Continuing from our post from yesterday, Francis Cardinal George takes us from the complex development (and corruption) of the Augustinian notion of the City of God affecting the City of Man through late antiquity and the Middle Ages until the Emergence of the Modern. I always find this transition in history so interesting because I was brought up to celebrate the “birth of science” and the “Age of Rationalism” or “The Enlightenment.” Nowadays I tend to think of it as “The Darkenment,” which is another extreme but at least captures the sense that something was lost as well as gained.
A Compromise with Augustine’s the City of Man
The dark underside of the ideal unity of the social order informed by religious faith was the use of state power, often uninfluenced by moral considerations of its limits, to enforce religious conformity — a conformity more often used for political than for genuinely religious ends. The reaction to this misuse of power justified modernity’s understanding of religious freedom. What created modern consciousness is a breakdown of classical Christian participation metaphysics and the consequent emergence of a secular arena at best only incidentally related to God.
It is this modern, non-participatory, ideological context that impoverishes most of our discussions of religion and politics. It is most evident, perhaps, not in the loss of visual symbols to integrate space but in the creation of rival calendars to shape the rhythm of public life. In the modern era, national feasts and ceremonies replaced the liturgical calendar of the Church, whose feasts become private observances. The end of the modern era, however, is signaled by the inability of the secular calendar to call people out of their private concerns into the rhythm of a shared public life. National holidays have become primarily occasions for private recreation. Time itself becomes a field to be personally scheduled, a function of private purposes. A rigorously secularized society is less and less able to call people to any kind of participation.
The loss of the communio ontology in Western thought begins, perhaps surprisingly, just after Aquinas, in the writings of Duns Scotus. Scotus consciously repudiates the Thomistic analogy of being — predicated upon participation — and adopts a univocal conception of being. Though it was perhaps Scotus’s intention to draw the world and God into closer connection, this epistemological and ontological shift had the opposite effect. In maintaining that God and the world can be described with a univocal (vocab: having only one meaning; unambiguous) concept of being.
Scotus implied that the divine and the non-divine are both instances of some greater and commonly shared power of existence. But in so doing, he radically separated God from the world, rendering the former a supreme being (however infinite) and the latter a collectivity of beings. In opting for the univocity of the idea of existence, Scotus set God and world alongside each other, thereby separating “nature” and “grace” far more definitively than Aquinas or Augustine ever had and effectively undermining a metaphysics of creation and participation. God is no longer that generous power in which all things exist but rather that supreme being next to whom or apart from whom all other beings exist.
The distancing of God from creation and the defining of the world as profane, made possible by this univocal concept of being, can be seen in the voluntarism and nominalism of William of Ockham, which in turn had a decisive influence on Martin Luther. Scotus’s compromised sense of analogy shaped the later and more decadent scholasticism, finally giving rise to Francisco Suarez’s awkward rendering of Thomas’s doctrine of analogy; Some have argued that this Jesuit Renaissance version of Aquinas — with its sharp delineation of nature and grace — came to form modern consciousness, especially through the work of the Jesuit-trained René Descartes. In both its Lutheran and Cartesian manifestations, modernity assumes a fundamental split between the divine and the non-divine and hence implicitly denies the participation/communio metaphysics that had shaped the Christian world through the ancient and medieval periods.
What does this modern worldview produce in the arena of the social and political? Thomas Hobbes made the political implications of modernity most evident. In his famous description of the natural (prepolitical) state of human beings as “solitary; poor, nasty; brutish, and short,” Hobbes assumes the primacy of antagonism. Void of a religious, and therefore communitarian, sensibility natural man is engaged in a desperate attempt to keep himself alive, fighting a “war of all against all.” Responding only to his most elemental passions, man in the state of nature lives a thoroughly individualist and “secular” existence, and any link to an englobing and transcendent context is lost.
Given this framework, the role of government — Hobbes’s Leviathan — becomes what it was in ancient Rome: the maintenance of a temporary and ersatz peace on the basis of coercion and violent control. The only way to curb the relentless violence of the state of nature, Hobbes assumes, is to accept the mitigated violence of the commonwealth. Because debates over ultimate ends and especially over theology tend to be disruptive of the peace, Hobbes places the Church under the tight control of the Leviathan, the sovereign who determines and enforces what is to be believed. To be sure, this adoption of a particular religious policy has nothing to do with a correlation to an objective truth; it is simply adopted as political expediency. It is this stipulation that constitutes the core of the modern “theological” vision. The natural state of human beings is irreligious, unrelated to a transcendent God and his purposes, thoroughly secular. Whatever role religion plays in the structuring of life is artificial and totally subordinate to political ends.
This Hobbesianism is softened a bit but preserved in its essential structures in the political thought of John Locke. Though he allows a rudimentary moral sense to remain even in the state of nature, Locke follows Hobbes in deriving individual rights from irresistible and antagonizing passions and in defining government’s role as basically protective of those individualist prerogatives. Government’s only task is to ensure one man’s legitimate claim to life, liberty, and property over and against the encroachments of others. The loss of a sense of man’s nature as deeply social leaves unchallenged the assumption that antagonism, disassociation, and suspicion are the natural condition of human beings. Here, the metaphysics of participation and communio has become a distant cultural memory.
This Hobbes/Locke tradition profoundly shaped the minds of the founding fathers of the United States. In the prologue to the Declaration of Independence, we hear of “self-evident truths” concerning “inalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As in Hobbes and Locke, these rights are individualistic — my liberty and life over and against yours. These rights are somewhat correlated to moral ends outside of themselves by the greater or lesser religious sense of common destiny and purpose in the minds and beliefs of many of the founders; but it is, tellingly, the pursuit of happiness — unguided, unanchored, unfocused by truth — that is guaranteed as a right. And government is “instituted among men” in order to protect these prerogatives and hence assure some level of peace and order in a still primarily antagonistic community.
In what appears to be a departure from Hobbes, the framers of our Constitution insisted that no single religion be officially established but that the state should remain separated from religion, neither sanctioning nor prohibiting its exercise. This approach to religion, however, is still essentially Hobbesian, since it proceeds from the distinctively modern creation of a thoroughly secular space, untouched by religious questions, concerns, and finalities.
Much more could be said about the subtle differences in emphasis and accent between the pure Hobbesian, Lockean, and American construals of political reality For example, Alexis de Tocqueville’s still provocative analysis of the play between the American “secular” state and the vibrant, though officially privatized, religiousness of the American people continues to yield insights into the actual experience of generations of Americans. But despite certain nuanced differences, all three perspectives remain recognizably secular and modern in form and content. All three are possible only after the breakdown of the communio metaphysics characteristic of authentic Christianity And therefore, all three amount to an embrace —whether relatively enthusiastic or relatively cautious— of what Augustine would describe as the City of Man.
Protestantism and Modernity in the American Context
What was the Christian response to the challenge of modernity in its American form? The full answer is obviously complex, and it varies according to whether one begins from a Protestant or from a Catholic perspective. After Walter Rauschenbusch’s theology of the Social Gospel in the beginning decades of the twentieth century, the two most influential American Protestant social thinkers of the last century were the prolific Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard. What makes these figures particularly interesting from our perspective is their Augustinianism, expressed in and for the peculiarly American context.
Reinhold Niebuhr began his career as a liberal in the tradition of Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel but soon he became disillusioned with what he took to be the ineffectuality and uncritical idealism of this position. Through his pastoral practice and his reading of the Hebrew prophets, he was in time converted to a stance that his commentators are nearly unanimous in referring to as “Christian realism.” By this they mean that, despite (or perhaps because of) his religiosity; there was nothing dreamily idealist about Niebuhr’s political analysis. He was willing to take human beings as they are —with all of their duplicity; violence, selfishness, rancor, and sin — and not as he would like them to be. “In political and moral theory; ‘realism’ denotes the disposition to take all factors in a social and political situation, which offer resistance to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power.
Niebuhrean realism manifested itself in the distinction between a personal ethic of love and a social ethic of justice. ‘Whereas the demands of radical love contained in the Sermon on the Mount could be justifiably applied to the personal realm, they would have to be set aside in favor of the more mitigated form of love that is justice when applied to the properly social or political arena. Given the fact of original sin, it is simply asking too much, thinks Niebuhr, to expect a body politic to behave according to the absolute moral demands of the Gospel. The more appropriate and “realistic” criterion for evaluation of the moral quality of a society is that of justice, that “rendering to each his due” which is a qualified mode of love. This clarification, with its deepest roots in Max Weber’s distinction between an “ethic of ends” and an “ethic of means,” enabled Niebuhr to accept and affirm, for example, both a personal embrace of pacifism on the part of the saint and a social acceptance of warfare as a tragic necessity on the part of the body politic.
For our purposes, it is interesting to note that Niebuhr saw Augustine as a major influence in the development of his social ethic. Presumably it was Augustine’s honest assessment of the City of Man and his qualified acceptance of certain social practices (such as warfare) that shaped Niebuhr’s position. It seems, however, that Niebuhr’s solution bears only a passing resemblance to Augustine’s treatment of the two cities. For St. Augustine, the Niebuhrean distinction between love and justice would be highly problematic, precisely because what determines the justice of the City of God is finally the quality of its love. The City of God is just only in the measure that it remains a collectivity that loves God (and hence human beings) according to the pattern of Jesus. Furthermore, the privatization of love would have struck Augustine as untenable. As Henri de Lubac pointed out in his Catholicism, one of the defining marks of the Church Fathers as a whole is the passionate conviction that no dogma is to be construed individualistically, that every Christian claim has a social range and implication. That there is a private and interior dimension that can be cleanly distinguished from the public seems to be a conviction far more Lutheran than Augustinian, and it would certainly fly in the face of the communio metaphysic we have been describing.
A form of Protestant Augustinianism perhaps more congenial to this analysis is that of Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, Helmuti Richard Niebuhr. In his classic text Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr distinguished several paradigms for the relationship of Christian faith to the culture in which it finds itself. Christ has been envisioned over the centuries as, variously, against, over, of and in paradoxical relation to the culture. Each of these positions has advantages and disadvantages, but Niebuhr seems to favor the paradigm that he articulates last, namely, Christ as the transformer of culture.
According to this model, the culture is fallen and hence in need of transformation, but it is also capable of conversion through the influence of Christ’s way of being. The transformation paradigm is sufficiently “realistic” in its honest assessment of sin, but it is also spiritually alert to the possibility of a real and thorough conversion of a culture through Christ. Intriguingly, H. Richard Niebuhr, claims St. Augustine — especially in the City of God — as the best advocate of this position, and here we can agree. There is no artificial distinction between public and private and no pessimistic resignation to the intractability of the public realm. But rather, in the spirit of Augustine, the whole of the public ordo is seen as fallen through false love but redeemable through the authentic love of the communio opened up by Christ. This position, unlike Reinhold Niebuhr’s, allows for a more robust Christian critique of the assumptions and practices of a political culture flowing from Hobbesian individualism.
Catholicism and Modernity in the American Context
What is the Catholic attitude to the distinctively modern polity that is the United States? Catholics have had, it seems fair to say, a complex relationship to American society. When they arrived in great numbers starting in the early nineteenth century, they were met with fierce opposition from a Protestant establishment fearing a “foreign” and despotic takeover. The Egyptians seemed to have managed to cross the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean and now threatened to corrupt the almost chosen people, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, of this American promised land. In the face of anti-Catholic propaganda, the burning of convents and monasteries, and the rise of the Know-Nothing party American Catholics tended to lie low, muting the “political” dimension of their faith and preferring to build a Catholic culture under the protection of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. And they did so with a passion, establishing by the beginning of the twentieth century a vibrant and institutionally powerful subculture in the still predominantly Protestant United States.
So favorable did this American environment seem that influential Catholic bishops such as James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul actively promoted American-style separation of church and state. At the same time, some American Catholics — and Vatican observers — worried that the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment would conduce to a secularized, or at least Protestantized, understanding of the relation between faith and society. At the end of the nineteenth century this concern led to Pope Leo XIH’s official ecclesial condemnation of the heresy called “Americanism.”
John Courtney Murray — Reconciling the Catholic and the Modern
It is against this complex background that the thought of John Courtney Murray, S.J., emerged. Murray is undoubtedly the most persuasive voice advocating the reconciliation of the Catholic faith with a characteristically modern political experiment. Murray’s proposal needs to be analyzed with some care in order to gauge the degree of success he achieved.
A fundamental and guiding assumption of the Murray project is that a civil society is characterized by constructive and disciplined argument, the working-our of consensus in a rational manner. The conditions for the possibility of this civil conversation are two: an agreement that there is “a heritage of an essential truth… [that] furnishes the substance of civil life,” and a respect for the rights, freedom, and dignity of the individual. If the former is missing, the conversation becomes unfocused; and if the latter is absent, the conversation devolves into power plays. When the founding fathers of. this country embraced certain self-evident truths and placed their political efforts under the authority of a transcendent God, they fulfilled the first condition; and when they insisted that basic rights and freedoms especially with regard to religion — are to be guaranteed, they fulfilled the second. Murray believed that, in their acceptance of both a form of natural law and the authority of the divine, the American founders differ radically from the Jacobin and laicist revolutionaries of Europe, whose convictions were marked by a fierce anticlericalism and a sort of uncritical rationalism.
Though they were not antireligious, the American founders saw the necessity of eliminating a consideration of ultimate ends from the political conversation. Precisely because there was, in colonial America, such an irreconcilable pluralism of Protestant theological views, they saw that the consensus requird for civil conversation would dissolve if any religious viewpoint were officially sanctioned or allowed to determine secular policy. Therefore, according to Murray, the framers declared the state incompetent in matters of religion and restricted its interests to the political sphere. The “truths” that are held in common and that undergird the civil conversation are thus not final or theological truths but are rather basic convictions and intuitions in principle available to all people of intelligence and good will. It is here that Murray senses •a link to the Catholic tradition of the natural law, a universal moral sensibility distinguishable from the specific precepts of the revealed law.
In this context, one can begin to understand Murray’s insistence that the two articles of the First Amendment should be interpreted, not as “articles of faith” but as “articles of peace.” Behind the separation of church and state in the American constitution is neither a secularist ideology that would simply drive religion from the public square nor a Calvinist theology placing exclusive stress on the divine transcendence. Rather, Murray claims, there is no ideological commitment no faith — of any kind behind these purely legal decisions to restrict the range and sanction of the civil conversation. Their purpose is not to make claims regarding ultimate ends, but only to provide the conditions necessary for a peaceful and therefore civil dialogue.
Murray exults in the fact that the First Amendment is the product not of theologians but of lawyers. If it were otherwise, Catholics would be obliged, he thinks, to dissent from the American proposition. It is the very ideological agnosticism of the First Amendment that renders it palatable to people of various religious and philosophical persuasions. Under the protection, and within the confines, of these ideologically “neutral” articles, Catholics can feel free to develop their particular spiritual and faith-based culture while insisting that the original Protestant flavor of early American culture not be normative. Against a perceived Protestant hegemony, Catholics, along with Jews, have often acted as “secularizers” in American society.
The Price of A Catholic Reconciliation
It appears as though we have found, in Murray’s balanced argumentation, a philosophical justification for the pro-American sentiments of Archbishop Ireland and Cardinal Gibbons. It seems that a reconciliation of the Catholic and the modern is not only possible but welcome. With the benefit of a longer historical experience, however, this reconciliation seems less certain. If we look more closely, we uncover some of the distinctively modern ideological content of Murray’s ostensibly agnostic solution.
It is no secret that John Courtney Murray’s thought was shaped by a neo-Scholastic two-tiered conception of nature and grace, a view that he inherited from his Suarezian Jesuit tradition. This sharp delineation between the natural and the supernatural is, as discussed above, a departure from the communio and participation metaphysics of the patristic and medieval periods. It is congruent with the typically modern carving out of a distinctively profane realm untouched by ultimate finalities or direct religious influence. Given this distinction, Murray could easily enough establish two realms, a “political” one where questions of ultimate ends are bracketed and a “religious” one where those ends can be proclaimed and sought.
Such a demarcation is impossible, however, within the context of a participation metaphysics, which sees all of finitude as grounded in and touched by the divine. It was, of course, John Courtney Murray’s contemporary and fellow Jesuit Henri de Lubac who, in a series of groundbreaking texts, vigorously attacked the two-tiered conception of nature and grace and attempted a recovery of a communio metaphysics. According to de Lubac, nature is not a self-contained realm with its own finalities, but rather one that is permeated by and oriented toward the supernatural from the beginning. But if this is the case, then the separation that Murray tolerates — the bracketing of ultimate ends in the political context—is exposed as simply a pragmatic and religiously inadequate ploy.
Father Murray’s separation assumes as well the implicit acceptance of a relentlessly modern view of the person. If the political or social dimension is essentially untouched by the sacred, then the human being who is naturally social is also by nature agnostic, perhaps even atheist. Whatever is religious in him is added as an extrinsic superstructure to a religiously neutral substructure. Any “truth” suggested by religion regarding humanity and its ends remains adventitious if not alien to this secularized natural man To be sure, American liberalism is not, like continental Jacobinism, overtly atheist; but it is, one could argue, implicitly or covertly so. The “peace” gained by the articles of the First Amendment is bought at the price of a secularized understanding of the world and the loss of communio.
None of this relativizes the important contribution made by John Courtney Murray, for in Murray state neutrality in religion is not so much the condition for social peace as the necessary means for protecting personal religious liberty in a pluralistic society. In fact, his insistence on the centrality of religious liberty was affirmed at Vatican II, although the Council’s defense of religious liberty owes at least as much to Fréflch Christian personalism as to Murray’s historical and social analyses. Nevertheless, the anthropology of the Council’s document Dignitatis humanae now shapes Catholic social teaching and has been consistently emphasized in the writings of John Paul II.
The pope’s construal of this liberty however, flows from the thought world of communio metaphysics rather than from a modern political framework. “What is central to John Paul’s interpretation is that freedom and truth belong together from the beginning, that the latter is in fact an essential component of the former. Without correlation to truths rooted in nature and in God, human freedom becomes license or, alternatively, acquiesces in state tyranny. In Augustinian terms, it becomes an improperly directed love, a mere “pursuit of happiness” rather than a structured spiritual activity. John Paul II consistently criticized in the Western democracies born of the Enlightenment this divorce of freedom from truth, this tendency to think that liberty can be unquestioningly affirmed while consideration of ultimate truth is bracketed or privatized. Such a bifurcation — allowed for by Murray in the interest of peace — was, for John Paul II, an undermining of the very structure of freedom itself
And what indeed are the fruits of this great divorce? “When we look at the moral landscape of America at the dawn of the millennium, what do we see? We see, again to invoke the Augustinian hermeneutic, ample evidence of the flourishing of the City of Man. In the millions of abortions annually, the divorce of human reproduction from the embrace of human love, the increased application of the death penalty, the practice of euthanasia, the conviction that hopelessly handicapped people are better off dead, the seemingly indiscriminate arid sometimes disproportionate use of the military, the gun violence in the streets of our cities and the corridors of our schools in all of this we see the fruits of what Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death,” a society that allows for the destruction of its weakest members according to the simple will of the strong. The culture of death is none other than that “world” generated by the separation between freedom and truth; it is a result of the poorly conceived compromise between the City of God and the City of Man which stands at the heart of the modern experiment.
What follows from this faith-based critique of modernity? One might assume that, given the line of argument presented here, the only alternative is some sort of theocracy or confessional state. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having lived through late antiquity; the medieval period, and the modern era, the Church is opposed to “theocracy” on two basic grounds. First, as Murray argued and Vatican II clearly stated, faith is never to be pressed on anyone through coercive means of any kind. A coerced faith is not personal faith, and the development of doctrine in Vatican II has moved the Church from simply standing the modern problematic on its head and accepting a purely public faith as an article of peace in a contemporary version of medieval society.
Second, the Church should not seek to establish itself officially or juridically outside its own structures. A communion on its own terms, the Church cannot set up a “political” arm or expression without betraying its integrity. If churchmen over the centuries have sometimes embraced the theocratic model, they have done so without sufficient attention to the demands of the Gospel and the nature of the Church herself
The community of Jesus Christ does not seek to take over the reins of political power; rather it seeks to create a culture. The debate on the institutional relationship between church and state has become now a conversation on the relationship between faith and culture. Provided the political order respects human dignity, communio can be visible in a culture open to transcendence. The faith creates such a culture by being simply, boldly, and unapologetically itself. At the heart of the Church is the sacred liturgy what Vatican II called “the source and summit” of the Christian life.
The liturgy on earth is an iconic display of the heavenly liturgy of the angels and saints, that community gathered together around the throne of God and united in praise. In the way we gather, the way we pray, the way we behave liturgically, we act out the paradigm of the heavenly communio, seeking to remake ourselves in its image. Then, as a liturgical people, we endeavor to shape the world according to this icon, bringing love where there is hatred, forgiveness where there is resentment, compassion where there is animosity; and peace where there is warfare. By the power of the Eucharist and through a kind of osmosis, we transform the culture, gently but subversively, from within.
In his text on the role of the laity; ChristiFideles laici, Pope John Paul II articulated several dimensions of this culture-creating work. First, the family must be remade as an expression of communio. Then, starting from that foundation, Eucharistic people must refashion the social, economic, and political realms; next, they should influence the arenas of education, entertainment, literature, and the arts. Finally, they ought to concern themselves with the environment and ecology; caring, in a spirit of communio, for the planet itself.
There is nothing coercive or violent about this process; but, at the same time, there is nothing private or self-effacing about it either. Its ambition is the total transformation of the world in all its dimensions. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God’s kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as in heaven. We are petitioning, in a word, that God’s ordo, God’s way of thinking and being, become, in the richest sense, our ordo, that the City of Man might be transformed by the City of God.
This transformation will not be easy. Personal conversion challenges individuals; cultures and entire societies also resist being evangelized. The history of tensions between the community of faith and the political order shifts according to what element of the faith seems the greatest challenge to the civil powers at any particular time. Emperors and feudal lords, during the many years of the controversy over the investiture of bishops, tried to take to themselves the government of the Church.
Josephism and the Napoleonic conventions tried to take to the state the control of the worship and ministry of the Church. Modern states founded in revolutions with universalist pretensions, such as the French, the American, and the Russian, have tried to arrogate to themselves the mission of the Church. Co-opting the faith’s sense of purpose in order to create a secularist universal culture sets up tensions difficult to dispel. The Church resists being reduced to a department of state, a particular denomination, or a private club.
The deepest truth that Catholics proclaim is that of communio:all things and all people are ordered to God and hence ordered in love to one another. This truth informs everything we say about the political, social, economic, and cultural realms. If we surrender this truth — either through ideological compromise or even out of concern for civility — we succumb to the culture of death.
At the beginning of the third millennium, the mission of the community that looks to Jesus as Lord is to create a culture of life and to do this within social structures that are more and more global in outreach. For the second time in two thousand years, the Church finds herself in social, economic, and some political structures that are increasingly universal. In such a situation, the Catholic Church is an agent of transformation that is, paradoxically, completely at home.