“Strat” Caldecott, FRSA, was the editor of the international journal Second Spring, co-director of Second Spring Oxford Ltd., co-editor of the UK and Ireland edition of Magnificat, and editor of the online book review journal of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, He was a commissioning editor for the Catholic Truth Society in London and served on the editorial boards of Communio, The Chesterton Review, and Oasis.

His many books include, most recently, Not As the World Gives: The Way of Creative Justice (Second Spring Books, 2014); a two-part study of the meaning and purpose of the Liberal Arts: Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Brazos, 2009) and Beauty in the Word (Angelico Press, 2012); The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity (Angelico Press, 2013) and All Things Made New: The Mysteries of the World in Christ (Angelico Press, 2011).

Besides his other online projects, Stratford also maintained the blog The Economy Project (a blog dedicated to Catholic Social Teaching). He also contributed to the Imaginative Conservative, and on May 21, 2014, left us with is last post, "Search for the Secret of Life and Death".

I never had the opportunity to meet him in person, but we would correspond on occasion regarding the writings of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and the Christian-Muslim dialogue. He was, as so many have attested, a true Catholic gentleman. He will be sorely missed.

For those in the UK, the funeral requiem Mass will be at the Oxford Oratory Thursday 31st at 10.00 am.

Tributes and Remembrances

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hobby Lobby - A Roundup

Required Reading

  • What Hobby Lobby Means: How We Got Here, Where We're Headed, by Robert P. George. First Things 07/01/14:
    Hobby Lobby and the Greens, represented by attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued that the abortifacient mandates (1) substantially burden the practice of their faith; (2) are not supported by a compelling interest; and (3) do not represent the least restrictive means of pursuing the government’s objective of supplying these products to women. The Obama administration contested these claims and denied that RFRA protections apply at all to for-profit businesses (as opposed to religious organizations).

    The decision’s most important feature is its rejection of that contention. The five justices in the majority—Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy—explicitly reject it, thus establishing as a matter of law the proposition that RFRA protections can apply to for-profit businesses, and do apply to closely held corporations. It leaves open the question, which is probably purely theoretical, whether RFRA protections apply to large, publicly traded companies. Two of the four dissenting justices—Breyer and Kagan—decline to reach or opine on the question of whether RFRA protects for-profit businesses—pointedly refusing to join this aspect of the dissent filed by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor who, alone, contend that for-profit businesses do not enjoy RFRA protections.

  • Ashley Macguire on Five False Perceptions About The Hobby Lobby Case (The Federalist 07/01/14).

  • The Republic of Gilead is Not Nigh, by Julian Sanchez. 06/30/14 -- offering a libertarian perspective on the ruling, and the possible motives of those disappointed in it:
    In light of this, the outraged reaction to the ruling ought to seem a bit puzzling. If what you are fundamentally concerned about is whether women have access to no-copay contraception, then there’s no obvious reason to invest such deep significance in the precise accounting details of the mechanism by which it is provided. [Cut the hysterics already]. You might even be heartened by a ruling that so centrally turns on the premise that accomodation for religious objectors is required when no women will lack such coverage who would have enjoyed it under a mandate.

    The outrage does make sense, of course, if what one fundamentally cares about—or at least, additionally cares about—is the symbolic speech act embedded in the compulsion itself. In other words, if the purpose of the mandate is not merely to achieve a certain practical result, but to declare the qualms of believers with religious objections so utterly underserving of respect that they may be forced to act against their convictions regardless of whether this makes any real difference to the outcome. And something like that does indeed seem to be lurking just beneath—if not at—the surface of many reactions. The ruling seems to provoke anger, not because it will result in women having to pay more for birth control (as it won’t), but at least in part because it fails to send the appropriate cultural signal. Or, at any rate, because it allows religious employers to continue sending the wrong cultural signal—disapproval of certain forms of contraception—when sending that signal does not impede the achievement of the government’s ends in any way.

  • About that matter of companies "denying contraception" to their employees... There has been plenty a-wailing and gnashing of teeth about companies "denying contraception", but it ain't necessarily so. Even Hobby Lobby "lavishes contraception coverage on its employees", covering 16 different types in its health plan.

    (Catholics may object to the offering of contraceptives in principle, but this is a Protestant organization -- and Protestants have generally been open to a wide range of contraception since the 1930's). What (some) Protestant and Catholic Christians share is the belief that life is sacred, and life begins at conception (the latter being not so much a "belief" as sound biological fact).

    So what Hobby Lobby (and seventy one other companies are actually objecting to paying for four specific contraceptives that are deemed abortifacients due to their capacity to either kill human beings when they are fertilized eggs, or prevent them from implanting themselves in utero, whereupon they die. This is what they deem morally objectionable on religious grounds.

    Functionally speaking, no employee of Hobby Lobby would be denied the normal range of contraceptives under their health plan, and Hobby Lobby employees are free to purchase emergency contraception of their own accord, just not on the company's dime.

  • Yes, but isn't it hypocritical that Hobby Lobby "invests millions in companies that manufacture the very products they want to be exempt from covering in their employee health plans–products they believe cause abortions?" -- This is the counterargument advanced by Rick Ungar (, Grant Gallicho (Commonweal) and Molly Redden (Mother Jones). To this it may be rightfully objected that . Ryan Ellis ( makes short work of Ungar and Redden's criticism here, by pointing out that 401k plans are made by employees, not employers:
    Plan administrators contract with select mutual fund companies to provide basic investment products diversified by sector, asset class, duration, risk, etc. This is the primary goal of diversification of fund choices, not socially-conscious investing. Besides, it’s the employees who call the shots. They may not share the same values as the Hobby Lobby owners, and might have a very different idea of what a “socially responsible” fund would invest in…

    What does Mother Jones’ or Mercury Public Affairs’ 401(k) plan look like? Those are the employers of Redden and Ungar, respectively. Surely those 401(k) plans invest in stocks of oil and gas companies, defense contractors, private equity firms, and other evil conservative power bastions. Have Redden and/or Ungar done a forensic investigation of the mutual funds they are invested in? Should I call them hypocrites for daring to invest in a 401(k) which invests in a mutual fund which invests in a multinational company which happens to own an oil company? If not, consider that the Hobby Lobby employers have one more degree of separation even from Redden and Ungar. Our two intrepid reporters affirmatively chose to invest in merchants of death when they picked out their 401(k) choices. All Hobby Lobby is doing is providing the platform for employees to make those same choices themselves in partnership with plan administrators.

    Ben Domenech, The Federalist poses the challenge:
    The secular left needs to think bigger than just driving Christians out of the ability to practice their faith as business owners or allow their employees to invest in the stock market. They should start by noting it’s impossible for those who claim to be “pro-life” to live and work in certain states without being a hypocrite. Since the Hyde Amendment applies only to federal funds, states like New York, New Jersey, and California use state taxpayer dollars – a not insignificant amount of them – to pay directly for abortions. What this effectively means is that any of Ungar’s colleagues at Fox News who live in New York are thorough hypocrites if they pay their taxes. And yet they continue to do so! It is almost as if they are willing to render unto Caesar, even as they fight in courts and in the public square to change Caesar’s policies. Heck, Hobby Lobby itself even pays taxes in these states, where it does business! How stunning that these people are even allowed to be Americans, a country which was built by slaveowners and racists.
  • Lastly, I concur with Bonchamps (The American Catholic), that this decision is something of a pyrrhic victory:
    [In the event of a Hobby Lobby win] my celebration will be muted and limited, however, because a legal victory will not address the underlying philosophical and cultural divide that brought this case before the court to begin with. Contrary to what some may believe, law is not the foundation upon which society rests; it is rather the adhesive we use to patch up broken pieces of society. The more laws, precedents, mandates, rulings and decisions we require to defend our basic interests and assert our rights, the greater indication we have of a society that is almost literally tearing itself apart.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Here and There

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and "No Place to Hide"

After watching the recent PBS Frontline investigation "The United States of Secrets" and Brian Williams' subsequent interview with Edward Snowden on NBC, I was moved to pick up a few books on the subject of the NSA contractor's revelations of the NSA's mass surveillance program: Luke Harding's The Snowden Files (February 2014), James Bamford's The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (July 2009), and Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (May 2013). The latter is the topic of this post, and it's a disturbing but imperative read for all American citizens.

Meeting Snowden

Chapters 1 ("Contact") chronicles Greenwald's initial meetings with Edward Snowden (tentatively reaching out using the monicker "Cincinnatus", after the Roman statesman and exemplar of civic virtue). Greenwald, at one time a constitutional lawyer and civil rights litigator, journalist and blogger, was selected by Snowden due to his interest in the ongoing violations of privacy by the CIA / NSA. (Curiously, he admits to nearly missing the "scoop of the century" due to his initial neglect to honor Snowden's request to install PGP encryption before initiating the email exchanges. Their subsequent meeting (Chapter 2, "Ten Days in Hong Kong") was actually facilitated by journalist and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitrus, to whom Snowden had also revealed his identity.

It was in Hong Kong that Snowden disclosed the news of mass-surveillance programs conducted by the NSA and the GHCQ (The UK's equivalent intelligence agency) -- "aimed at Americans and non-Americans alike" -- via an interception of communication: tapping Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems and personal computers, the scope of which is unprecedented in American history.

With all the tension of a Robert Ludlum novel, Greenwald tells of the significant effort taken by Snowden, Poitrus and Greenwald to publicize some of Snowden's revelations in The Guardian (See: The NSA Files) and to disclose the identity of Snowden himself (on his own terms), in a race against time with the NSA.

The Capacity and Scope of NSA's Surveillance

Chapter III ("Collect It All") provides an extensive tour of some of the key Snowden documents (reprinted in the book and available for download from Greenwald's website) which, once deciphering the terminology, detail a variety of intelligence programs, among them: BOUNDLESS INFORMANT (collecting telephone calls from around the world), PRISM (collecting data directly from the servers of the world's biggest Internet companies); PROJECT BULLRUN (a joint NSA-GCHQ to defeat the most common forms of encryption safeguarding online transactions); MUSCULAR (seeking means to invade the private networks of Yahoo and Google), and X-KEYSCORE (surveilling the activity of online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, providing "insight into the personal lives of targets").

The conclusion reached by Greenwald's survey of such programs, their capacity and scope, is disturbing:

"... The US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe."
The information collected is then shared by the NSA with the rest of the intelligence community, including the FBI and he CIA -- and beyond that, a group of nations labeled the "Five Eyes" -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom -- those whom the United States spies with, but rarely on). According to Greenwald, "the Five Eyes relationship is so close that member governments place the NSA's desires above the privacy of its own citizens."

It is of course objected by both the Bush and Obama administrations that the United States respects the privacy of its citizens, and cannot eavesdrop without legal warrant. Besides being an odd line of defense ("in effect, it told the rest of the world that the NSA does assault the privacy of non-Americans"), the claim is also patently false, as the 2008 FISA law permits the "incidental" collection of American communications with a targeted foreign national. As the ACLU noted, "the principal purpose of the law was to make it possible to collect Americans' international communications -- and to collect those communications without reference to whether any party to those communications was doing anything illegal. . . . the government doesn't need to "target" Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communication."

Generally speaking, the NSA collects two types of data -- "content" (the actual content of a person's phone calls, emails, online chats, browsing history or search activities) or "metadata" (the amassment of data about such communications (ex. who emailed whom, when the email was sent, the location of the persons sending / receiving it). It is likewise insisted that the surveillance revealed by Snowden largely involves the collection of the latter and hence, is not intrusive. Greenwald explains why this too is questionable:

When the government knows everyone you call and everyone who calls you, plus the exact length of those phone conversations; when it can list every single one of your email correspondents and every location from where your emails were sent, it can create a remarkably comprehensive picture of your life, your associations, your activities, including some of your most intimate and private information.
Or as Columbia University's computer science professor Ed Felton notes
Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the sabbath, or makes a large number of calls on Christmas day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have, and even our civil and political affiliations.
A number of Greenwald's critics maintain that "privacy is for those who have something to hide" -- perhaps not so surprisingly, not one of them are willing to relinquish the passwords to their email accounts, or allow video cameras into their homes.

What the loss of privacy means for us

In Chapter 4, "The Harm of Surveillance", Greenwald explains what the loss of privacy at the hands of a surveillance state can mean for our freedoms as American citizens, and for the future of democracy in general. The right to privacy -- to be let alone -- "is an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human."

Even while the NSA with its capacity "could not read every email, listen to every phone call, or track the actions of each individual ... [w]hat makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behavior is the knowledge that one's words and actions are susceptible to monitoring." Greenwald explores this principle of oppression-by-surveillance in the work of Jeremy Bentham's 18th century conception of the Panopticon, the psychological studies of Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo ("The Chilling Effects of Surveillance"), and philosopher Michael Foucault's Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, a study of how pervasive surveillance can ensure the automatic functioning of power, causing those who are subject to internalize the repression: "[choosing] to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing they are being controlled.

While Chapter III is perhaps the most beneficial part of the book (in terms of obtaining knowledge of the Snowden documents that have been disclosed to date), I found Greenwald's discussion of privacy and why it matters to be the most interesting. The "internalization" of governmental and societal controls under universal surveillance is disturbing to think about. To put a philosophical spin on it, one might ask: What is our motivation of citizens? What does it mean to practice "good citizenship"? To be a moral and law abiding citizen? . . . It seems to me that in such circumstances where law enforcement extends their reach into areas of our lives that were formerly considered private and protected, the functional obedience and cooperation of its citizens is achieved not by their willingness to cooperate and assume moral responsibility ("I want to be a good citizen") -- but rather by compliance with surveillance, whether external or suppressed ("I have to be good"). 

There is always some give and take in functional society, a compromise of freedom with security. As citizens, we consent to relinquish certain freedoms in compliance with the law and for the sake of the common good. We obey traffic laws, we recognize curfews or noise limits in urban areas . . . we don't read each other's mail. But this is carried out with the mutual understanding that both the state and its citizens abide by the rule of law, and that the state will comply with and be subservient to the law. But with every revelation, it seems that this no longer seems to be the case. Just to cite some recent examples from the news:

The "Fourth Estate"

The idea of a "fourth estate", says Greenwald, is that:

those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistance on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself.
In Chapter 5, Greenwald castigates the mainstream press for having abdicated this responsibility -- with some going even further to willfully carry out the government's "dirty work" instead (especially when it comes to the character assassination of whistleblowers). Greenwald also takes note of the remarkable fluidity between journalists and political life (ex. Obama White House spokesperson Jay Carney was former Washington Bureau Chief for Time magazine, and David Axelrod is now a commentator on MSNBC / NBC News). We have reached a point where "US establishment journalism is anything but an outsider force. It is wholly integrated into the nation's dominant political power."

For an administration that frequently bills itself as being "the most transparent" Administration ever, Greenwald wryly observes that Obama "has done exactly the opposite": prosecuting more whistleblowers than all previous administrations in US history combined.

The revival of the "fourth estate" would appear to be a motivation for Greenwald's launching of The Intercept, a new journalistic website with the short-term mission "to provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden", and the long-term objective:

to produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues. The editorial independence of our journalists will be guaranteed. They will be encouraged to pursue their passions, cultivate a unique voice, and publish stories without regard to whom they might anger or alienate. We believe the prime value of journalism is its power to impose transparency, and thus accountability, on the most powerful governmental and corporate bodies, and our journalists will be provided the full resources and support required to do this.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Catholic Libertarianism"

Chronicling an exchange brought on by Mark Shea's latest rampage against the heresy of "libertarian Catholicism" (to which I think Rick Garnett offers a sound rebuttal).

And yet -- no one really thinks that "the market" should be entirely unregulated. And, in fact, it is pervasively, thoroughly, comprehensively (and sometimes stupidly) regulated. Everyone agrees – that is, everyone who is in the conversation agrees – that “the market” is not and should not be entirely “free.” Or, put differently, a “free market” – in order to be meaningfully free – is a (reasonably and intelligently) regulated one. We enforce contracts. We impose liability for harms caused. We regulate all the time and everywhere. The real debate (among people who concede the basic point, which Catholic teaching firmly and unambiguously affirms, that ordered-freedom, not statist command-and-control, should characterize “the economy”) is about how to locate the point at which regulations begin to stifle, rather than to promote, human flourishing and the common good, properly understood.

It is not, in my view, helpful to label as “idolatry” the unremarkable view that we can and should evaluate policies with respect to their effectiveness and that the effectiveness of policies is related to, and perhaps depends on, a number of things that the economists like to remind us about. No one thinks that government should do nothing. But, some of us think – and there is absolutely nothing not-Catholic about thinking – that there are limits to (a) what governments are morally authorized to do and (b) what governments, practically speaking, do well. To say this is not to make an “idol” of the market (though it is to avoid the error of making an “idol” of populism or statism).

-- "Laissez-Faire libertarism" as a straw man (Mirror of Justice)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The NSA and Edward Snowden: Patriot or Traitor?

The following two-part series from PBS Frontline is worth watching as preface to this blog post, for education as to the extensive mesures the National Security Agency has taken to gather intelligence on its own citizens and the history of how we arrived at where we are today:

It can be argued that intelligence has always been vital to the security of our nation, or of any nation. And we've always had covert operatives gathering intelligence, beginning with the Culper Spy Ring of 1778 (tangential note: anybody else a fan of the AMC TV series 'Turn'?). I'm not necessarily opposed to the core responsibilities of the CIA or the NSA, for that matter, which had its start in World War II. The role of such agencies in military history is something I'm quite fascinated by. The history of espionage is a dirty and sordid business but there are also moments of moral courage and heroism. I have a great deal of respect for those in both organizations, unrecognized and having forfeited public recognition and honor, who gave their lives in defense of this country against its enemies.

But there is also the reporting of Frontline ("A Nation of Secrets"), and NBC's Brian Williams' interview with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which -- if accurate -- is very troubling.

He comes across as somebody who respects the business of intelligence, the validity of the profession -- but likewise recognizes that the agencies he has worked for have vastly overstepped its bounds. In Snowden's own words:

"The definition of a security state is any nation that prioritizes security over all other considerations ... I don't believe the United States is or ever should be a security state."
And as to what he is concerned about, in detail (taken from another, earlier interview with German television network ARD):
"Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace. And, the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all. Everything. Even if you’ve never been suspected of any crime. Traditionally the government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say we suspect he’s committed this crime, they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their powers in advance, prior to an investigation."
Something is seriously amiss when the nation's most powerful intelligence agency is going well beyond the law, intercepting and data-mining our email correspondence and phone calls of American citizens and treating us as suspect. Trouble enough to have Facebook and Google invading your privacy for the benefit of advertising without the prying eyes of Big Brother looking over their shoulder.

And to suggest that Obama is going to curb the power of such agencies -- he has waffled so many times on this matter of intelligence-gathering that whatever he currently promises I have to take with a heavy dose of salt.

* * *

Responding to Snowden's first television interview (with a U.S. network), Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: "Edward Snowden is a coward ... He is a traitor. And he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so."

And some closing thoughts from Snowden himself, excerpted from the interview with Brian Williams:

"I think it's really disingenuous for — for the government to invoke — and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the — the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don't need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up."


"I think patriot is a word that’s — that’s thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays. But being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the — the violations of an — and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies. They can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of government and — and simple overreach and — and things that — that should never have been tried, or — or that went wrong.”

Are those the words of somebody who loves his country or somebody who is sickened by what he's witnessing? Judged solely on the basis of the interview, it seems to me this is a man compelled to do what he did on the basis of his conscience.

The irony, to me at least, is to hear John Kerry -- "WInter Soldier" gone rogue in the 1960's, who spoke out against what he perceived as atrocities committed by troops in Vietnam -- denounce Snowden as a traitor.

Related Links and Reading

  • Readings & Links: NSA Secrets Frontline (PBS). In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the NSA launched what would become known as “the program” — a massive domestic surveillance operation designed to prevent terrorist attacks by collecting the communications of millions of Americans. “The program” was once among the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, but leaks by insiders like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have since exposed the operation to the world. Here are some highlights of those leaks, as well as a series of government reports on the NSA programs.
  • Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security. James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald. The Guardian 09/05/13.
  • Obama on Mass Government Surveillance, Then and Now PBS Frontline. 05/13/14.
  • A history of the NSA (pictorial). Washington Post
  • The Sickening Snowden Backlash, by Kirsten Powers. The Daily Beast 06/14/13. "It's appalling to hear the Washington bureaucrats and their media allies trash Edward Snowden as a traitor, when it's our leaders and the NSA who have betrayed us."
  • Noonan: Privacy Isn't All We're Losing, by Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal 06/14/13:
    If—again, if—what Mr. Snowden says is substantially true, the surveillance state will in time encourage an air of subtle oppression, and encourage too a sense of paranoia that may in time—not next week, but in time, as the years unfold—loosen and disrupt the ties the people of America feel to our country.

Further Reading

God, Nietzsche.

Nietzesche says to God: "I too can create a man."

God says: "Try."

Nietzsche takes a fistful of dust and begins to mold it.

God says: "Disqualified. Get your own dust."

(As relayed by J. Budziszewski).

Monday, May 19, 2014

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Philosophers

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, dubbed "Science's Televangelist" by Rod Dreher, made some rather disparaging remarks about philosophy in a podcast exchange last week [transcript available here]. Responding to the host's admission that he majored in philosophy, NdGT quipped, "that can really mess you up". The host added, "I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?" -- prompting a wave of ridicule from Tyson:
dGT: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

[insert predictable joke by one interviewer, imitating the clapping of one hand]

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.

interviewer [not one to put too fine a point on things, apparently]: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what crap is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper?

dGT [laughing]: Of course I think we all agree you turned out okay.

interviewer: Philosophy was a good Major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

dGT: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

What is striking to the observant reader is how, in adopting a pragmatic stance towards the value of philosophy, which Tyson seemingly views as beneficial chiefly in relation to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Tyson himself is adopting a philosophical position. Tyson can only denigrate philosophy by committing himself to a specific philosophical viewpoint, and what seems to be an incredibly myopic one at that.

A roundup of responses:

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Piglucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Piglucci's blog
  • Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine, by Damon Linker. The Week 05/06/14:
    ... behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with "asking deep questions" that lead to a "pointless delay in your progress" in tackling "this whole big world of unknowns out there." When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, "I'm moving on, I'm leaving you behind, and you can't even cross the street because you're distracted by deep questions you've asked of yourself. I don't have time for that."

    "I don't have time for that."

    With these words, Tyson shows he's very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don't waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don't be left behind! Progress awaits!

  • An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, by Lewis Powell (Professor of Philosophy, University of Buffalo):
    The study of ethics or morality—inquiry into the nature of value—is a core area of philosophy, and has been since its inception. And while scientific discoveries can reveal to us things like, how to build bridges, the methods for transplanting organs, or the psychological mechanisms of human persuasion, a practicing scientist implicitly takes stands on the normative questions of which bridges are worth building, which patients ought to get the organs that are in short supply, or which means of persuasion are morally permissible to use when trying to convince people of important truths.
    NDGT deigns to reply in the author's combox, leading to an extended discussion.

  • No, Neil deGrasse Tyson Does Not Hate Philosophy, He Just Doesn’t Get Why It’s Relevant, by Gina O'Neill Santiago. Thoughts on Liberty

  • Neil de Grasse's Scientism, by William M. Briggs:
    The other day on Twitter, I saw somebody quote approvingly these words by Neil deGrasse Tyson: "The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it."

    This received many favorites, re-tweets, and various (coarse) approbations. Evidently, this phrase produces a visceral glow in its fans, or perhaps the feeling of belonging to a group advanced beyond the benighted masses who, wallowing in their ignorance, dare to doubt Science.

    Only here’s the thing. The phrase doesn’t mean anything. It’s emptier than our federal coffers. ...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Thomas Aquinas' "Summa theologiae": A Biography - Bernard McGinn

On my "to read" list: Thomas Aquinas's "Summa theologiae": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), by Bernard McGinn.
Princeton University Press (May 25, 2014). 272 pgs.

In full disclosure, I promised that I would give it mention on my blog while the review was forthcoming. McGinn is distinguished for his extensive scholarship of Christian mysticism and does not identify himself as "a card carrying member of any Thomist party." Nevertheless:

"... I'd been reading Thomas for almost sixty years and teaching him for over forty. When I was studying a dry-as-dust version of neo-Thomist philosophy from 1957 to 1959, I was rescued from despair by reading the works of Etienne Gilson, especially his Being and some Philosophers. . . . between 1959 and 1963, I was privileged to work with two great modern investigators of Thomas, Joseph de Finance and Bernard Lonergan. It was then I realized that no matter what kind of theology one elects to pursue in life, there is no getting away from Thomas. So the opportunity to come back to Thomas and the Summa was both a challenge and a delight." [From the Preface]
Suffice to say I am intrigued, and will have more to report once I get into it.

From the Publisher

This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words--and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas's death.

Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today's most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar's life and career, examining Aquinas's reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book's enduring relevance today.

Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn's wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas's own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Francis' tweet: "Inequality is the Root of Social Evil"

When the Pope tweeted:

it was met with what have become the most predictable of reactions: liberals (both secular and religious) burst out into enthusiastic applause and retweets, absolutely delighted at the papal vindication of class-warfare (or more properly, class-envy). meanwhile, free-market friendly Catholics defaulted into the now-familiar "circle the wagons" mode, while still other Catholics -- papal apologists for "all things Francis" -- sought rather to explain the quote away away, insisting that Francis did not mean what the majority of the world inferred.

A sampling of reactions below ...

Any social media device which puts a 140 character cap on whatever you're expressing seems (to me, at least) a recipe for confusion. And for a Pope whose remark frequently warrant further clarification, I personally wish he would simply stay away from Twitter. And the phone. And off-the-cuff interviews.

Well, one can at least hope.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Christ is Risen!

This is the culmination of the Gospel, it is the Good News par excellence: Jesus, who was crucified, is risen! This event is the basis of our faith and our hope. If Christ were not raised, Christianity would lose its very meaning; the whole mission of the Church would lose its impulse, for this is the point from which it first set out and continues to set out ever anew. The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.

That is why we tell everyone: “Come and see!” In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.

With this joyful certainty in our hearts, today we turn to you, risen Lord!

Pope Francis, Urbi Et Orbi Easter 2014.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America"

An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum. Image Books (February 11, 2014)

We live in a profoundly spiritual age--but in a very strange way, different from every other moment of our history. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand on the side of morality--to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

Or so Joseph Bottum argues in An Anxious Age, an account of modern America as a morality tale, formed by its spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.

Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber's sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies in contemporary social class, adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave it meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls "The Poster Children," Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old Mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors' Christianity. Turning to "The Swallows of Capistrano," the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories--and later defeats--of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in public life.

Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

Interviews and Presentations

Reviews and Discussion

  • The Puritans Among Us, by Mary Eberstadt. National Review 04/21/14:
    An Anxious Age abounds in logic and clarification (and for that reason among others, it was derelict of the book’s publisher to omit footnotes and an index, both of which would have helped to signal its scholarly nature). Even so, it is the book’s metaphors that will haunt the reader after he puts it down. Who else would describe Protestantism in the United States as “our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape”? Likely no one — but the image brings to vivid and unexpected life a thousand Pew Research reports on declining attendance and the rise in “nones.” Similarly, the author’s unspooling of the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano as a metaphor for explaining what has happened to Catholicism in America is not only arresting but convincing, succeeding both as religious sociology and as literary trope.
  • Book Review: An Anxious Age by Geraldo Russo. Washington Times 04/01/14. "As Tocqueville and others have recognized, American religion and American exceptionalism have proceeded together. Now that they have been sundered, other choices present themselves. “An Anxious Age” explains how we can make the best of what confronts us."

  • The Rise of Secular Religion, by David P. Goldman. The American Interest 03/17/14:
    This is a work of deep pessimism, albeit mitigated by faith in divine intervention, and its author reveals his innermost thoughts only in parable. It is a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike. It is to be hoped that its dark tone will not discourage those who are more likely to seek encouragement than instruction.
  • An Anxious Author, by Greg Forster. The Public Discourse 03/31/14:
    Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age is a bad book with a good book trapped inside it, struggling to get out. Bottum offers insightful observations that challenge prevailing assumptions about the nature and history of secular progressivism in America. Unfortunately, his main arguments are underdeveloped and disorganized, and the book’s appeal is limited by its prejudice against Protestantism. But the greatest disappointment is Bottum’s failure to practice the Christian virtue of hope.
    • American Hope: Don’t Conflate Political Culture and Christianity, by Joseph Bottum. [Reply to Greg Forster] The Public Discourse 04/10/14. "... a forced smile and a Mrs. Rogers optimism about Americanist politics: I just don’t feel enough anxiety to fake it. A calm hope in Christ Jesus and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin seems enough to be going on with."

  • Rise of the Poster Children, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The University Bookman Spring 2014:
    An Anxious Age incorporates a number of separately published articles and essays, and sometimes the seams are visible. The reader most likely will not mind the digressions and set pieces that don’t relate to the overall argument, however, since the writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters, and his conclusion that the Pope was “the freest man in the twentieth century” is both satisfying and earned. His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey, and effectively underscores Bottum’s argument that today’s Catholic intellectuals are at a disadvantage without the culture that could be taken for granted in the past. The book’s detours into figures such as Rauschenbusch, Max Weber, James Pike, and Avery Dulles are also fascinating.
  • An Anxious Age—and an Antagonistic Future?, by Christopher White. Catholic World Report April 13, 2014:
    Bottum’s work is primarily descriptive in nature and does not offer any hard predictions for what the future might hold from here. There is indeed the possibility that we might hope to begin toreintegrate the public square with a religious language where the poster children of post-Protestant America are convinced by the Catholic converts—or are at least hospitable to their convictions. But that remains unresolved. Considering the widespread skepticism and even hostility in which religious expression is viewed in America, it’s seemingly unlikely. And if this, indeed, the future that awaits us, it’s highly probably that this anxious age in which we live will give rise to an antagonistic one to follow.
  • The End of Exceptionalism, by Eric Jackson. Thoughts and Ideas 3/28/14:
    As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap. America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so. Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.
  • The Social Gospel Paradox Divest This:
    for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough. Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins ["bigotry, arrogance of power, corruption of justice for personal gain, mob madness and violence, militarism and class contempt"]. In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

    Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ. And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

    An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm. For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

  • Reviewed by Matt McCullough 9Marks 3/25/14:
    Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.

    Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway.

  • A conservative who was right about Occupy, by Nathan Schneider. 02/15/14:
    That a critic like Bottum, most at home in conservative quarters, credits Occupy for inspiring his book is to me a reminder of why the movement caught hold of me and so many others so fiercely at the outset: it had the potential to recenter our politics and our discourse and our spectrum. Its failures were less failures of aspiration than of accomplishment — that it wasn’t diverse enough, or empowering enough, or transformative enough to live up to its own transcendental ambitions.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cessario on Cajetan and the Communio School

The Communio school of theology, taken globally, and not as it plays out under the influence of the American edition, is more difficult to define than Thomism. Thomists are those who read Aquinas, and so may be distinguished from those who read and adhere to other major Christian thinkers such as Scotus or St. Bonaventure or Ockham. Partisans of the Communio school, on the other hand, study many authors; their return to the sources embraces a wide range of both ancient and recent theologians and philosophers, and even includes consulting social scientists.

[Tracey] Rowland identifies many of these figures in her chapters. Suffice it to remark that a common feature of Communio school theology is that its adherents subscribe without hesitation to a viewpoint that lately has been set forth by Nicholas M. Healy in his Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life: “In his commentary on the Summa theologiae, Cajetan so separates nature from grace that humanity now has two ends, natural and supernatural. . . .” Healy of course repeats an assertion that was set forth with remarkable success in the twentieth century by Jesuit Father Henri de Lubac, later Cardinal of the Roman Church.

It has always struck me as odd that so many good-willed theologians accept the view that a twentieth-century French Jesuit whose intellectual interests were wide-ranging occupied a better position to understand what St.Thomas Aquinas taught about the finalities of the human person than did a sixteenth-century Italian humanist, who had represented Catholic doctrine in person to no less imposing a figure than Martin Luther and whose commentary on the entire Summa theologiae appears by order of Pope Leo XIII in the critical edition of Aquinas’s opera omnia that bears that Pope’s name, the still incomplete Leonine edition. But they do. Many sincere people, including Tracey Rowland, accept the proposition that de Lubac laid bare a huge historical mistake about how to construe the relationship between nature and grace, and they seemingly consider his critique of Cardinal Cajetan and the Thomists who follow him a non-gainsayable principle of all future Catholic theology. What Cajetan obscured, de Lubac grasped with clarté. Nicholas Healy illustrates this conviction:“[T]he influence of the two-tier conception of reality became widespread and was understood by many theologians as a reasonable development of Thomas’s thought.” One could infer from remarks such as these that Tommaso De Vio, Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534) should be known as the great betrayer of Aquinas instead of his papal approved interpreter. Prima facie, the proposition seems primitive.

Those who want to understand more about this golden apple of twentieth-century theological discord should consult the work of Professor Steven A. Long. His essays on topics such as the obediential potency and other related theological theses repay careful study. Long’s articles reveal the way that theologians have attempted to handle the difficult question of describing adequately the differentiation of finalities that the gratuitous bestowal of divine friendship on the members of the human race introduces into Catholic theology. Because of the centrality that this issue holds in the thought of many of the theologians that Rowland presents to her readers, I think it is important to alert those who will read her book, especially beginners in the discipline, that they should make up their own minds about de Lubac’s critique, and not assume that one eminent French Jesuit and 100,000 Communio followers can’t be wrong. The fact of the matter is that the differentiation of finalities that a Catholic theologian must consider in the human person remains a topic that has been ill served during the period after the Second Vatican Council.

Let me conclude this section with a word of advice to beginners: You can embrace Gaudium et Spes 22 and still follow Cardinal Cajetan.

Romanus Cessario, OP.
Nova et Vetera Vol. 2, No. 2 (2004).

* * *

Incidentally, today is Romanus Cessario's 73rd birthday. You may view more of his articles online here, his full CV here.

Mulcahy on Milbank

I particularly appreciate Mulcahy's Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac for its demonstration of how De Lubac's criticism of pure nature has, carried to its logical conclusions, culminated in the "integralist revolution" of John Milbank, leading proponent of Radical Orthodoxy.

Mulcahy begins with an examination of the political origins of Radical Orthodoxy in Marxist theory and anti-Thatcherism (its hostility refocusing on the "neoimperialist" and "relatively genocidal" United States of America post-9/11). Originally Marxist in tone, Mulcahy observes how Milbank's vision of society has become exclusively theological -- endorsing socialism as not only the creed of "all sane, rational human beings" but as the vehicle by which the peace of the Church [is going to be] mediated to and established in the entire human community."

Maculhy also demonstrates Milbank's increasing receptivity to theocracy -- or rather "democraticed, anarchic theocracy": small, self-sustaining communities "Eucharistic in form, with a liturgical rhythm and a spiritual motivation pervading its system of peaceful sharing." Granted, Milbank does not pretend to know how it would be established.

Maculhy then addresses Milbank's interpretation of De Lubac as the basis for the "integralist revolution" (the notion that Vatican II enacted a "new theology of grace", recognizing that “in concrete, historical humanity there is no such thing as a state of ‘pure nature’. ... with the consequence that one cannot analytically separate ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ contributions to this integral unity.”)

If "everything is grace", nothing is truly secular. To regard philosophy, politics, science and culture as non-theological or possessing "autonomous and immanent secular realms" is tantamount to heresy, against which RO marshals itself in resistance via engagement in radical Christian politics. (Indeed, Milbank indicts De Lubac and Balthasar for being deficient in their "aversion to the secular order" [photographic evidence!]):

RO views any self-limiting theology—all liberal theology—as colluding in its own marginalisation. Radical Orthodoxy intends to reverse this marginalisation by proclaiming theology’s true scope, and by insisting on theology’s relevance in determining the validity of all modes of human discourse. The establishment of the commanding position of theology over all other modes of knowledge, and in regard to all other scholarly and scientific discourse, will thus be a step toward the building of a new Christian modernity. The hope of RO is that this new modernity will be one in which divine wisdom and peace reign over all.
But how, exactly, is the marginalization of theology to be countered? -- for while Pope Benedict might lament the "de-Hellenization" of academia (the attempt by scholars to separate Christianity from Greek philosophical thought), RO abandons reason and objective truth altogether, relinquishing itself to the postmodern depiction of Christianity as a "communal narrative", one among many, howbeit claiming to trump all others as "the narrative of The Word Incarnate":
Given such an exalted Christian claim, namely, that Christian discourse alone enacts and represents the divine Word, how are this discourse’s truth claims to be recognized as true in the Christian community of faith? The idea of objective verification or falsification has, in RO’s judgement, been discredited. The answer is that Christianity “out-narrates” any rival discourse. This is to imply that the Christian story, enacted in the community of faith, has a beauty and luminosity which other discourses lack. As a result, it exerts an aesthetic appeal on those touched by it. Once the attractiveness of the divine beauty is experienced, no other arguments or evidence need be considered. Rather, the very suggestion that such other forms of evidence could be considered is a relic of epistemological naïveté. The Christian story “claims no foundation for the truth of Christianity beyond the compelling vision of the story and of the vision it sustains.”
There is no question of apologetics, of natural law, of rational persuasion, of any marriage of reason and faith -- all that's left is the aesthetic appeal of Christianity.

There is no denying that "the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of" (Pascal); that converts have been won over by the beauty of Christianity, moved by the witness of its martyrs and the lives of its saints. And I can certainly get behind people like Gregory Wolfe, and his belief that "beauty will save the world" -- that art, literature and the fruits of imagination can become the wellsprings to cultural renewal, providing enrichment to public discourse and cultivating a receptiveness towards the truth where ideology and politics cannot. But Radical Orthodoxy doesn't appear to be proclaiming just that -- rather, it gives up on truth and reason altogether. Mulcahy again:

RO vigourously sets itself to reclaim a comprehensive, Christ-centred vision. But such a vision may also invite self deception. Its ostensible discrediting of correspondence theories of truth is, I would suggest, no more than apparent. Our personal vision may be tested against publicly known realities, against the truth not only of Scripture, ecclesial authority, and tradition, but also of wisdom and learning wherever these are to be found. Such an openness to truth cannot consist in collapsing everything into the doctrine of the incarnation, or into Christ’s Eucharistic presence. If it is to serve the world, and even if it is to save the world, doctrine must live with the distinctions between grace and nature, even if it refines them in new ways. If “everything is grace,” as RO would understand it, then Christianity departs for an enclave which must become ever more remote. If, on the other hand, “not everything is grace,” if there is room for the notion of pure nature, then there are vast possibilities for communication between Church and world, and between faith and all human disciplines—to the benefit of all concerned. Methodological arrogance is hardly a necessary quality of a genuinely incarnational theology.

* * *

Returning finally to the topic of Aquinas, Radical Orthodoxy purportedly adopts and expounds upon De Lubac's account of Thomism. However, if recent studies have indicated that De Lubac's understanding of Aquinas was found to be wanting, this defect is apparently by no means an impediment to Radical Orthodoxy. While Maculhy finds that "Milbank has not yet written in any detailed way on the history of Thomism, nor has he been engaged in a close reading of Thomistic texts", this has not deterred Milbank from co-authoring a book with Catherine Pitstock on Truth and Aquinas in which they expound on Aquinas' "theory of knowledge."

The impression is clearly given that for Mulcahy -- and I would imagine for most anybody who adheres to prevailing norms of academic scholarship, rational discourse and validation -- the very act of reading Milbank is itself a recipe for exasperation. Consider the following:

The word "interpretation" must be emphasised and explained when it comes to Milbank’s treatment of Aquinas. As one who rejects "accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality" and denies that truth is a correspondence between the intellect and extra-mental reality, Milbank insists that "the point [of theology] is not to represent ... externality, but just to join in its occurrence; not to know, but to intervene, originate." Accordingly, his recourse to Aquinas is not a work of exegesis, but a project of creative expression: “exegesis is easy; it is interpretation that is difficult, and Aquinas, more than most thinkers, requires interpretation." This explains why Milbank holds that, even if the actual text of St Thomas "appear[s] incontrovertibly to refute my reading," that reading itself should not be subjected to conventional scholarly critique. ...

This ostensibly post-modern approach to sources has predictably occasioned intense criticism. Informed scholars have described Radical Orthodoxy’s interpretations as "gnostic idealism," "blithely imprecise, ideologically driven historical revisionism," "free-floating, self-perpetuating insularity", "opaque [sentences] drifting [in] conceptual murkiness", "sophistical legerdemain," "blatant misreading ... that ignores the ordinary canons of scholarly enquiry," and "[not] just wrong, [but] laughable, though not amusing." Milbank’s vague and sometimes even inaccurate footnotes do not help his cause.

In Milbank’s defence, one can say only that RO had disclaimed the canons of scholarly objectivity and verifiable accuracy right from the beginning. Radical Orthodoxy sets itself to challenge all settled theological opinion, and pretends no dialogical relationship with other views or types of rationality. When considering Milbank’s interpretation of St Thomas, the best approach, one might suggest, is to recognise it as something akin to an interpretive dance. It displays an inherently subjective approach, and, in effect, purports to be nothing else. Scholarship of an objective kind must be sought elsewhere.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac

As noted by Edward Feser, "there is a growing wave of reaction against the Nouvelle Theologie’s reaction against the tradition of the commentators" -- specifically the proposal that "the centuries-old tradition of Aquinas commentators, and the Neo-Scholastics in particular, somehow all got Aquinas wrong on questions of nature and grace, natural and supernatural."

Among such recently published texts are:

I have read and praised McInerney's book elsewhere on this blog -- one of the first of its kind and narrow in scope (focusing specifically on Etienne Gilson and De Lubac's error-ridden interpretation and criticism of Cajetan and Aquinas. My father gifted Feingold's Natural Desire to See God to me on my birthday. Comprehensive in scope and exhaustive in detail, it will likely take several years for me to digest but it is clearly an invaluable resource in this whole debate. Steven A. Long's shorter treatment is on my "to read" list (particularly interesting as it reportedly examines the work of Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI on the topic). Surnatural, likewise on my "to read" list is a collection of various papers pro and con, following a symposium held in 2000 on the controversy of de Lubac's surnaturel.

Having just completed my reading, I wish to commend Mulcahy's Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henry de Lubac, the publication of his doctoral thesis under the title "Not Everything is Grace" for the Australian Catholic University (full text of which can be found here). Here is the abstract:

Henri de Lubac argues that, in early modern times, a pernicious concept began to become commonplace in Roman Catholic theology: this concept is “pure nature.” Pure nature is human nature, considered without reference to grace or to the supernatural destiny of personal union with God. Further, de Lubac argues that Catholic theology, in assimilating this idea, has departed from the sound tradition represented by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. He holds that the notion of pure nature leads inevitably to the self-exclusion of Christianity from the affairs of the world -- when, in fact, the light of the Gospel ought to be shed on all aspects of human existence.

This dissertation tests de Lubac’s thesis concerning the history of the idea of pure nature, showing that this notion is not, in fact, a modern novelty. This study examines the role of the idea of pure nature in the Bible and early Church, in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, in the early modern Jansenist controversy, in the theology of Henri de Lubac, and in the theology of the contemporary Radical Orthodoxy movement, paying particular attention to the historical circumstances which made the repudiation of “pure nature” attractive.

Today, some theologians follow de Lubac in contending that Catholic doctrine must eschew the idea of pure nature in order to resist secularism and maintain Christianity’s relevance to all aspects of human life. This dissertation contends that the idea of pure nature is not only traditional, but necessary for Christian theology. It argues that a Christian “integralism” which refuses to prescind from grace when considering nature can do justice neither to nature nor to grace.

Further review by Reinhard Hutter, Duke Divinity School:
Characterized by acuity of analysis, fairness of judgment, and lucidity of thought and style, Matthew Bernard Mulcahy’s ‘Not Everything Is Grace’ is an indispensable reading for any serious student of theology with an interest in the recent renewal of the debate over ‘nature and grace’ and especially the idea of a ‘pure nature’.

Mulcahy convincingly demonstrates first that theologians of the patristic era were well familiar with a human nature and a common final human discernible apart from revelation and grace and, secondly and more extensively, that the idea, though not the term, of pure nature plays a significant role in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Furthermore, by showing that Henri de Lubac’s characterizations of Baianism and Jansenism occluded the political and historical contexts and impacts of these theological movements, Mulcahy successfully questions Henri de Lubac’s familiar, but historically unsubstantiated claim, that the modern scholastic use of ‘pure nature’ facilitated the rise of modern secularism and atheism.

Last but not least, Mulcahy offers an accurate and illuminating reading of the most recent radicalization of de Lubac’s vision into a comprehensive theological integralism - Radical Orthodoxy. Mulcahy’s perspicuous analysis of its central tenets constitutes a critique that is as charitable as it is devastating. Mulcahy makes a powerful case for the indispensability of the idea of pure nature for a Catholic theology that wants to account for the full scope of the complexity of creaturely existence. This is a ‘must’ on the reading list for every class that tackles the ‘nature-grace-debate’ in the 20th century. Its clarity and even-handedness make it a welcome contribution to a complicated and often heated debate. Tolle, lege!