Democracy and despotism of the majority

As political predictions go it took a good deal longer to unfold than he may have expected, but it rings a great deal truer than much of the pundtitry of our time.

Have we at last entered an age when our masters can in fact do that which we were warned to fear most – those who can destroy not only the body but also the soul, and I’m not referring to the speculations of Donald Tusk about the eternal destiny of his adversaries in the Battle of Brexit. It is a fearful prospect.

Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has refined the arts of despotism… The excesses of monarchical power had devised a variety of physical means of oppression: the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind…

Under the absolute sway of an individual despot the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul, and the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose superior to the attempt; but such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved.

These were words written nearly 200 years ago. They described an anticipated tyranny whose seed was seen in the very structure of the evolving democracy of the United States of America. For a number of reasons – geographical, institutional and cultural – that seed did not germinate or flower in the lifetime of the author of those words. Nor did it flower in the lifetime of many of the subsequent generations – until now. 

In the past several decades, with the shrinking of the world and the spread of democracy, what Alexis de Tocqueville feared might happen to the fledgling democratic polity of the United States is now to be feared across much of the globe. Indeed it may no longer be just a fear. It may be our lived experience.

This lived experience is already a reality in the United States and is preoccupying any number of thinkers in that country who are contemplating the unfolding of many of the dangers feared by de Tocqueville. Among them are Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, and Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed  (Yale University Press, 2018). On this side of the Atlantic, Douglas Murray engaged with the same issues in The Strange Death of Europe.

In Levin’s view the late 1960s and the bulk of the 1970s constituted the darkest, most ominous time in America’s post-war path-—it was the moment when we could no longer deny that something fundamental was changing and that, in some profound way, America seemed to be coming apart under the pressure of “the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion.”

Levin is not a pessimist. Neither is Deneen, who argues that the flawed foundations of liberalism have led us into a dangerous cul de sac. This unsustainable politics has provoked a reaction which has brought us into a culture war – bordering on a “cold” civil war – which is going to get worse before it gets better. Both see a hard time ahead.

What is truly remarkable is that de Tocqueville foresaw this nearly two centuries ago, foresaw it happening at the moment which mankind abandoned that understanding of itself which identified human solidarity as the key to a politics of peace and prosperity. While he was fascinated by the great good he saw in the democratic politics of America in the 1830s, it did not blind him to a certain paradox he perceived in the system.

De Tocqueville, grappling with that paradox, wrote in Democracy in America that he held it to be “an impious and an execrable maxim that, politically speaking, a people has a right to do whatsoever it pleases”, even though he still asserted that all authority resides in the will of the majority. What de Tocqueville feared – and what we now have stalking the body politic of numerous nations across the world – was the tyranny which the apparently simple and benign concept of majority rule seemed to forebode.

We now identify these as populist movements – and they occupy all sectors of the political spectrum, all equally threatening to our freedoms. What do they all have in common? They are movements riding, with passionate intensity, on waves of emotion and prejudice. They have abandoned the principles of justice and have replaced them with the principles of power and majority rule. They simply neither accept nor recognise that majority rule is no more than a technique by which we organise government, not a principle of justice. They are technocrats, not democrats. They are those who consider themselves not to be populists but to be “on the right side of history” while their opponents are the populists.

De Tocqueville saw it this way:

A general law—which bears the name of Justice—has been made and sanctioned, not only by a majority of this or that people, but by a majority of mankind. The rights of every people are consequently confined within the limits of what is just.

When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right which the majority has of commanding, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind. It has been asserted that a people can never entirely outstep the boundaries of justice and of reason in those affairs which are more peculiarly its own, and that consequently, full power may fearlessly be given to the majority by which it is represented. But this language is that of a slave.

Majority rule is a dangerous Leviathan in a society where relativism has resulted in Justice being denied as a universal principle. For that reason he is of the opinion that while in practical terms one social power must always be made to predominate over the others, liberty is endangered when the vehemence of this power is unchecked because it is the inalienable will of the people.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny…

But it is his observations on the power of public opinion, in league with the tyrannies he foresees, that he most prescient and worrying.

Even in his day he saw public opinion in the United States as being far more influential than in Europe. In America, he argues, “as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.”

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be advocated and propagated abroad… But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one sole authority, one single element of strength and of success, with nothing beyond it.

Is he exaggerating here? Even if he was in terms of what prevailed in his own time, it is certainly not an exaggeration for our time. The Republic of Ireland might be taken as a sample of what the prevailing democracy now offers the dissenter. A two thirds electoral majority effectively legalized abortion there last year. Immediately the defeated minority was jeered at and told by the victorious majority, “It’s over.”  Months later, a public representative, one of those who defended to right to life  of the nation’s pre-born children, was shouted at in the street, “Ha, you lost”.

The reality is, the dangerous reality is, that power exercised in this way, as was done by the Democratic Party’s populist regime under the Obama administrations, produces a populist counter response and gives us the Presidency of Donald Trump.

De Tocqueville foresaw this kind of culture crippling freedom of thought and speech. He argues that within the barriers set by public opinion, the opinion of the majority, an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them.

Not that he is exposed to the terrors of an auto-da-fe, but he is tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to promote his success. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before he published his opinions he imagined that he held them in common with many others; but no sooner has he declared them openly than he is loudly censured by his overbearing opponents, whilst those who think without having the courage to speak, like him, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, oppressed by the daily efforts he has been making, and he subsides into silence, as if he was tormented by remorse for having spoken the truth.

He imagines this new sovereign power, this new Leviathan, saying to its subjects,

You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people… Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence comparably worse than death.”

How real all this now seems for the defeated and politically marginalized “losers” of Ireland’s battles for life and natural marriage? They are experiencing life as envisaged by Adrian Vermeule, Professor of Constitutional Law in Harvard Business School, when he summed up in First Things,the forms that “death” is now taking in the heart of our liberal democracies:

Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what?

De Tocqueville concluded that monarchical institutions of the past had thrown odium upon despotism. Let us beware, he said, lest democratic republics should restore oppression, and should render it – despotism – less odious and less degrading in the eyes of the many, by making it still more onerous to the few.

Have we disregarded his warning, to our cost?

On recession, regression and renaissance

They said it would take ten years. It did, just about that. I’m no measurer of economic development and progress but it does seem that the Great Recession is over and the waters of a kind of prosperity are lapping the shore once more. In Ireland we are more or less on out feet again, if some recent headlines are to be taken at face value.

“New property millionaires are being created at a rate of a dozen a week. There are now close to 4,000 homeowners in Ireland whose property is worth €1m or more”. Not to mention the spectacle of cranes flying over the City of Dublin. It is now ranked fifth in the world for prime retail rent growth.

That headline and those cranes might be a two-edged sword and doubtless will be causing some to cross their fingers in the hope that it is not a sign of a boom before the next bust.

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A Dublin skyline

But what about the more crippling recession – or rather, regression? Any sign of remission there? It is a regression wider, deeper and ultimately more damaging than any in the material order and it is still draining the blood from the living tissue our civilization. We now live in nations where values have become so fragmented and have been so weakened by their fragmentation that they no longer seem up to the task of holding our societies and communities together.

However, there are voices calling us to our senses. Eugene Vodvolaskyn, Russian academic philologist and novelist is one. Joseph Ratzinger, emeritus Pope Benedict XVII, is another. Philosopher Roger Scruton is a third. There are more – but where are their disciples, without whom they will just be voices crying in the wilderness.

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Eugene Vodvolaskyn

All three of these see a two-fold development in our culture which is near the heart of the disintegration which threatens us: excessive individualism and secularization. It is twofold because the one leads to the other. Indeed, like malign cells in the body, they complement each other and feed off all around them. Excessive individualism has no room for the Other – and certainly no room for God. Secularism, by eliminating God, has nowhere to lead us except to worship the Self.

Scruton in his book, On Human Nature, reminds us of how Milton conjured the truth of our condition from the raw materials of Genesis, and in doing so set a standard for art which was truly human. We might add Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, like Milton, inheritors of the treasures of the High Middle Ages who have never been surpassed in their vision of what is is to be human and divine. Modern man and much of his literature, his philosophy, his politics, in his flight from God is a wrecker.

“Take away religion, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art,” Scruton writes, “and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down,’ which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind — and with it our kindness” (P.49).

Pinpointing these two maladies as key issues to be faced if our civilization is to be rescued from this regression, Vodvolaskyn traces the degeneration in this way:

“In the modern age, the individual required recognition. Faith required lack of faith so that the believer would have a choice and so that faith wouldn’t be a mere everyday habit. This train gathered speed but didn’t stop. It kept moving even after reaching its station. It now seems to have gone pretty far beyond its destination. The cult of the individual now places us outside divine and human community. The harmony in which a person once found himself with God during the Middle Ages has been destroyed, and God no longer stands at the center of the human consciousness.”

Vodvolaskyn echoes the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his famous “Warning to the West“, given after his exile from Russia.  Humanism of the modern age, the former tells us, takes it that the human being is the measure of all things. While, he says, the same could be said of the Middle Ages, there is one vital qualification. “For medieval man there was one correction: The person is the measure of all things, if it is understood that the measure was given by God.”

Roger Scruton adds that thinkers in the eighteenth century compounded the degeneration. He rightly points out that our academic political philosophy has its roots in the Enlightenment, in the conception of Citiznship that emerged with the social contract. That contract replaced inherited authority with popular choice as the principle of political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, he says, it has had little time for piety, which—if acknowledged at all—is confined to the private sphere” (P 126).

The concept and definition of “person”, explored by Scruton in his book, is a key to the entire crisis. Our civilization has now such a garbled concept of the person, its nature and dignity, its unified essence as body and soul, that it has all but shipwrecked us on the rocks exposed by the receding waters.

Without the correction supplied by medieval man, in Vodvolaskyn’s view, humanism becomes inhuman. With excessive individualism, the rights set down for the individual multiply. The Russian foresees a demand inevitably coming for a right to cross the street against a red light. Take that literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, he argues, because our concept of rights is anti-humane at its core, it activates the mechanism for self-destruction. “The right to suicide turns out to be our most exemplary liberty.”

Ireland, not too long ago was still a safe place to negotiate the world, to raise a family, to pursue the good life. It was holding on, albeit somewhat superficially, to the more metaphysical world view characteristic of the Middle Ages which Vodvolaskyn identifies. It is no longer so, at least in the urbanised and materialistic sectors of its population. While there are still many there who feel that true value and virtue have been swept away by fickle modernity, there are many others rejoicing and celebrating the change.

What has happened to Ireland is what is likely to happen to any cluster of humanity whose moral compass is put in the hands of entertainers, celebrities and a political class whose members care more about their media image and so-called legacy than about the true good of the people.

Ireland may be fast approaching a cultural condition illustrated by Vodvolaskyn in the following anecdote. He recounts an encounter, some 20 years ago, with a Dutch pastor, an advocate of The Netherland’s culture of tolerance, who took him on a tour of Amsterdam.

“The Dutch people are tolerant, he told me, and hence in Amsterdam, there are no ethnic or religious minorities, an achievement made possible by the fact that although a majority of residents are of Dutch descent, only around 25 percent call themselves Christian. His enumeration of the achievements of Dutch tolerance concluded with an account of the removal of a stanza about the help of God from the national anthem of the Netherlands. As you can understand, explained the pastor, various people have various gods, and they can be offended that the anthem names only the Christian God. This is a triumph for tolerance, isn’t it? Listening to him, I thought, if this is a triumph, what would catastrophe be like?”

That was before the spectre of jihad made its appearance on Dutch soil. One wonders what the pastor is thinking today.

Vodvolaskyn, in an essay entitled ‘The New Middle Age’, published in First Things over a year ago, as a philologist might be inclined to do, identified the world as a text.

“As in the Middle Ages, the world itself is becoming a text, though the texts vary in these two cases. The medieval world was a text written by God that excluded the ill-considered and the accidental. The Holy Scripture, which gave meaning to the signs that were generously scattered in daily life, was this world’s key. Now the world is a text that has any number of individual meanings that can be documented. Think of the blogger who describes, minute by minute, a day that has passed.”

But the modern age, with its false humanism, centered exclusively on man, repudiated the Christian vision. The progressivist delusion clouded the picture and abandoned the vision of a unified world where the past and the present were one force.

Vodvolaskyn, being Russian, looks at the modern world from that perspective. But he is also profoundly Christian and fully aware of the historic unity of spirit which Christianity brought to what we call the West. He is also deeply optimistic about the potential which this spirit still has to transform and renew the now decaying civilization in which we find ourselves.

Both Vodvolaskyn and Joseph Ratzinger – surely not only one of the greatest popes of the modern age but also one of its wisest political philosophers – see that the changes that have to come have to take place in our hearts as well as in our culture and in our reason-based political institutions. For both of them utopian dreams are paths to disaster for mankind – as they have shown themselves to be from Cromwell’s time up to the age of ISIS.

Ratzinger points out in Values In A Time of Upheaval:

“The enthusiastic messianism of an eschatological and revolutionary character is absolutely foreign to the New Testament. History is, so to speak, the kingdom where reason rules. Although politics does not bring about the kingdom of God, it must be concerned for the right kingdom of human beings, that is, it must create the preconditions for peace at home and abroad and for a rule of law that will permit everyone to ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1 Tim. 2: 2). One could say that this also implies the demand of religious freedom. Similarly, the text is confident that reason can recognize the essential moral foundations of human existence and can implement these in the political domain.”

Scruton, for his part, warns us of the totalitarian traps which the modern philosophies of Peter Singer and Derek Parfit , both icons of progressivism, set for us with their consequentialist moral reasoning.

“Both philosophers overlook the actual record of consequentialist reasoning. Modern history presents case after case of inspired people led by visions of ‘the best,’ believing that all rational beings would adopt those visions if only they would think about them clearly. The Communist Manifesto is one such Vision. It gives a picture of ‘the best’ and argues that all would work for it, the bourgeoisie included, if only they understood the impeccable arguments for its implementation. Those who stand in the way of revolution are self-interested; but they are also irrational and would change sides if they thought seriously about principles that everyone could will to be laws. Since their interests prevent them from thinking in that way, violent revolution is both necessary and inevitable.”  (P97)

Vodvolaskyn argues for a conservative project and thinks that if the West is able to move beyond its geopolitical disagreements with Russia, it will see one possible future for our common European civilization. One of his fears, which he elaborates in another more recent essay, is that if Russia attempts this by means of a harsh dictatorship of the majority, then it will fail and destabilize society no less than, say, “the dictatorship of the minority that we can observe at times in the West.”

Today as ever, he holds,—contrary to progressive conceits—it is possible for a society to recognize a place for religion and uphold traditional notions of marriage and family. For Scruton it is not only possible. It is essential. In his book he subscribes to the “deep insight” shared by Burke, Maistre and Hegel, that the destiny of political order and the destiny of the family are connected. “Families, and the relationships embraced by them, are nonaccidental features of interpersonal life.”

Contemporary progressivism’s deconstruction of the family is at the heart of our society’s catastrophic regression.

But piling hope upon Vodvolaskyn’s hope, we look for a new Renaissance. But this renaissance will not be a rediscovery of the ancient world. It will be a rediscovery of the treasures of the Middle Ages, cast aside so dismissively by those who consider the word medieval just another expletive. Western Europe, Russia, and the United States, he maintains, represent various branches of a single tree. The basic systemic feature of this civilization is Christianity, both as a religious practice and as a specific kind of culture. If European civilization is fated to survive, it will require a rediscovery of Christianity. And that will, he says, take place both on the level of persons, of  nation-states and at a pan-European level.

Once more, we live in hope.

The Empire Strikes Back?

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Even if one considered it as another magnificent literary artifact, one among many other great letters from the ancient world, surely the perennial prophetic ring of this would signal that it is different. Why does this letter lead us to ask some overwhelming questions, what is it all about, why was it written and how does it mean something to us today, making millions of people read it again and again?

It is St. Paul writing to the Roman Christians about “the remnant of Israel” whose companions they are. All those who have, down through the ages and in our own age, doggedly tried to remain true to the graces given to them are part of this same remnant.

“I ask, then,” St. Paul wrote, “has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”

He then talks about Elijah and how in his frustration this prophet pleaded with God to punish the faithless Israelites.  Elijah moaned to his God, “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”. But God was having none of it, telling him, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

“So too”, Paul then reminds the Romans, “at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace,” His words surely resonate with meaning for our own time when he says, “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,   ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.'”

Christians today, faced with the accumulation of pseudo-wisdom in which modernity and post-modernity prides itself, can be reminded and encouraged by these words that come from God’s revelation to mankind. They remind us that this “spirit of stupor” has been mankind’s constant affliction and an ever-present threat to happiness and well-being, earthly as well as eternal. But from both history and in the unfolding of this same revelation we know that this spirit of stupor has never prevailed – no more than the gates of hell have – and never will.

We need this encouragement – and may need it more if the fears of people like New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, are even partially realized. As readers of this column in Position Papers and the Garvan Hill blog will know, even to the point of trying the patience of some, I pay a good deal of attention to Mr. Douthat and generally find myself in agreement with him.

At the end of last year he delivered the Erasmus Lecture in New York, an event sponsored by the magazine, First Things. The lecture, entitled A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism, was published in the magazine last month.

Now there is no doubt but that there are people who are by their disposition conservative. Although it is a corruption of the true meaning of the word, by this it is generally meant that they have an aversion to change. As such this is an unhelpful term when we are looking at those whom Douthat was addressing in his lecture – essentially Catholics with a strong commitment to the defined teaching of the Catholic Church as it has developed over two millennia. Faithful Catholics are not averse to change as such. They first ask “what is changing?” and then decide their stance, for or against.

Leaving aside the baggage which this term brings with it, the lecture itself has provoked a lively debate among Catholics in America. Douthat himself has now begun to respond to some of those who have taken issue with his analysis of the situation of the Catholic Church in what is now called “the era of Pope Francis”.

Essentially he is saying – regardless of the actual teaching of Pope Francis – that the movement within the Church which in the past identified with what was called the “spirit of the Second Vatican Council”, and which some would say paid little attention to the actual teaching of that Council, has now got a new lease of life.  Not only that, but this movement is now threatening to destabilize the unity and orthodoxy established painstakingly in the Church during the past two pontificates. This for many was well illustrated by all the shenanigans – still going on – surrounding the two recent synods on the family.

Extrapolating from Douthat’s analysis, it is as though the opening of the windows of the Church which was attributed to St. John XXIII is now paralleled by Pope Francis’s commitment to an evangelization of the peripherary. One reading of history says that the post-conciliar moment was seized on by heterodox theologians to pursue an agenda not consistent with the actual teaching of the Council. A reading of the current moment is that the same is happening again in the open atmosphere of Pope Francis’ papacy. Heterodox elements are fighting hard to regain ground lost over the past thirty-five years.

One response to the Douthat’s lecture, in two installments, came from Professor John Martens in the Jesuit magazine, America. Martens is a professor in St. Thomas University in Minnesota. Although he was not among them, this institution was well represented among the signatories to an outrageous and arrogant letter sent to the New York Times questioning the paper’s editorial judgment and the columnist’s right to be commenting at length on Catholic theological issues.

Douthat, in his response to Martens, talks about the fears provoked in him by the implications he draws from the latter’s championing this newly revitalized heterodox movement. Having read what he describes as Professor Martens’ “learned, sincere, respectful response to my columns” he says

“We clearly have some religious common ground, but in other ways the professor and I just seem to occupy very different belief structures, very different places on the continuum of Christianity — and the distance is great enough that our differences can feel less like an intra-Catholic argument and more like a kind of inter-denominational dispute.

“Thus my sudden fears for the church’s unity, in the years of Francis and under papacies to come. Divisions there will always be, but these divisions are simply deeper than I had (fondly? naively?) imagined. And nothing in Catholic history suggests that the church is exempt from Jesus’s warning about a house divided or from the consequences when those divisions can no longer be denied.”

Those words about being on “very different places on the continuum of Christianity” are reminiscent of a passing remark made by Joseph Ratzinger – written while he was still just that – in his little autobiographical volume, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977. In it he was reflecting on those early years of the Second Vatican Council and the development of his own ideas, rubbing shoulders with other priest-theologians involved in the Council as advisors. Among these was Fr. Karl Rahner. Rahner was one of those who very definitely went with the flow of the “spirit of Vatican II”, indeed many would say was at the head of the flow. Ratzinger wrote in that book of his gradual realization that he and his colleague, Rahner, were theologically on different planets.

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Fr. Karl Rahner

In the era of St. John Paul II and his successor, now no longer Joseph Ratzinger but Pope Benedict XVI, one of those two planets seemed to have receded to an outer orbit of the Church. It would now seem, for better or worse, to be back in play in the history of Catholicism again.

Clearly and emphatically we have not reached the “End of History”, neither for Christianity nor for any other dimension of our lives. With the advance of the nones in the Christian world – those who in surveys about religious affiliation profess themselves as belonging to no denomination, – we may be looking at a coming struggle between two claimants to the title of “remnant of Israel”.

Drawing solace and strength from the words of St. Paul, while we do not know how the true remnant will win the day, we do know that the true remnant will be the victor. That remnant will be found in neither the Conservative camp nor in the Liberal camp – it will just be Christian, conservative and liberal as their Faith prescribes, and it will be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic .

A Chesterton for our times?

Ross Douthat

How we should learn learn to stop complaining and love the New York Times! How could we not, for it has given us a Chesterton for our times. Who would have believed it? It did not begin this week – but it certainly reached a new level of power this week.  The latest shining of this new and welcome light began last Monday with the  First Things Erasmus lecture in New York City. Then today we have a penetrating column, a veritable gauntlet for the cause of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church thrown at the feet of its heterodox academic theologians, in one of the free world’s greatest liberal newspapers.

We are talking about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. His star as an interpreter, explainer and sometimes warrior in the culture battles of our time has been rising for a number of years. Since his move to the Times a handful of years ago it has reached super-nova dimensions.

Don’t buy the jibe that he is the Times’ token conservative. The Times is a genuinely liberal paper and as such will inevitably give voice to – and at its top level may also sincerely subscribe to – a view of human nature which is wide of an accurate reading of the real nature of the human condition. But its first ideal is to  try to give voice to intelligent human beings who are seeking the truth. This it will generally do regardless of what the paper’s own view of the truth at any time might be. The Times may even be as confused as Pilate was about the very possibility of Truth. Its starting point is, however, unarguably a good ideal, one which is at the very heart of our civilization. Because of a commitment to this ideal we can hear the voice of Ross Douthat.

This week Douthat gave us a razor-sharp analysis – for me at any rate – of where the “Catholic moment” is today. This was the 28th Annual Erasmus Lecture. It presents a challenge to be sensible, honest and continuously courageous in thinking about where we have been, where we are and where we are going with out Christian civilization yesterday, today and tomorrow.

You can watch and listen to this lecture here courtesy of First Things (firstthings.com). Now in its 28th year, the Erasmus Lecture has been bringing world-renowned speakers to New York—including Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Gilbert Meilaender, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—to address an audience of over five hundred people each year.

Ross Douthat, who like Chesterton – but without the semantic and rhetorical fun and games – is nothing if not provocative, is the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008).

Last week he was challenged by a group of academic theologians who must surely now regret their silly passing remark casting doubt on his “authority” to speak about religion at all since he had no qualification in theology. In fact they did not challenge him. They complained behind his back – like true liberals – to the New York Times for giving him a platform at all on “their” subject. Today he answers their silliness – silliness which all honest people will laugh at but which nevertheless they should also take seriously, as he does. He begins:

I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.

I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.

Both his lecture, his column today and on many other occasions, make compelling reading.

He concludes today’s column, making reference to their elitist and Gnostic jibe, where they imply that all these things are above his pay grade and that he does not understand them because he is not a theologian: “…indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts.”

What is their real position on doctrine and the teaching of the Church, he asks? He suspects that it is that almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind. He concludes:

As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

It is good to have another Chesterton among us.