Lenten Meditations on Politics

Lent is a time of personal transformation, so it is a time of inwardness. It nonetheless has an outward-turning aspect. Man is social, and God is other than ourselves, so in addition to fasting to help us put our attachments in their place, Lent encourages prayer and almsgiving to increase our love of God and neighbor.

Those things have a political aspect. Love of neighbor starts with direct personal engagement, but it also aspires to a social order more worthy of humanity. And putting God first gives us a perspective on worldly concerns, including politics, that enables us to know what they are and what we should do with them.

Political life also needs transformation, so people involved with it need to think about it during Lent. Nonetheless, the perspective should be different from that of everyday politics. With that in mind, how should we think about politics during Lent, and how will that help us to a better way politically?

The most basic point is one already mentioned: perspective. Love of God and periodic stepping back from worldly concerns helps us turn from worship of the here and now and maintain a proper scale of values. There’s a tendency today to treat the social world as the highest reality, so that the good, beautiful and true are judged by their relation to political goals, and attaining those goals becomes the final standard. That tendency has even affected Catholics who should be immune to it.

In fact, politics and social issues are secondary, and the greatest political contribution Christianity can make today is to bring that home. The Church has always proposed goals and standards that are higher and more authoritative than secular ones. Her insistence on doing so, and the resulting tension between Church and State, have been basic to freedom and good order in the West. That connection between God and good government is still with us. When men forget God whatever worldly goal seems most pressing takes His place and justifies sacrifice of all other values. The consequences, as Solzhenitsyn noted, have included the horrors of communism. More recently a softer this-worldly utopianism has led to dubious wars and a multifaceted attempt to replace the sexual constitution of man and society by a regime of pure will. Such deviations would be far less likely if we remembered that we did not create the world and it is not ours to do with as we choose.

Lent also promotes love of neighbor, which helps us remember our connection to others and avoid absorption in partisanship. It reminds us of the public good, and moderates political enmity without detracting from the importance such issues can have. It is also necessary for the endurance and effectiveness of free institutions, since they depend on a widely diffused spirit of trust and cooperation.

With such things in mind we have plenty to meditate on. The turning from sin that is at the heart of Lent has obvious political and social implications. Becoming better people makes us better participants in society. The political benefits of abandoning pride, envy, wrath, and avarice are obvious, and in recent times even chastity has taken on political importance. So during Lent we need to consider first and foremost whether our motives and conduct are what they should be. We need not always aim directly at the highest goods, since we also have legitimate lower-level concerns, but our motives, goals, and actions should be consistent with those goods and somehow guided by them.

More particularly, we should ask why we want what we want and do what we do. Are our stated motives our real ones? Are we concerned with legitimate interests and the public good? Or are we trying to advance ourselves at the expense of the common interest? And what about our allies? We can’t expect them to be saints, but if we try to make use of badly motivated people they are more likely to make use of us. Bad motives lead to bad results, and no matter how good our strategy we can’t count on outwitting basic tendencies.

For many of us sloth has been a besetting sin that encourages us to follow the path of least resistance, in politics as elsewhere. It encourages us to get along by going along, makes us quiet when we should speak out, and keeps us from pursuing urgent goods and living in accordance with basic virtues: justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance, and faith, hope, and charity.

All those virtues have political importance. If sloth is a political problem, especially in an anti-Catholic environment like ours today, then fortitude in exercising the virtues must be the solution. Nonetheless, applying them is not simple, a situation that calls for more meditation. Justice is primary in politics, but it is extraordinarily complex and difficult to achieve in the case of something as complicated as life in society. How will something actually work out in a world with few saints and many obscurities? The attempt to enforce all the rules of righteousness would lead to tyranny and multiply wrong. Perjury, forgery, and murder should be crimes, but we can’t suppress all lying and cruelty. So we must always ask if we are trying to do too much, or not enough: prudence must also be primary.

People differ, they usually understand their own situation best, living together is complex, and there are no perfect guardians to be found, so there must be a great deal of freedom for pursuit of legitimate interests, and even toleration of some interests that are less than legitimate. The system must nonetheless recognize higher and common goods that restrain and enlighten private interest, and make it more likely that we will live not only prosperously but well.

How to do that and what balance to strike is a difficult question. The role of politics as a theater for the promotion of faith, hope, and charity is no doubt limited. Not all goods can be achieved directly through social organization, and the attempt to do so would be tyrannical. Politics has to do with force and compromise, faith, hope, and charity do not. Nor would it be useful for a political leader to take no thought for the morrow, or base policy on his love for Lady Poverty. Nonetheless, the theological virtues support, order, and complete all others, so political life should recognize their value. When we promote material prosperity we should bear in mind that it is not the highest good. And when we plan for the future we should realize that plans are often ineffective, especially when they tell us to do evil for the sake of some hoped-for benefit.

In the past the balance has been struck through secular recognition of the moral and spiritual authority of a church, which nonetheless needed to persuade people because it lacked physical power. Today that arrangement seems out of reach. How to maintain something higher than material interests and power as a basic principle of politics has therefore become an unsolved problem of today’s political life. In a radically secularist age like ours it may be one without a solution.

(Photo credit: CNS illustration/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

James Kalb

By

James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    At the beginning of the last century, the Neo-Thomists had talked of a “natural order,” governed by Natural Law, consisting of truths accessible to unaided human reason, as something that can be kept separate from the supernatural truths revealed in the Gospel. The saw the political and social order as having its own autonomy and argued that right reason can legitimately arrive at valid conclusions without recourse to supernatural revelation as their necessary source or sanction. This “two-tier” account of nature and grace was based on this view that the addition of “grace” was something super-added to a human nature that was already complete and sufficient in itself.

    In a memorable exchange in 1910, in Maurice Blondel’s publication, L’Annales de philosophie chrétienne, the Oratorian Lucien Laberthonnière accused the Neo-Thomist Pedro Descoqs SJ of being influenced by “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.” So far as I know, this exchange has never appeared in English, which is astonishing, as it was what united such disparate thinkers as Blondel, Maritain, the Dominicans, Chenu and Congar and the Jesuits, Lubac and Daniélou. It was a fundamental moment for the « Nouvelle Théologie », much as Keble’s Assize Sermon had been for the Oxford Movement.

    Blondel, himself, insisted that we must never forget “that one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete [boucle], even in the sheerly natural order” We “find only in the spirit of the Gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity.”

    Jacques Maritain, too, argued that “Man is not in a state of pure nature, he is fallen and redeemed. Consequently, ethics, in the widest sense of the word, that is, in so far as it bears on all practical matters of human action, politics and economics, practical psychology, collective psychology, sociology, as well as individual morality,—ethics in so far as it takes man in his concrete state, in his existential being, is not a purely philosophic discipline. Of itself it has to do with theology… if it is not to misrepresent and scientifically distort its object”

    • Linda Wolpert Smith

      Two chapters from Prof. Tracey Rowland’s “Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI” will add to and advance thought on this subject.

      The first is Chapter 2, “Gaudium et spes and the Importance of Christ”. The second is “Chapter 4, “Beyond Moralism: God is Love.”

    • ColdStanding

      The posit: natura pura does not say that man, as he is found today, is capable of fully exercising the faculties of reason without the added grace of redemption. To accuse Cajetan, Suarez or even Card. Mercier of such an error is a monstrosity.

      Natura Pura, as a posit, is a product only obtainable by that great gift of God’s grace, by which I mean, scholastic speculation (theological looking into). Had man not fallen, what functions pertaining strictly to his natural being, ie, reasoning, would be pure, as in not tainted by the shadow of sin; as in possessing the full light of reason; as in would function in a given way that would not be liable to error.

      It is only men that have been gratuitously blessed by God to know His Only Begotten Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ and thereby partake of the restorative graces of the Holy Spirit, that are capable of forming a clear conception of what reason operating in it’s pure state might look like. That is what they were attempting to work out.

      It was a work of spiritual mercy for those outside the Church (deprived of God’s merciful revelation), who struggled in the darkness of sin with only the feeble light of their faulty reason to find the truth. By demonstrating, as far as was possible, how reason aught properly function, souls might be saved.

      I believe that this indecorous treatment of the works of the ancient Schoolmen, their mid and modern disciples, and the Papal exhortation “Ite ad Thomam” is the hinge upon which the door to our state of perpetual motion is entered. For, by their fruits you shall know them.

    • ColdStanding

      Sorry to not have everything in order before posting, but I have edited this comment numerous times in working out the details.

      The posit: natura pura does not say that man, as he is found today, is capable of fully exercising the faculties of reason without the added grace of redemption. To accuse Cajetan, Suarez or even Card. Mercier of such an error is a monstrosity. (When the student is struck, it is the master that receives the blow).

      Natura Pura is a posit that pertains to what man’s reason would look like had man not fallen, ie: reasoning would be pure, as in not tainted by the shadow of sin; as in possessing the full light of reason; as in would function in a given way that would not be liable to error. The product: Natura Pura, is only obtainable by that great gift of God’s grace, by which I mean, scholastic speculation (theological looking into).

      It is only men that have been gratuitously blessed by God to know His Only Begotten Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ and thereby partake of the restorative graces of the Holy Spirit, that are capable of forming a clear conception of what reason operating in it’s pure state might look like. That is what they were attempting to work out.*

      It was a work of spiritual mercy for those outside the Church (deprived of God’s merciful revelation), who struggled in the darkness of sin with only the feeble light of their faulty reason to find the truth. By demonstrating, as far as was possible, how reason aught properly function, souls might be saved.

      I believe that this indecorous treatment of the works of the ancient Schoolmen, their mid and modern disciples, and the Papal exhortation “Ite ad Thomam” is the hinge upon which the door (which opens) to our state of perpetual motion is entered (is passed). For, by their fruits you shall know them.

      *Can you not see, then, how in accusing Fr. Descoqs of error, it is really Fr. Laberthonnière, suffering perhaps from a lack of charity, who has missed the mark? Natura Pura can not be thought of without God’s Grace, yet the accusation is that it was attempting to put aside God’s Grace. Monstrosity!!

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Cardinal Henri de Lubac spent most of his life arguing against the Neo-Scholastic claim that the natural and the supernatural have utterly separate ends in and of themselves. He spelled this out in two of the most important theological works of the last century, his 1946 work, « Surnaturel » , but then, more decisively, in his 1965 book, « Le Mystère du Surnaturel »

        In this he reaffirmed the true teaching of St Thomas himselfs, against his later commentators. Jacques Maritain, whose knowledge of St Thomas was equalled only by his contempt for the Thomism of his age, said, “Integral political science . . . is superior in kind to philosophy; to be truly complete it must have a reference to the domain of theology, and it is precisely as a theologian that St. Thomas wrote De regimine principum . . . the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being. . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account.”

        • ColdStanding

          Contempt to the degree you attribute to Mr. Maritain is a fault not a virtue.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        This is how Maurice Blondel summed up Fr. Descoqs, a typical Neo-Thomist and a supporter of Charles Maurras’s Action française, who had allowed Maurras’s insistence on order and submission to evacuate his notion of Christianity itself, to the point that Descoqs was content with
        “A Catholicism without Christianity, submissiveness without thought, an authority without love, a Church that would rejoice at the insulting tributes paid to the virtuosity of her interpretative and repressive system… To accept all from God except God, all from Christ except His Spirit, to preserve in Catholicism only a residue that is aristocratic and soothing for the privileged and beguiling or threatening for the lower classes—is not all this, under the pretext perhaps of thinking only about religion, really a matter of pursuing only politics?”

        • ColdStanding

          Well, it’s hip, hip, hooray for Fr. Descoqs, then. At least, in his thinking he managed to preserve a residue of Catholicism. Blondel, de Lubac, and Maritain thought it better just to finish Catholicism off and had the singularly vainglorious presumption to think they could reconstitute “pure” Catholicism!

          It is to laugh. They damn men whose ambition it was to reconstitute pure reason and then proceed to attempt to reconstitute pure revealed religion! The fault of those whom they damn was not their ambition. It was that they were not ambitious enough. No wonder we are in such a mess.

          But you don’t think we are in a mess, do you, Mr. P-S? You think what you see around you is just people unwilling to get with the program.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            No one can deny that the period following the Descoqs-Laberthonnière debate saw a great theological flowering. We have the transcendental Thomism of Joseph Maréchal SJ, a great influence on Rahner and Lonergan. We have the application of the historical method to St Thomas by the great Dominican scholar, Marie-Dominique Chenu OP. We have the studies of Origen, Clement of Alexandria and the Cappadocians by the three Jesuits, Cardinal Jean Daniélou, Claude Mondésert and Cardinal Henri de Lubac. We have Abbé Henri Brémond, with his unrivalled knowledge of mystical writers and whose work on prayer, poetry, symbolism and romanticism earned him election to the Académie française and a eulogy from the French Symbolist poet, Paul Valéry. “In the course of the normal development of man’, says Bremond, ‘there occur moments in which the discursive reason gives place to a higher activity, imperfectly understood and indeed at first disquieting.” We have the liturgical history of Laberthonnière’s fellow Oratorian, Louis Bouyer. We have the ecumenical studies of Cardinal Yves Congar OP.

            As for Maurice Blondel, Cardinal Henri de Lubac wrote of him, “Latin theology’s return to a more authentic tradition has taken place–not without some jolts, of course–in the course of the last century. We must admit that the main impulse for this return came from a philosopher, Maurice Blondel. His thinking was not primarily exercised in the areas proper to the professional theologians, nor did it base itself on a renewed history of tradition. Still, he is the one who launched the decisive attack on the dualist theory that was destroying Christian thought.”

            The debt owed by the documents of the Second Vatican Council to this golden age of French theology is incalculable.

            • ColdStanding

              The debt owed by French theologians to the faith for what they have done is larger still.

              • Michael Paterson-Seymour

                A faith that the dualist theory was in the process of destroying.

                We now have the testimony of our Holy Father himself: “Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism.”

                • ColdStanding

                  You’ve quoted me that one before. I’ve meditated upon it. Unless Pope Francis gives us examples of the texts he finds to be “decadent” the point is moot. Nor is there anyway for us to realistically discount the prospect that our time, the modern era, is anything other than one of the “times of decline.”

                  I’ve located this in this article an interesting, to me, quote about Maurice Blondel.

                  In the Letter on Apologetics, Blondel calls the Thomist-Scholastic synthesis, at its time an apogee of reflective and concrete thought engaged in social, intellectual, and religious problems, an “unstable equilibrium”, one which cannot be returned to or reimposed by fiat, but which must be replaced by a renewed consideration of the general conditions such a equilibrium was an attempt to reconcile and resolve.

                  This speaks to the point I’ve attempted to make in other postings on this thread. “Unstable equilibrium” = being alive. An unstable equilibrium is not a fault. The only things that are in a state of stable equilibrium are dead. Blondel killed Catholic philosophy. What follows him, what is produced by those following him is either tending towards stable equilibrium or already there. Not a good thing.

                  But what is really the worst of it is the dig he is making at Leo XIII. “…or reimposed by fiat.” He is waving a red flag in the face of Papal authority. I don’t think he realized it – I’m trying to be charitable. Maybe it was intentional. but de Lubac and the other N. T. ‘ers certainly didn’t miss it.

  • hombre111

    “The Church has always produced goals that are…higher than secular ones.” A little hard to squeeze the Grand Inquisition and the 30 Year War under that bar.

    • TheAbaum

      But you still want your paycheck from the tainted organization, even when you are beyond retirement age.

    • To say that an institution proposes higher goals is to say that it adds something necessary and irreplaceable. It’s not to say that everything anyone associated with that institution has done in the past 2000 years is better than anything anyone else has done.

      In any case I don’t understand why the Defenestration of Prague, Protestant alliance with the Ottomans, the Danish and Swedish interventions, and Richelieu’s alliance with Gustavus Adolphus against the Empire were all goals proposed by the Catholic Church.

      By “Grand Inquisition” do you mean the Spanish one? That was established by the monarchy and under their control. The Pope was pressured into agreeing and accepting its continuance. I don’t approve any more than you do of the 3000 to 5000 executions carried out by the Spanish state over a period of several centuries after convicted heretics were released to their control. Still, it’s unclear why that number makes the institution a major league humanitarian catastrophe sufficient to discredit all things Catholic.

      • hombre111

        I reread your article, which is thoughtful and filled with love for Christ and the Church, and tried to understand my sense of discomfort, which I expressed in a disgruntled non sequitur. Your patient answer reminds me of the answer I regularly give to the cheeky young Mormon missionaries who come to my door once in a while and challenge me about what they call “the Great Apostasy.” I also thought about St. Pedro Claver. I spent some meditation time in the room he lived in, in Cartagena, Colombia. On the wall was an interesting painting: He was ministering to black slaves, while tough Spanish soldiers glared at him, completely unable to understand what he was doing. Across the square where he lived was the office of the Grand Inquisition. And so there, you had the contradiction: Church/state collaboration in oppression (Claver was investigated by the Inquisition) and the example of Christ lived out in the tireless compassion of a humble man. And there was no doubt where the Spirit lived in that exquisite South American city.

        • Life and people are such a mixture though. Did the inquisitors have any fondness for slavery and spoliation? Would there have been less of it if the Church and even the Inquisition had been less involved in the New World?

          • hombre111

            Two thoughts. First, in Latin America, slavery disappeared without a fight during the 1820’s, as part of the Simon Bolivar freedom movement. Truth be told, it was often replaced by a near slave-like peon situation. But still, it ended. In the U.S. in the meanwhile, it took a brutal Civil War to bring slavery to an end, in 1865. And again, truth be told, it was replaced by the KKK and a new way of keeping blacks in submission. Back to Latin America, most of the peon situation had ended by the 1950’s, although there were still traces in Peru. In the U.S., the oppression of black people continued until the mid 1960’s, and again, it took an action of the Linden Johnson and the Civil Rights Act, followed by a wholesale movement in the South to the Republican Party, and the subtle racism which was revealed by Reagan’s use of the code words “states rights.” And when Obama became president, all that buried racism leaped to the front.

            My second thought is spurred by the Inquisition’s investigation of San Pedro Claver, who was only trying to treat black slaves like the children of God. There is this thought pattern that afflicts us all, but it is especially prevalent among conservatives: “If it is new, it must be wrong, if it is wrong, it must be bad, if it is bad, it must be dangerous, if it is dangerous, then we need to attack and destroy it.” And after torturing some poor guy into a confession (I remember in Church history where confessions not extracted under torture were considered invalid!), the Church handed the guy over to the state for execution. San Pedro Claver was the only Christ-like person in that grotesque dance in Cartagena, Colombia.

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