Public life v. politics

George Weigel writes on John Paul II in 2001:

Pope John Paul II’s considerable effect on our times is conceded by admirers and critics alike. The imprint of the shoes of this fisherman can be found throughout the new democracies of east central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. His critique of “real existing democracy” has helped define the key moral issues of public life in the developed democracies and in the complex world of international institutions. Some sober analysts of papal history argue that one must return to the early thirteenth century, to Pope Innocent III, to find a pontificate with such a marked influence on contemporary public life.

Yet there is a paradox here: the “political” impact of this pontificate, unlike that of Innocent III, has not come from deploying what political realists recognize as the instruments of political power. Rather, the Pope’s capacity to shape history has been exercised through a different set of levers.

As Bishop of Rome and sovereign of the Vatican City micro-state, John Paul has no military or economic power at his disposal. The Holy See maintains an extensive network of diplomatic relations and holds Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. But whatever influence John Paul has had through these channels simply underscores the fact that the power of his papacy lies in a charism of moral persuasion capable of being translated into political effectiveness.

This paradox—political effectiveness achieved without the normal instruments of political power—is interesting in itself. It also has heuristic value. It tells us something about the nature of politics at the dawn of a new millennium. Contrary to notions widely accepted since the late eighteenth century, the public impact of John Paul II suggests that politics (understood as the contest for power), or economics, or some combination of politics and economics, is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, engine of history. The revolution of conscience that John Paul ignited in June 1979 in Poland—the moral revolution that made the Revolution of 1989 possible—is simply not explicable in conventional political or economic categories. John Paul’s public accomplishment has provided empirical ballast for intellectual and moral challenges to several potent modern theories of politics, including French revolutionary Jacobinism, Marxism-Leninism, and utilitarianism. The political world just doesn’t work the way the materialists claim.

At the end of a century in which it was widely agreed that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” the paradox in the public impact of John Paul II also reminds us of five other truths: that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change; that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past; that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world; that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities.

In sum, and precisely because it has not been mediated through the “normal” instruments of political power, the “worldly accomplishment” of John Paul II has helped free us from the tyranny of politics. By demonstrating in action the linkage between profound moral conviction and effective political power, this pontificate has helped restore politics to its true dignity while keeping politics within its proper sphere.

The distinctive modus operandi of this politically potent Pope also suggests something about the future of the papacy, the world’s oldest institutional office, and about Catholicism in the third millennium of its history.

Those five truths aside from power through violence are worth emphasizing:

  1. that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change;
  2. that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past;
  3. that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world;
  4. that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and
  5. that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities

Public life and politics are not the same things.

Directing progress

From the Venerable Fulton Sheen’s “plea for intolerance:”

America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broadminded. A bigoted man is one who refuses to accept a reason for anything; a broadminded man is one who will accept anything for a reason—providing it is not a good reason. It is true that there is a demand for precision, exactness, and definiteness, but it is only for precision in scientific measurement, not in logic. The breakdown that has produced this unnatural broadmindedness is mental, not moral. The evidence for this statement is threefold: the tendency to settle issues not by arguments but by words, the unqualified willingness to accept the authority of anyone on the subject of religion, and, lastly, the love of novelty.

The acids of modernity are eating away the fossils of orthodoxy.

Belief in the existence of God, in the Divinity of Christ, in the moral law, is considered passing fashions. The latest thing in this new tolerance is considered the true thing, as if truth were a fashion, like a hat, instead of an institution like a head.

The final argument for modern broad-mindedness is that truth is novelty and hence “truth” changes with the passing fancies of the moment. Like the chameleon that changes his colors to suit the vesture on which he is placed, so truth is supposed to change to fit the foibles and obliquities of the age. The nature of certain things is fixed, and none more so than the nature of truth. Truth may be contradicted a thousand times, but that only proves that it is strong enough to survive a thousand assaults. But for any one to say, “Some say this, some say that, therefore, there is no truth,” is about as logical as it would have been for Columbus who heard some say, “The earth is round”, and others say “The earth is flat” to conclude: “Therefore, there is no earth.” Like a carpenter who might throw away his rule and use each beam as a measuring rod, so, too, those who have thrown away the standard of objective truth have nothing left with which to measure but the mental fashion of the moment.

The giggling giddiness of novelty, the sentimental restlessness of a mind unhinged, and the unnatural fear of a good dose of hard thinking, all conjoin to produce a group of sophomoric latitudinarians who think there is no difference between God as Cause and God as a “mental projection”; who equate Christ and Buddha, and then enlarge their broad-mindedness into a sweeping synthesis that says not only that one Christian sect is as good as another, but even that one world-religion is just as good as another. The great god “Progress” is then enthroned on the altars of fashion, and as the hectic worshippers are asked, “Progress toward what?” the tolerant comes back with “More progress.” All the while sane men are wondering how there can be progress without direction and how there can be direction without a fixed point. And because they speak of a “fixed point”, they are said to be behind the times, when really they are beyond the times mentally and spiritually.

Being ‘childlike’

I’m sharing Saturday’s Gospel reading, and Bishop Robert Barron’s reflection on it, because it’s not only a beautiful reflection on what Christ means when he tells us to be “childlike,” but it’s also a good way to return to C.S. Lewis’s trilemma to figure out who Christ is:

Bishop Robert Barron, Daily Gospel Reflections
Luke 10:17-24

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus calls his disciples and us “childlike”: “Although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike”. How so? Children don’t know how to dissemble, how to be one way and act another. “Kids say the darndest things,” because they don’t know how to hide the truth of their reactions.

In this, they are like stars or flowers or animals, things that are what they are, unambiguously. The challenge of the spiritual life is to realize what God wants us to be and thereby come to the same simplicity and directness in our existence. To find out what is in line with the deepest grain of our being.

Let me put this another way: children haven’t yet learned how to look at themselves. Why can a child immerse himself so eagerly and thoroughly in what he is doing? Because he can lose himself; because he is not looking at himself, conscious of the reactions, expectations, and approval of those around him. The best moments in life occur when we lose the ego, lose ourselves in the world and just are as God wants us to be.

Children “don’t know how to hide the truth of their reactions …are like stars or flowers or animals, things that are what they are. … The best moments in life occur when we lose the ego…”

Luke’s Gospel is great for returning to C.S. Lewis’s trilemma, because it provides insight into Christ that makes it impossible to consider him merely a “great moral teacher” or some sort of spiritual philosopher. Christ tells his disciples, “I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy.” Christ instructs his disciples to “rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” And most startlingly, he literally shares that “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma…”

Natural law’s origins

Bradley J. Birzer writes on Christopher Dawson’s thinking as an historian and meta-historian on natural law:

Certainly, the moment-by-moment unfolding and detailing of the past mattered, but only as these served as a means to understand the larger currents of thought and the human condition. It was the sea changes in thought and consciousness across cultures and over time that most interested him as scholar and thinker.

In the earliest awareness men had of their world, they worshipped the divine—whatever that divine might be. These various forms of worship, Dawson believed, served as the basis of all human culture(s). No Lockean, Dawson argued that men came together because of their mutual interest in defending what they each agreed was sacred, rather than as a compact in which each man sought to protect his own interests against the community. As Dawson viewed it, man’s first step in development was the formation of community based on the interests of the community and the community’s divine, not some recognition of individualism. As the title of Dawson’s first book, The Age of the Gods, suggests, this was an age of the divine. From the worship of the divine, each people developed their own distinctive way of life.

The second greatest moment in human history, Dawson argued, arrived around 500 BC throughout the entire civilized world—in the Mediterranean, in India, and in China. If the first great movement was the Age of the Gods, the second great movement was an age of the “humane” or of “humanism,” as Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Greek embraced a vision of what would become a common humanity that transcends nations, races, and religions. Amazingly enough, each form of humanism—whether in China, Indian, or Ionia—developed within mere years of the others.

What defined this age as brilliant and peculiar was, in fact, its non-peculiarity. Throughout the civilized world, from East to West, each of the great ways of thinking embraced what would one day be called the “natural law,” applicable to all times and all places. The law emanated from the divine toward and upon all, regardless of soil, culture, skin tone, and temporal existence. As Dawson noted, the Natural Law applied to men as well as to nature; thus, natural law allowed human thought to free itself from the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. …

Though Dawson remained unsure why the Natural Law developed, he did not hesitate to celebrate it. He remained firmly convinced that the development of Natural Law did not randomly emerge from individual genius, but rather believed that individual genius arose out of the various traditions and norms of each people. …

Dawson focused much of his own thought on the first of the great Greek philosophers—indeed, the first philosopher anywhere—Heraclitus. In seeking an answer to the cycles of nature and the human person, he came to believe that all things found themselves rooted in a divine (if very pantheistic) element, Fire, or, in Greek, Logos. The Logos, while not quite god, represented the mind of the universe, and it endowed all persons, everywhere, with Reason, the language of the gods and of men. By speaking the language of Reason, each person could embrace not only the divine in the next realm, but, critically, the divine in each person of this world.

With the Logos, men became human.

This is my first introduction to Dawson, but he immediately reminds me of Will Durant in terms of his interest in understanding history in an integrative way:

Power alone fades

In light of Pope Francis’s and Archbishop Paglia’s dissolution of John Paul the Great’s Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family, Ross Douthat writes:

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal. …

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty. Under Francis the church’s teaching on communion for remarried divorcees varies from country to country and diocese to diocese, and even papal admirers can’t seem to agree on what the official Vatican position entails. The church’s teaching on suicide now varies in different parts of Canada, and since the Vatican seems to accept that variation a Belgian religious order has pushed things even further, insisting that it intends to actually carry out assisted suicide at its hospitals. (This Rome seems to regard as a bridge too far — but the Belgians are not submitting quietly.) …

It is hard to know what will come of this era’s Catholic crisis. Can the church really become Anglican, with sharply different Christian theologies coexisting permanently under a latitudinarian umbrella? Is the period of dueling inquisitions and digital militias a prelude to the sweeping liberal victory that many Catholics felt that John Paul and Benedict cruelly forestalled? Will the pendulum swing back, as Francis’s nervous allies fear, leaving his legacy to be buried by young traditionalists and a reactionary pontiff in the style of HBO’s “Young Pope”?

Faith gives some observers certain answers, but natural reason counsels doubt. Regardless, firings and cancellations and self-protective censorship will not make the conflict any less painful in the end. There is no way forward save through controversy. Postpone the inquisitions; schedule arguments instead.

I’m incredibly conflicted about Pope Francis’s actions relating to the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. I think there’s incredible promise in Amoris Laetitia, particularly on the vision of Christian accompaniment in our time, that deserves to be developed and bear fruit. But the decision to dissolve John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes and create new ones bearing John Paul’s name (but with a mission to treat Francis’s vision as the touchstone) strikes me as graceless.

Worse, raw power politics has now come tumbling out onto the public stage as a result of these actions for all to see. And as Douthat points out, it seems increasingly impossible for academics, theologians, and philosophers to have meaningful conversations surrounding the central Christian beliefs raised over the past few years without being fired, dismissed, marginalized, or called names. Pope Francis himself has engaged in name-calling and stereotyping from time to time, which seems to me to the detriment of his own authority.

Archbishop Paglia has presented the reconstitution of John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes as an “enlargement” of their purpose and his manner suggests that these changes are in harmony with Christian teaching. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, founding president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, said plainly last year that “only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church.” Simply put, Archbishop Paglia’s words cannot be taken at face value, because the concrete result of +Paglia’s actions in this instance is explicitly the diminishment of John Paul’s teaching witness. As valuable as Amoris may be, a single teaching encyclical cannot seriously be understood to “fulfill” the entirely of John Paul’s witness. And in light of John Paul’s canonization, these are even stranger actions.

Fundamental Christian theology is at stake on the nature of Jesus Christ and his teachings, particularly relating to sex, family, marriage, and communion. As Douthat writes, now is the time for authentic dialogue and argument about these things. Along that path, alighted by charity and truth, we have a chance of walking with Christ. It seems to me that Archbishop Paglia’s actions invite rupture in Christian theology, and that Pope Francis’s refusal to treat his cardinal brothers’ questions about Amoris as worth debate does serious injury to the power of the pontifical voice.

If Amoris is meant to result in “irreversible” changes to Christian theology and pastoral practice, it can only do so through theological engagement; power alone fades.

A far better way for Amoris to be meaningfully promulgated would have been the creation of a new and parallel Pontifical Institute, with first-rate theologians, philosophers, scientists, etc. who would bring forth Amoris’s fruits. Dissolving John Paul’s Pontifical Institutes and dismissing their faculty is the sort of action that invites exactly the sort of conflict and cultural/theological war that Pope Francis seems in so many other ways to transcend for the better. At best, this was a strategic error on the part of well-intentioned reformers. At worst, it was a provocation of the sort that necessarily invites conflict.

At present, things that are sins in Philadelphia are encouraged in Milan. If this is not rupture, what is?

Church of the Nativity

National Geographic shared this incredible post the other day, and I saved it and am sharing it:

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 4.47.00 PM.png

Photograph by @simonnorfolkstudioon assignment for an upcoming story for @natgeo … Mosaics at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem: The Doubting of Thomas.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. The Church of the Nativity was originally commissioned in 327 by Roman emperor Constantine and his mother Helena over the cave that is still traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. The present church was built by the Emperor Justinian after the destruction of the Samaritan Revolt of 529 CE. In 614, the church had a narrow escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognised the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church.

The site is currently under restoration within an international project managed by the Palestinians through the Project Client “The Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church”. Work on the mosaics is part of an estimated $19 million makeover -the building hadn’t undergone major repairs since 1479. Of the 2,000 meters of original mosaics, only 150 meters squared remains. Mosaics created 155-1169CE

The artist, Basilius, signed his name in Latin and Syriac — using tesserae. Basilius did the technical work, Aram was was the artist.

Follow @simonnorfolkstudio for updates, outtakes, unpublished and archive material.

I grew up attending weekly mass at Nativity parish in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

Catholic education’s purpose

Archbishop Chaput writes in his recent column on Catholic education, in light of the start of another academic year:

Over the Labor Day weekend I got a note from a friendly Catholic scholar who’s an expert in the history of religions.  She teaches at one of Europe’s large secular universities. … Speaking of her relations with colleagues and students, and the difficult atmosphere in which she works, she wrote:

“Today’s moral conflicts [in the classroom and beyond it] are fundamentally about the structure of reality.  In other words, is there an objective world with a stable, accessible nature or not?  The two camps seem to be that of disorder (chaos, fluidity, partial relative truths, moral permissiveness, radical equality) and that of order (hierarchical structure, objective natures, clear moral goodness accessible to humans, etc.). To the first camp, the second camp seems rigid and deadening, that is, not in harmony with ‘reality,’ which for the first camp is a great mass of shifting grays, instead of blacks and whites, good and bad. 

“The spirit of the first camp is ultimately self-destructive and cannot last, but in the meantime we need to live and navigate through this cosmic fight. I’m troubled by seeing so many of the students I teach choosing fluid darkness instead of the stable and clear light.” 

Today’s moral conflicts … are fundamentally about the structure of reality.”

The goal of all Catholic education is to form young people in a strong Catholic faith, a faith rooted in the truth about God and humanity, a faith that can guide them to a fruitful life in this world, and home to the joy of eternal life with their Creator.

Catholic education starts with a simple principle:  Facts and achievements are empty, or worse, unless they’re embedded in a pattern of meaning.  The deepest hunger of the human heart isn’t for knowledge but for purpose.  This is why Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John (8:32) have always had such power:  “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Truth organizes reality.  It gives meaning and direction to life, and in doing so, it sustains hope.

“The deepest hunger of the human heart isn’t for knowledge but for purpose.”