‘We have to love our way out of this’

I went to mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle at lunchtime today. I had seen earlier that today is the Memorial of Saint Bonaventure, and his life was spoken of during the homily. Bishop Barron’s Gospel reflection (on Matthew 10:34-11:1) speaks to anyone with a wounded heart:

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus lays down the conditions for discipleship: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

There is line from the illuminator of the St. John’s Bible that states: “We have to love our way out of this.” There is nothing wimpy or namby-pamby or blind about this conviction. When we love extravagantly, we are not purposely blinding ourselves to moral realities—just the contrary. Love is not a sentiment, but “a harsh and dreadful thing,” as Dostoevsky said.

This is just what Jesus shows on his terrible cross. And this is just what we, his followers, must imitate…

“We have to love our way out of this.” If we want intimacy with God, and to learn from and imitate the lives of the saints, we can “love our way” in the most authentic sense—in striving for heroic virtue.

Potomac at sunset

What do you do in times when you feel absolutely alone?

I think we all have times where we feel this way—sometimes as a part of daily life, sometimes as a result of heartache, sometimes as a result of trauma, sometimes from a sense of failure or inadequacy, or other longing. I think most of us can identify on some level with C.S. Lewis’s observation that, “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” A common part of aloneness is probably that feeling of “going nowhere.”

In reading Philip D. Halfacre’s Genuine Friendship today, I’m reminded that our way out of this terrible aloneness is, at its heart, in the striving for heroic virtue. It’s been said that “virtue is its own reward,” and I realize that doesn’t simply mean “doing good is good,” but that, because it is in our nature as human beings to relate to one another, virtue inherently involves right relating to those around us. Virtue is its own reward because it is the basis from which other goods flow.

In Genuine Friendship, Philip D. Halfacre writes:

There is a likeness, a similarity between God and us, and that similarity is found in our personhood. We have personhood in common with God; and persons, because they are persons, seek interpersonal union. The personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II provides fresh insights into the way we look at God and into the way we look at ourselves. It is part of the personalist philosophy that we acquire insights about ourselves by reflecting on the personhood of God and that we acquire insights about God by reflecting on human persons.

Because we were made in God’s image, we desire at our deepest level to live in union with other persons. The human person grasps long before the age of reason that possessing the good to the fullest cannot be done in solitude. As we grow and mature, our understanding of the role that people have in our lives develops more fully. This is more than saying that we humans are social beings. We desire to live in union with others not simply because it helps us meet biological needs, but as the bishops at the Second Vatican Council said, “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

A principal theme of this book is that love is the gift of one’s self, a gift that brings about interpersonal union. This is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love each other. It is a love that unites. And, though not always felt, it is real. We must not make the mistake of reducing all love merely to the experience of feeling love. Love is the gift of self, and we can give a small gift or a large gift. When I was a boy, there was a retired gentleman who lived several houses down the street. I was about seven-years-old, and he was in his seventies. In the summertime, I would often go down to his house and sit outside with him. I even had my own little pint-sized chair. We would sit and visit. Though we did not think of it in these terms, we each made a gift of self to the other. It was a small gift—but a gift nonetheless. The experience of the gift of self and the interpersonal union that is created thereby is what I call intimacy.

Imagine two friends who have known each other for many years. They have reached the point where they have no fear of revealing their deepest secrets. Besides feeling free to speak about very private things, they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the other and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the other’s well-being. Here we see a greater gift of self than in the previous example. The union is deeper, and so is the intimacy. Intimacy must not be thought of in an exclusively sexual or romantic way. There is certainly intimacy in sexual love—but non-sexual relationships can be intimate as well. The experience of intimacy is the feeling of being connected with another. It is the sense that somehow my life is a part of your life, and vice versa.

What happens when one experiences intimacy with no one? Then one has the experience, the feeling, of aloneness.

This is one of the most important graphs in the book:

Finally, healthy relating—the kind found in healthy friendships and happy marriages—is a matter of virtue. Great friends, great spouses, begin as great men and great women. It is hard to be a really good friend all the time. That is why we seldom see it. Great lovers love even when their love is not reciprocated. That is hard to do, especially over the long haul. And loving people well means loving them virtuously, which means that all love must be based on and rooted in truth.

Breathing on Mount Nittany

I spent today in Happy Valley for Arts Fest, driving up from Washington in the morning and back home in the evening. Despite seeing Ben Novak and others, the trip was a horrible one, for reasons I won’t get into. It’s always people, and never places or things, that matter.

But if you’re not with friends or loved ones, being alone in God’s creation with the space to breathe isn’t necessarily the worst place to be. This has turned out to be a small way, and certainly not the most important way, to appreciate God’s presence, but it’s something.

Catholic University scenes

It’s been a beautiful week at Catholic University of America for the Civitas Dei fellowship, which has been taking place in Maloney Hall—the home of the Tim & Steph Busch School of Business. I haven’t been able to attend every session, but those I’ve been present for have helped me think more deeply and more seriously about the commitments we’re making (or not making) to advance the common good in our society.

What I haven’t captured here is the torrential rain that kicked off the week on Monday morning, that caused flash flooding across the city. But even when it has rained, it’s been that warm-ish summer rain that leaves you wet, but not miserable.

The internet as anti-hegemonic

William Davies writes:

No leader, party or ideology can credibly be presented as serving the common good. There are only factions battling other factions. Meanwhile, the priorities of the national newspapers and broadcasters seem increasingly out of sync with those of the electorate, who can now turn to a plethora of online sources. Business lobbies have rarely been so powerless over the fundamentals of economic policy. …

The internet is an anti-hegemonic technology. It grants far more power to the consensus-breaker than to the consensus-maker. As the data analytics industry understands, it is a brilliant machine for mapping unusual clusters of feeling and behaviour, but far less suited to establishing averages and generalities. The internet fragments the ‘middle ground’ as a space of political argument, and grants a disproportionately loud voice to the niche and the crank. There are illusions galore here, but no sanctuary for the crucial synecdochal one on which representative democracy depends. Notions of ‘common sense’ and ‘the average voter’ lose their sway.

These trends may be good for the vitality of democracy in various ways, but not necessarily for parliamentary democracy, and less still for effective government in the traditional sense.

The cultural and political revolutions of a century ago make today’s factionalism seem like no big deal by comparison—though there are echoes of the past in the present, and the anarchists that were fighting and rioting in some American streets a century ago are back, at least in Portland. Increasing factionalism suggests a weaker body politic, or at least a less united one; one less sure of itself. And that suggests instability.

If it’s true that the trends William Davies identifies make for less effective government in “the traditional sense,” it should be asked, first, what “traditional sense” of effective government are we walking about, and second, what sort of non-traditional (but nonetheless effective) government might be possible?

It does seem counterintuitive that the connectivity the internet makes possible might be bringing about more factionalism and less unity—a more connected, but less united, society.

Air over water-filled pipes

Penelope Green writes on air-conditioning:

Modernity was born 116 years, 11 months, two weeks and two days ago, at a printing plant in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, when a junior engineer named Willis Carrier devised a contraption that blew air over water-filled pipes to dry out the humidity that was gumming up the pages of a humor magazine called Judge.

And in that moment (well, within a few decades), entire industries and geographies were transformed, and new technologies made possible, including, terribly, the internet: Without cooling, there would be no server farms.

Nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning, more than any other country in the world except Japan, though that will change as global warming alters more temperate zones, and swelling populations and rising incomes in hot zones mean the folks there will clamor for AC, too.

On an overheated planet, air-conditioning becomes more and more desirable, solving in the short term the problem it helped create.

It is another paradox that even as architects and engineers are making ever more efficient buildings to meet energy standards set by cities like New York, where a new law says that buildings over 25,000 square feet must reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, we are still freezing in our offices and fighting with our partners over whether to turn on the Friedrich.

Parts of Germany and France were recently steaming through record temperatures — during last week’s heat wave,police officers in Paris used tear gas on climate change protesters — while I was southbound on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, shivering in the quiet car, rugged up in a scarf, jacket, long pants and boots.

So were my fellow travelers, like Solange Singer, a 41-year-old fashion stylist muffled in similar gear, with a red wool scarf laid out on her lap like a blanket. The conductor seemed puzzled when I asked him what temperature the thermostat was set to. There is no thermostat, he said: “It’s either off or on.”

Fire, the saying goes, made us human. Does air-conditioning make us less so?

I like climate controls, and like electricity and plumbing and internet, I want air conditioning in my life. But there also tends to be a dismissiveness whenever climate control’s relative merits are brought up that I think obscures the fact that climate control fanaticism sometimes makes it difficult to enjoy summer for what it is—a warmer time of year.

When we use technology to systematically alienate ourselves from experiencing the natural world, we’re using that technology in a way that generally makes us less resilient and more reliant we make ourselves more comfortable but less familiar with the world of our ancestors. And without wanting to un-invent any particular technology, it should be simple enough to understand why too much alienation from this world, and from a natural experience of it, risks a kind of havoc.

Especially when a technology becomes ubiquitous should its use be intentional.

Acedia, nihilism, and despair

Dawn Eden Goldstein writes:

The text of The Noonday Devil is neatly divided between two initial chapters outlining the development of theological thought on acedia and two subsequent chapters providing practical advice for combating it. Nault’s historical analysis follows a ressourcement approach that will be familiar to readers of Servais Pinckaers. He begins with an extensive treatment of acedia in Evagrius and other Desert Fathers, passing briefly through other Church Fathers and Hugh of St. Victor before commencing a chapter-length account of Thomas Aquinas’s teachings on the vice.

Acedia, Nault explains, is a concern in the Desert Fathers’ writings because it “drives the monk to leave his cell and to flee intimacy with God, so as to seek here and there some compensation for the austere way of life to which he felt called by God” (11). Nault’s analysis of Evagrius provides a core insight, one which he will revisit as the book’s focus turns from theory to praxis: acedia for Evagrius comprises two complementary dimensions, the temporal and the spatial. Temporally, the acedia sufferer feels as though “the passage of time is never ending.” This sense of ennui can affect the body, bringing about “a certain physical weakness …, accompanied by the potential for a psychological disturbance.” Spatially, the acedia sufferer has “the impression of being hemmed in, of being stifled” (30).

Before developing the implications of Evagrius’s account, Nault switches gears for his Thomistic analysis. Thomas follows Gregory the Great in identifying acedia as “sorrow for spiritual good.” “And yet,” Nault adds, “in an altogether new insight, he describes it as the first sin against the joy that springs from charity. He makes it the sin against the gaudium de caritate” (62).

The remedy for acedia is, therefore, that which will restore charity in the sufferer’s soul. Nault, by means of a remarkably concise (and unmistakably Pinckaersian) account of the outlines of Aquinas’s moral theology—the exitus-reditus structure of the Summa, the nature of virtue as a habitus, true vs. false freedom, and the ultimate goal of beatitude—identifies that remedy as nothing less than the Incarnation: “Christ restores to us the hope of being able to participate fully in the divine life” (86). …

If you take the two definitions of acedia that we mentioned in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with action,” and you abandon the unified concept of Christian action in which the Holy Spirit and Christ are at the very heart of this action, you will see that sadness becomes [characterized as] “melancholy” and the paralysis of action becomes “sloth.” (105)

At the start of the second half of The Noonday Devil, Nault notes that he is not so interested in “[analyzing] the causes of the rather disillusioned outlook of our modern world” as in proposing “the current relevance of acedia in the life of a Christian” (107‒08, emphasis in original). By understanding the nature of acedia, the Christian may guard against temptations toward nihilism and despair.

“Modernity,” writes Brian Rottkamp, “tends to blur the difference between spending time in a way that elevates the individual and society and a way which is unproductive and/or harmful.”

A politics more oriented toward the common good

W. James Antle writes on Rep. Justin Amash’s leaving the Republicans:

What came after in the form of the Tea Party brought together fiscal and social conservatives in defense of the Constitution… At its peak, this new movement helped elect two important skeptics of military interventionism, Rand Paul and Justin Amash. With fellow traveler Mike Lee and such later additions as Thomas Massie, they outnumbered more hawkish newcomers like Marco Rubio, even if they remained a minority among congressional Republicans overall.

It looked like a free market populism could take hold of the GOP. Instead populism without the modifier took over via Donald Trump and Amash is now out of the party, declaring his own independence on the Fourth of July. While Amash’s frustration with partisan politics had been growing for years, it was his break with Trump that made this move seem inevitable.

To some extent, we’re witnessing a fight between those who want conservative leaders to be good and those who want conservatism itself to be less individualistic and more oriented toward the common good. …

The federal government keeps getting bigger no matter which party holds the pursestrings. There’s a case to be made that fusionism as practiced by the GOP and mainstream conservative movement shortchanged both libertarians and social conservatives.

But tax cuts and deregulation happen more frequently than any real progress on social issues, even though evangelicals and conservative Catholics supply most of the votes for Republican candidates. The most electorally viable economic conservatism is really a form of social conservatism, a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic. Yet even making tax cuts more family-friendly, whether through child tax credits or incentives for parental leave, inspires considerable pushback.

Moreover, atomistic individualism, if not real libertarianism, has played a role in social conservative setbacks on abortion and marriage, among other issues, without producing similar gains for religious liberty. This has led many traditionalists to question at a more fundamental level the concepts of personal autonomy at least partially fueling trends they dislike.

All this has occurred amid shrinking libertarian influence over Republican voters in general. A The Hill/Harris poll conducted in June found Republicans resistant to cutting federal spending in all 19 categories tested. This includes not just traditional GOP priorities like law enforcement or defense, but also education, infrastructure, health care, and unemployment insurance.

Many libertarians have doubled down in the face of this resistance. It would be better to abolish the welfare state than to regulate immigration, they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans.

This phrase could describe an incredible number of advocacy groups and lobbyists in Washington: “…they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans.

Civitas Dei

We spent Independence Day weekend in Virginia in Front Royal and Manassas, and I’m back in Washington tonight at Catholic University and the Dominican House of Studies. I’ll be a part of the Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship this week:

The Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship (sponsored by the Thomistic Institute and the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America) supports rising scholars seeking to better understand the Catholic intellectual tradition. This summer’s program will examine the search for happiness as a fundamental end of the person and the polis. Applications will be accepted from graduate students and advanced undergraduates in all disciplines.

The week-long seminar will introduce students to foundational themes in philosophy, political theory, and theology, dealing with law, personhood, political life, and the search for happiness. The focus will be an introduction to foundations of political and moral theory of Augustine, Aquinas, and modern constitutional jurisprudence. The program will include visits to institutions in Washington, DC, as well as encounters with outstanding Catholic public figures. The seminar is an excellent way to think theoretically about the intersection of political theory, moral principles, and practical engagement, in the heart of the nation’s capital.

Adrian Vermeule
Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law
Harvard Law School

Adrian Vermeule is the Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law. Before coming to the Law School, he was the Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. The author or co-author of nine books, most recently Law’s Abnegation: From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State (2016), The Constitution of Risk (2014) and The System of the Constitution (2012). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. His research focuses on administrative law, the administrative state, the design of institutions, and constitutional theory. Having grown up in Cambridge and attended Harvard College ’90 and Harvard Law School ’93, Vermeule lives in Cambridge still.

Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P.
Professor of Moral Theology, Dominican House of Studies
Prior of the Dominican House of Studies

Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., is the prior of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, where he also teaches moral theology. He obtained his doctorate from the university of Fribourg (Switzerland), defending a dissertation on St. Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the common good. Fr. Guilbeau has also worked for various Catholic media, including The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM Radio, EWTN Radio, and Aleteia.org.

Chad C. Pecknold, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, The Catholic University of America
Faculty Fellow of The Institute for Human Ecology

Chad C. Pecknold is an associate professor of systematic theology. He teaches in the areas of fundamental theology, Christian anthropology, and political theology, with a particular interest in Saint Augustine’s City of God. As a commentator on the Church and contemporary politics, Dr. Pecknold has appeared on a wide variety of other news programs from NPR and PBS, to FOX, CNBC, Voice of America, and the BBC. c policy to natural science, technology, and the environment.

Dumbarton birdsong

I was on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown, early one morning a few weeks ago, and heard the birds singing. Georgetown is a neighborhood that feels absolutely covered by trees, and so it’s like a refuse amidst the wider city (or at least compared to the downtown) where birds can rest and sing:

When is the last time you’ve made the time to hear the birds?