Wilton D. Gregory, the new cardinal-designate of Washington, D.C. said he would not prevent Joseph Biden, the Catholic president-presumptive who promotes abortion, from receiving Communion in the archdiocese.
“Hey, I’m a bureaucrat,” said the cardinal-designate. “It’s not as though I were a shepherd of souls or anything. If the gentleman is in peril of damnation, it’s no skin off my nose.” A twinkle in his eye, he added “We call that being pastoral.”
The cardinal-designate continued, “I don’t highlight one issue or another. It’s no different than if he supported, say, infanticide or the sexual abuse of minors.” He said that disagreements about such things as are part of “being a family, a family of faith.”
“Informed Catholics won’t be confused,” he asserted. “They’re smart. They don’t need me to tell them what the Church teaches.” When the interviewer asked about canon law, which specifies that anyone who facilitates abortion automatically incurs excommunication latae sententiae (just by the fact of doing so), the cardinal-designate replied “See? Like I said. You knew that already.”
The cardinal-designate declared, “The difficulty is that too many people want to call some Catholics unfaithful just because they discredit the faith of the Church. Like the Pope says, who am I to judge?”
“Besides,” he concluded, “non-Catholics and uninformed Catholics will respect the Church more if it doesn’t stand for anything.”
The Supreme Court insists that the Founding generation intended the government to be “neutral” between religion and irreligion. Although, in embattled decisions, the Court has allowed such things as prayers at public meetings, it rules that governmental use of religious language is allowable only if it has an essentially non-religious purpose, such as making a public occasion more solemn. The idea, I guess, is that language like “God save the United States and this honorable Court” isn’t about God, but only about how honorable the Court is.
Following is the full text of President George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation, issued in October, 1789. You may have read it before, since on days like this it is all over the internet. Tell me, though, is it neutral between religion and irreligion? What does Washington says its purposes are? Do you read them as essentially non-religious?
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Notice that although Washington rightly declines to pick winners in the competition among denominations, he is not at all ambivalent about the nature of God. There is exactly one of Him. He is the all-powerful ruler of the universe. He is good, and the source of all good. He cares whether we are just, pays attention to what we are doing, and distributes His blessings accordingly. Acknowledging our gratitude to Him, and asking pardon for our national and personal sins, is both a public and a private duty.
Have a happy, non-neutral Thanksgiving.
The techniques for reinventing the wheel get more and more sophisticated. All too often, the reinvented wheel is less serviceable than the old one. I am reminded of an old Johnny Hart comic strip in which the caveman shows off his new triangular wheel, boasting that it improves on the square wheel because it eliminates one bump.
For example, the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors gave us the perfectly useful idea of a vice. At some point, reinventing the wheel, we began calling acts of vice “mistakes.” Still later social psychologists took reinvention one step further by calling them “cognitive biases.”
Case in point: Recently an educational publisher send me an advertisement for teaching material concerning what the author called “loss aversion bias,” a cognitive bias that supposedly makes even “basically good” people do bad things. The author’s example was a man who took out an illegal loan on his own business because he was afraid that it would fail. This discussion was supposed to provide students with insight into finance and investment strategies.
There are such things as cognitive biases, but cognitive bias wasn’t the man’s problem. Because of his timidity, he yielded to temptation to commit fraud. His problem was vice: Cowardice and injustice.
Of course there is a cognitive element in vice, because to do wrong one must think think of it as right, and I certainly don't object to teaching people in business school to shun vice. But this isn’t that.
We all have moral flaws, so let us not preen ourselves on how wonderful we are. But vices don’t spring up overnight; they are habits of the heart. To the extent that the man was susceptible to cowardice and cheating, no, he wasn’t “basically good.” And our own sins aren’t “mistakes” either.
The Pope’s latest casual remarks recommending civil union laws have caused quite a stir. Granted that he wasn’t teaching doctrine but offering a personal prudential judgment. Granted that he wasn’t saying that same-sex intercourse is okay or that same-sex pairings can count as marriages. Granted that contract law permits all kinds of partnerships that may have nothing to do with sex. Still, if the law recognizes not just ordinary contracts but civil unions, then aren’t a lot of people going to be confused?
Yes. When the idea of civil partnerships was first floated some years ago, the idea was that such partnerships didn’t have to be sexual. My students used to ask questions like “What if two friends share expenses, one goes into the hospital, and the other is denied visiting privileges because he isn’t a relative?” Or “Suppose that for purely financial reasons, roommates want to be able to list each other as beneficiaries on their insurance. Shouldn’t they be able to do so?” Or the two parties might be sisters, or a grandmother along with a grandson who lives with and helps her while going to college. The theory was that all in one package, the parties could share insurance, expenses, and so forth.
I used to answer that even if these are deemed to be problems, we don’t need civil partnerships to fix them. Are close friends prohibited from hospital visitation? Then allow patients to designate certain non-relatives as having the same hospital privileges as relatives. Should close friends who share expenses be able to list each other as insurance beneficiaries? Then allow them to do so. Little adjustments like this might take a law or two. The rest could be handled by existing contract law.
The problem with the all-in-one approach was that (a) civil partnership looked like marriage, (b) the change from the language of “partnership” to the language of “union,” which everyone understands as meaning sex, intensified this appearance, and (c) since everyone knew that such proposals were made to head off defining homosexual liaisons as marriages, it looked like a step to so defining them.
Which is exactly what happened.
Which raises a question: Since it has already happened, why does the Pope open his mouth about the matter at all? And why is he offering personal prudential judgments anyway, since according to the Church, his job isn’t to make suggestions about civil law, but to teach the Church’s morals and doctrine? This was just one of numerous grave blunders.
As you are aware, some well-meaning and orthodox Catholic authorities have tried to perform damage control by reminding us that civil union laws don’t explicitly say that the unions are sexual. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Besides, the Pope’s suggestion about civil unions explicitly referred to homosexual persons having “families.” Whatever may have been intended, that gives the impression not only that their relationship is essentially marital, but also that they ought to be able to adopt, which amounts to child abuse. A child needs a mom and a dad. Since there is no shortage of prospective moms and dads who want to adopt, there is no need to resort to extreme solutions.
It seems obvious that if we are to regard non-marriages as having the dignity of marriage, then any hope of promoting chastity among heterosexuals is also deep-sixed. If sexual cohabitation is in for homosexuals, then it is in for everyone. And let us be very clear: Heterosexual cohabitation without the commitment of marriage is not obviously less immoral than casual fornication. Regarded as an arrangement for continuous casual fornication, it may even be more.
These disorders will continue until the Pope becomes a better teacher. Christians must be faithful themselves, and pray earnestly. Not least for him.
I’ve been composing a book about the application of some of Thomas Aquinas’s political and theological insights to our own time. When I submitted the manuscript to an academic publisher, half of the editorial board was favorable, but the historians wanted me to say a lot more about things like who influenced him.
Well, I can do that, but I don’t want to show off just to appease the board, and besides, I think it would be a distraction. You’ve been at this longer than I have. Might I prevail upon you to share with me how you get through gatekeepers?
If the gatekeepers’ suggestions are good ones, then of course you should follow them. But if you think they aren’t, then don’t. You’re approaching St. Thomas’s work with the question “What might it teach us about politics?” The historians on your board are more interested in questions like “What might it teach us about what people back then thought about politics?” Those might be excellent and worthwhile questions, but they aren’t your questions.
So if you revise your manuscript, include an explanation of the difference between the sorts of questions you bring to St. Thomas, and the sorts other specialists might bring to him. Explain clearly and firmly that you aren’t interested in his book because of when it was written, the language in which it was written, or who influenced him, but because you think it has something to say to us. Call attention to why what it says is worth knowing. That may disarm some of your gatekeepers. It may even bring them over to your side.
Consider yourself fortunate: At least their objections weren’t ideological. When I submitted one of my earliest books, back in the ‘eighties, the first two external reviewers told the press “Publish!” But although the third praised the manuscript highly, saying that I’d forced him to reconsider all of his most deeply held convictions, he declared that the book shouldn’t be published, because in one chapter I had mentioned God (just mentioned Him, mind you), and “God does not belong in political theory.” He then went on to blame me retroactively for the massacre of the Huguenots in 1572.
But one can respond to ideological objections like that in much the same way as to the other kind. So I did revise – but in my revision, I explained why I think God does belong in political theory, and incidentally remarked that atheistic genocides had taken many times more lives than religious wars. Besides, it all depends on what one’s convictions are, for a person who believes that God opposes the use of violence to promote faith in Him won’t use it. The editor was sufficiently impressed to solicit a fourth reader report, which was positive. He pitched the book to his editorial board, and it was published.
Your gatekeepers want you to write a book more like the one they would have written. If you do make revisions, make them in such a way that the book becomes not less your own, but even more your own. That’s not pride. If God condescends to allow certain insights to the historians on your board, how wonderful! Let them write about them! Read and learn from them! But if He condescends to allow certain other insights to you, they you should write about yours, not theirs. May He bless your project and bring it to the light of print.
In a country like ours, that likes to think of itself as a republic, rulers might adopt any of three different patterns for the relationship between themselves and ordinary people, three different attitudes toward their role:
The ideal pattern is How am I doing? The rulers are statesmen, and the people are citizens. The rulers promote the common good, principally justice, so far as it can be upheld by law, and the citizens judge whether they are upholding it well or poorly. Every now and then a politician really does do the right thing. Since this pattern is not well followed, however, one must evaluate the other two patterns according to their distance from it.
The better of the two bad patterns is Let’s make a deal. The rulers are deliverers of particular benefits to particular groups, and these groups make up their constituents. Benefits are bartered for support, one election at a time. This is how most Republican politicians think the game should be played, especially toward the various parts of the middle class. Their approach has the disadvantage of encouraging the attitude, “What’s in it for me?”
The worse of the two bad patterns is Trust me. The rulers are patrons, and the people are their clients. If the clients accept continual dependence, then the rulers will take care of them in a way that maintains that dependence. This is how most Democratic politicians think the game should be played, especially toward poor people, ethnic minorities (though not Asians), and, paradoxically, the corporate elite (though not privately held companies). Toward others they behave much like the other party. This approach has the disadvantage of discouraging initiative and keeping people in what used to be called their place – but at the same time, doling out privileges.
Such is the power of the ideal that consistent practitioners of the second pattern must pretend to be following the first one. Such is the power of the approximation to the ideal that consistent practitioners of the third pattern must pretend to be following the second one. Such is the power of self-deception that some of them may even think they are doing so.
A politician who consistently follows the first pattern is likely to lose his next election. The best one can hope is that his deviations will not be frequent or flagrant, that his compromises will be principled, and that he will not pervert the administration of justice. Under the circumstances, such a one deserves support.
But the third pattern is only inches from despotism. It corrupts and debases the people, and a debased people in turn support their corrupters. Any politician who takes part in the vicious circle should be viewed as the spreader of a disease worse than any coronavirus.
Sometimes people say, “Truth is relative, so if I say there is a God, then there is, and if you say there isn’t a God, then there isn't.” How would you reply? I think this statement is similar to "I have my beliefs and you have yours, so let's agree to disagree."
This is an easy one, because the truth about matters of fact isn’t relative. Two people may have different beliefs about whether God exists, but if He exists, then He exists for both of them, and if He doesn’t, then He doesn’t for both of them. Suppose your friend said, “Truth is relative, so if you say the coffee has been poisoned with arsenic, then it has been, and if I say it hasn’t, then it hasn’t.” That would be foolish, because if the coffee has been poisoned, then saying that it isn’t won’t make it safe to drink. After all, you and your friend don’t live in different universes!
My favorite line concerning the notion that truth is relative comes from G.K. Chesterton, who commented on the absurdity of saying “This is the south aspect of Sea-View Cottage. Sea-View Cottage, of course, does not exist.” It’s true that from the south, one sees the north side, and from the north, one sees the south side. But there is a house, and it is the same for everyone.
You remark that the statement “Truth is relative” is similar to the statement “Let's agree to disagree." I would say they are quite different. Disagreement between two persons about a state of affairs is possible only because they agree that there is a state of affairs, and they have different opinions about what it is. For if Fred and Mary agree to disagree about whether the water is boiling, at least they agree that if it is, then the claim that it isn’t is incorrect. By contrast, someone who says truth is relative won’t even admit that.
So two people who say “Let’s agree to disagree” aren’t denying that there is a real state of affairs. They are merely saying that for whatever reason – which may be good or bad -- they don’t want to talk about it.