Friday, February 10, 2006

Dale Vree and the New Oxford Review

New Oxford Review editor Dale Vree's been the topic of furious discussion on two blogs this week:Dr. Blosser* mounts a defense of Vree because:
. . . I have consistently found its journalism of unique value over the past decades, and I have felt it (and its editor) unjustly -- I repeat UNJUSTLY -- maligned and marginalized over the last few years by people who are not regular readers of NOR, who are not familiar with its writings or with its editor's perspective or aims. In some cases, they give little impression of knowing what they are even talking about.

I read the New Oxford Review throughout my years at college and enjoyed it immensely -- my father kept old copies in his office and I plundered his cache on many an occasion. When I graduated, I found them at a newsstand near work and kept on reading. I'm probably not as well acquainted with the more recent issues as others, but they do fall into my hands from time to time.

At some point, I can't remember precisely when, New Oxford Review lost its appeal to me. Was it their bold, stubborn orthodoxy that I found intimidating? -- I'm inclined to say no. After all, around the same time I stopped buying NOR at the newstand I discovered the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger. But there was something that prompted my lapse in purchasing NOR while retaining my subscription to, say, First Things and Crisis: I found in the overall tone of Dale Vree's editorials (the 'New Oxford Notes') an increasing spirit of rancor that inevitably tainted my appreciation of the magazine itself.

I do not dispute the fact -- commenting on Dr. Blosser's post -- that "the possibility of theological universalism, a feminine Pneumatology, or administrative malpractice at Ave Maria" (to name some of the most controversial issues) aren't subjects worth discussing. In fact, I think Fr. Neuhaus, Scott Hahn, Fr. Fessio, Cardinal Dulles (to name a few of the more prominent targets) are perfectly capable of taking criticism (see, for instance, the letters section of First Things or Crisis; both periodicals which are often host to substantial criticism, howbeit with a tad more respect and comparatively less sniping).

The problem I find is that sometimes (more often than not?) the manner in which Vree engages in criticism -- his caustic "pit bull" approach -- is ultimately counterproductive, rendering those whom he criticizes deaf to anything of value he has to say. Vree doesn't take kindly to John Courtney Murray, but during the course of this weeks' discussion of The New Oxford Review and the merits of its editor, I was reminded of this famous passage from We Hold These Truths:

Barbarism likewise threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. There are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice . . . when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues . . . when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other's argument only through the screen of their own categories; when defiance is flung to the basic ontological principle of all ordered discourse, which asserts that Reality is an analogical structure, within which there are variant modes of reality, to each of which there corresponds a distinctive method of thought that imposes on argument its own special rules. When things like this happen, men cannot be locked together in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of the dialogue.

* * *

I came across this exchange between Vree and Weigel in the December 2004 issue of the NOR which I is characteristic of what I find wrong with his approach, especially with respect to orthodox Catholics who are, in the end, on his side in the culture war:

George Weigel: The rest of the country has often had reason to wonder about the contents of the Berkeley water supply. Whatever is going on in your fair city now appears to have degraded your Editor’s capacity to read.

Contrary to your Editor’s polemic in your September issue (“George ‘Humpty Dumpty’ Weigel”), I have never written that “freedom” is “another name for virtue.” In the column that so offended your Editor, what I noted parenthetically was that “habit” is “another name for ‘virtue.’” Those capable of reading English understood this — except, evidently, those looking to deal the dread neoconservative beast another lick. I might also point out that my snapshot description of the meaning of freedom in that column — “doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way, as a matter of habit (which is another name for ‘virtue’)” — leans on the work of Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., one of the principal influences on Veritatis Splendor and the leading contemporary interpreter of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Before he charges his sundry bogeymen with “rhetorical witchcraft,” your Editor might do them the courtesy to read what they write with that minimum of care nominally associated with the office of “Editor.”

George Weigel
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Washington, D.C.

Weigel, of course, is a bit snippety in the opening of his letter -- there is just something in Vree's style which often provokes the worst kind of spirit in people. Here is Vree's response:

The Editor Replies In your original piece and in your letter, you said “freedom” is “doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way, as a matter of habit,” and you said “doing the right thing…as a matter of habit” is “another name for ‘virtue.’” What’s not to understand? What you wrote is crystal clear: Freedom is habit is virtue. Therefore, freedom is virtue. Sorry, but there’s no “plausible deniability” here. You can’t wiggle out of it. You said it, and you can’t pass the buck on to Fr. Pinckaers.

All this stuff about what’s in the Berkeley water supply, our inability to read English, and denying what you actually wrote just proves our point: You are indeed a practitioner of rhetorical witchcraft.

Now, were Vree genuinely interested in a constructive debate with Weigel, he could acknowledge that he might be in error in interpreting him. This seems to me a likely possiblity, especially in reading Weigel's original article ("A Nation Defining Election", The Tidings April 2004):
[Weigel:] The second great issue underlying the 2004 campaign involves the nature of freedom. Is freedom a means to satisfy personal "needs"? Or does freedom have something to do with moral truth --- with goodness? Is freedom doing things "my way"? Or is freedom doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way, as a matter of habit (which is another name for "virtue")? Once again, the parties, the candidates, and the nation seem sharply divided here.
Likewise, had Vree bothered to consult the Catholic Enyclopedia, he would of course find:
Taken in its widest sense virtue means the excellence of perfection of a thing, just as vice, its contrary, denotes a defect or absence of perfection due to a thing. In its strictest meaning, however, as used by moral philosophers and theologians, it signifies a habit superadded to a faculty of the soul, disposing it to elicit with readiness acts conformable to our rational nature.
But rather, Vree is so utterly convinced of his interpretation that he goes on to reiterate the charge in his hatchet-job of a review of Weigel's book, The Cube & the Cathedral. The review is titled (as if you had to guess) "Rhetorical Witchcraft" (New Oxford Review January 2006):
. . . Of freedom, Weigel says: "Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit -- or, to use an old-fashioned term, as a matter of virtue." Sorry, but freedom is not another name for virtue. No dictionary defines freedom as virtue.

Politically correct liberals redefine and euphemize words to suit their purposes: Homosexuals are "gay," pornography is "adult entertainment," abortion is "choice" or "reproductive rights," etc. This is rhetorical witchcraft. And now we're supposed to believe that freedom is "virtue"? This is just more rhetorical witchcraft.

Remember: this takes place after Weigel has written Vree, to correct him as to what he intended by the phrase.

Read Vree's "review" of Weigel's book and judge for yourself -- is it an above-the-board assessment of Weigel's actual thought on these matters? Or is this just another opportunity for Vree to engage in invective against a despised neocon? Consider this excerpt:

Europe is decadent, as is America. They are free societies where, as Rumsfeld says, people "commit crimes" (which is what Vatican II called abortion) and "do bad things" (we would include homosexual acts, premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, euthanasia, contraception, etc.). Weigel, however, is worried about the Muslims flocking into Europe. But observant Muslims are opposed to abortion, homosexual acts, premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, euthanasia, and they have large families. That's why Muslim countries have been the greatest allies of the Holy See at the UN. If Weigel is so interested in virtue, why does he want war against observant Muslims?

Weigel quotes John Paul's signature phrase, "Do not be afraid." But Weigel is very afraid of Muslims. Have Catholics ever thought of evangelizing the Muslims coming into Europe? Or have Catholics given up on evangelization since Vatican II? Could be. But it shouldn't be, for then Weigel and those who think like him wouldn't be afraid. John Paul believed in evangelization and he was not afraid.

Weigel also says freedom is "freedom for [moral] excellence." Ah, but who defines moral excellence? The Church? If so, it's a theocratic society, not a free society. Weigel believes in separation of Church and State, so it cannot be the Church. So who defines excellence? In a free, democratic, pluralistic society, no one has a monopoly on defining moral excellence; it's up to the ndividual.

To note briefly three things about this correspondence between Weigel / Vree:
  • In linking freedom to "moral excellence", Weigel is simply restating the understanding of freedom common to Lord Acton (freedom is not moral libertinism, but "freedom to do what one ought). Weigel clearly isn't a moral relativist. Nor does he suffer from utopian delusions regarding the moral perfection of Western civilization -- those who are familiar with his writings know he is a fierce critic of the decadence and moral bankruptcy of (secular) Western culture, wrought by a false conception of freedom as the gratification of ego. (Weigel, one might also recall, is also the official biographer of Pope John Paul II and closely familiar with his thought).

    It is unfortunate, then, that in a manner that is characteristic of The Remnant's skewing John Paul II's encyclicals, Dale Vree takes a single line from Weigel and fashions from it something completely inimical to Weigel's intended meaning.

  • However much Vree praises "observant Muslim" societies, it remains the case that virtue imposed through threat of physical violence, even upon pain of death, as is unfortunately the case under Sharia law, is hardly virtue at all. Did those living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, with weekly beheadings in the stadium, exemplify "moral virtue" in such conditions?

  • Let's go over Vree's last musing again: "Who defines moral excellence? The Church? If so, it's a theocratic society, not a free society. Weigel believes in separation of Church and State, so it cannot be the Church. . . . In a free, democratic, pluralistic society, no one has a monopoly on defining moral excellence; it's up to the individual."

    In his defense, Dr. Blosser asserts Vree's "careful reasoning," but I find it very hard to see what he's getting at in his simplistic reading of Weigel (who has explored this topic in great depth, for instance, in Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism). The separation of divine and temporal authority isn't necessarily a concrete either/or choice between a "theocratic state" or "rampant individualism."' Cardinal Pell recently challenged this distinction in his article Is There Only Secular Democracy? Imagining Other Possibilities for the Third Millennium (Markets & Morality Volume 7, Number 2 Fall 2004).

    God forbid Vree approach Benedict XVI's articulate and nuanced discussion of the role of the Church in political life in Deus Caritas Est with the same attitude as he does Weigel.

I suspect that if Weigel and Vree got together over a beer at the next "Theology On Tap," they would have much to discuss and might even find themselves agreeing on those things that matter most (excluding Vree's curious preoccupation with Israel and animosity towards "neocons").

I also think that underneath Vree's vituperation there are raised pertinent questions about a neoconservative support for President Bush, and what is intended by the Bush administration's campaign to spread "freedom" across the globe. By all means, these are issues worth talking about.

But it is precisely the manner in which Vree raises these questions -- couched in satire, snide remarks, and dripping condescension, especially toward one's fellow Catholics who strive to be orthodox and who would probably be in substantial agreement with him on many issues -- that present a severe impediment to a serious discussion ever getting off the ground.

I am sure Weigel isn't alone here in protesting that his remarks have been unfairly presented (the December 2004 letters section also contains a letter from Avery Cardinal Dulles, disturbed over Vree's presentation of his remarks at a National Catholic Prayer Breakfast ("neoconservative front group," in Vree's words).

[Note: Since the link to Dulles' address was kindly provided by a commentator, I have expanded the following remarks on the Vree/Dulles dispute - CB 2/12/06]:

In the letters section, Dale Vree fiercely chastises Cardinal Dulles for kowtowing to the neocons:

You gave your speech to a bunch of neoconservative war hawks and Republican faithful. President Bush has repeatedly said he wants to spread freedom all over the world. He does not say “authentic” freedom. When America invaded Afghanistan and toppled its government, one of the first freedoms given to women was the right to abort. We deprived many Afghan women of their “authentic” freedom, and gave them American-style freedom. If the same happens throughout the Muslim world, “authentic” freedom will diminish and the Muslim world will “gravitate toward hedonism and moral chaos,” which is what you say is happening in America. . . . You had a great opportunity in your speech to speak as a prophet, to point out that in key areas there’s more “authentic” freedom in the Muslim countries than there is in America, and that maybe America shouldn’t try to remake the Muslim countries in America’s image. It’s a shame you failed to do so.
One problem as I see it, is that Vree reads both Weigel and Dulles through the lens of his criticism of the neocons and the war in Iraq. For example, in his book review of Cube and the Cathedral, he remarks regarding Weigel's praise of "the Slavic view of history":
"Why is Weigel so hot for the Slavic part? We'd guess because certain of those countries sent troops to Iraq."
I have yet to read Weigel's book myself, but as I recall his basic argument was expanded from the article Europe's Problem - And Ours (First Things 140 February 2004), in which he clearly explains that "the slavic view of history" is
. . . the conviction that the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. In this way of thinking, history is not simply the by-product of the contest for power in the world—although power certainly plays an important role in it. And neither is history the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production. Rather, history is driven, over the long haul, by culture—by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.
Careful reading on Vree's part?

Returning to Cardinal Dulles, here is the Cardinal expressing his subservience to "neocon warhawks and the Republican faithful":

Our nation, to its credit, has helped to overthrow tyrannous regimes abroad. But it seems unable to create anything more than a moral vacuum, which is hastily filled by the demons of fraud, drugs, and violence. In post-Communist and post-Taliban societies too many citizens begin to hanker for a return of the ousted rulers, who provided a least a minimum of order and security.

The basic error, I suggest, is the practice of defining freedom in terms of its negative pole alone. To be free from coercion would be pointless unless we were free for something. Every choice requires that the will be actuated by an object that is, or appears to be, good. As rational beings we are required to discern what is truly and abidingly good. Positively defined, freedom is the quality of choices that are made responsibly with a view to goodness and truth. . . .

Nothing is so liberating as the love of God. Most human beings, driven as they are by the attractions of ease and comfort, can easily be manipulated by threats and by torture. But the martyrs, with their hearts set on God alone, are able to stand up against every human adversary. Except for Christ, the saints are the freest persons on earth.

A missed opportunity to "speak as a prophet"? -- Vree's take on Dulles is titled "Can You Be Two-Thirds Free & One-Third Slave?" (New Oxford Review Sept. 2004); the original text of Dulles' inaugural prayer breakfast address is available here. Does Vree offer a fair evaluation? Judge for yourself.

Perhaps Vree's "faithful pit bull" approach has its place -- but sometimes I think he just needs a muzzle.

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* I have more affectionate titles for The Pertinacious Papist as he is my father, but online I respectfully defer to his academic office. =)

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