Saturday, June 26, 2004

The religious challenge of "exporting democracy"

Those who missed the Spring 2004 Issue of the Public Interest -- devoted to "Religion in America" -- should take a look at the few articles available online (or order the back issue itself). In the "The Unraveling of Christianity in America", Clifford Orwin shares his trenchant analysis of mainline ("evangelical") Christianity and it's struggle against the "Bobo" -- Bourgeois Bohemian -- faith of the postmodern liberal upper class (coined by David Brooks' amusing Bobos in Paradise).

Mr. Orwin concludes his essay by observing the quandary the Bush administration has placed itself in by its attempt to "export democracy" to far off shores, with the hope that it might take root in other than Judeo-Christian soil:

By its deeds, not merely its words, [The Bush Administration] has exceeded all previous ones in rejecting the dependence of democracy on Christianity. It has adopted the premise that just as Confucianism, historically anything but liberal or democratic, has posed no insuperable obstacle to the democratization of East Asia, so Islam will pose none to that of the Middle East.

This position is so far from that of the Christian Right as to place the administration squarely on the wrong side of the cultural divide. The conservative Christian view is that America has become and remained free only insofar as it has remained Christian, that the Christian backdrop to republicanism is a matter not of historical chance but of vital necessity. . . .

I'm not suggesting that the Christian Right is likely to abandon Bush. On many domestic issues—not least that of "faith-based initiatives"—it has every incentive to continue to collaborate with him. Nor is it likely to overlook that, of all Republican presidents since McKinley, Bush appears to be the most concerned with living a Christian life. All the more ironic, then, that in the most important policy and riskiest gamble of his presidency, Bush has embraced willy-nilly the view that liberal democracy is one thing, Protestant Christianity (or Christianity of any sort, or even Judeo-Christianity) entirely another. He has chosen to present America to the world not as the Christian nation for which his religious supporters take it, but as the universal sponsor of liberal democracy, which as such is impartial in principle as between Christianity and Islam.

Thus must Bush present America not just to the world but to itself. . . . However trying the struggle with Islamism may prove, whatever sacrifices it may demand, he cannot revive Lincoln's appeal to Christianity, no matter how nondenominational that appeal would be. His religious rhetoric must be "inclusive," anodyne, and sterile. His administration must become America's first genuinely Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jewish (and Muslim) one. And so the challenge of Islamic terror will collaborate with other forces to drive official America to ever greater lengths of secularism or syncretism.

For an extensive review of this issue of The Public Interest, see Fr. Neuhaus' column in the June issue of First Things.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Holy Father speaks out on "Europe's Religion Problem"

John Allen Jr. writes on Europe's increasing phobia towards religion, as recently illustrated in their deliberate ommission of any reference to God in the adoption of the European Constitution -- and about which Pope John Paul II had harsh words to say in his visit to Poland:

"I want to thank Poland for faithfully defending in European institutions the Christian roots of our continent, from which have grown our culture and the civil progress of our time," he said in his native Polish.

Poland was among the handful of European nations -- Italy, Portugal, Malta, and the Czech Republic -- that persevered until the end in requesting a reference to Christianity, but in the end they were blocked by more powerful nations, especially France. (Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing headed the drafting commission).

Thus the papal barb: "One does not cut off the roots from which one is born."

Other Vatican sources reflected the pope's displeasure.

On Friday, spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls charged that governments that had blocked the reference to Christianity "failed to understand the historical evidence and the Christian identity of the peoples of Europe." On Saturday, L'Osservatore Romano said that Europe "seems to want to deprive itself of the solid foundation of its historical memory.

Mr. Allen offered three interesting predictions on the potential implications of Europe's aversion to religion:

  1. First, it strengthens the case that the next pope must have some sort of vision for Europe. . . . Although the center of gravity of global Christianity will increasingly be in the south, Europe is still the cradle of Christianity, and it is where much of the intellectual (and financial) capital originates. A damaged church in Europe is bad news everywhere. Hence, papal candidates will increasingly be evaluated by what they have to say about Europe.

  2. Second, the outcome will probably push a few more European bishops to open their doors to new ecclesial realities such as Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate, and the Legionaries of Christ. In a culture that often seems not just indifferent, but positively hostile, to organized religion, it may be that only disciplined, highly motivated groups operating outside traditional ecclesiastical structures will have the capacity to evangelize and catechize.

  3. Finally, I suspect the outcome will to some extent embolden the pro-American faction within the Vatican and the College of Cardinals. Broadly speaking, church leaders have long been divided between those who want Europe to emerge as a third pole in global affairs with a more Catholic vision of society, and those who think the church ought to cast its lot with the Americans because they're the only game in town. This second group would include figures such as Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for the diocese of Rome, and Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University. The failure of European leaders to even use the word "Christian," let alone articulate a Christian social vision, in their new constitution makes the pro-American argument that much more convincing.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Celebrating The Baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain

Yesterday, June 10th, was the anniversary of the baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, an incredible couple who -- if any there were -- took the search for truth seriously. I find the story of their early years together nothing short of amazing, as accounted by Dr. Donald DeMarco:

Jacques Maritain was born in Paris on November 18, 1882. He grew up in that city, barely nourished spiritually on the lukewarm Protestantism of his mother. When he entered the Lycée Henri IV, he possessed no particular religious convictions. He enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1901 during France's rich and corrupt Third Republic, a time when rabid French anti-clericalism had turned the Church into an intellectual ghetto. The school's rigid empiricism had effectively excluded any respectful discussion of spiritual matters. One day, as Jacques walked hand in hand through a Paris park with his Jewish girl friend, Raissa, the two made a pact that if, within a year, they could not find any meaning to life beyond the material, they would commit suicide.

That despair dissolved when they heard lectures at the Collège de France given by Henri Bergson, whose theories of creative evolution exalted the spirit of man and his ability to discover the intelligibility of things through intuition. In 1905, Jacques and Raissa, now newlyweds, met a passionate Catholic named Leon Bloy ("A Christian of the second century astray in the Third Republic'') who led them into the Catholic faith. 1

Gerard Serafin blogs Raissa's account of their spiritual conversion and baptism from their memoirs We Have Been Friends Together. In embracing the Catholic faith, the couple overcame many spiritual obstacles, not least of which was the material image of the Church itself:

"Although the speculative debate was ended for us, we still had many feelings of repugnance to overcome. The Church in her mystical and saintly life we found infinitely lovable. We were ready to accept her. She promised us Faith by Baptism: we were going to put her word to the test.

But in the apparent mediocrity of the Catholic world, and in the mirage which to our ill-seeing eyes seemed to bind her to the forces of reaction and oppression, she appeared to us strangely hateful. She seemed to us to be the society of the fortunate of this world, the supporter and ally of the powerful, to be bourgeois, pharisaical, remote from the people.

That Jacques and Raissa were able to look beyond their negative impressions of the Church, to consider its claims to truth and to seek reception in baptism, is a good lesson for those who find themselves in a similar position today.

In addition to the scorn and alienation of many of their friends and family, Jacques believed that upon entering the Church he would have to relenquish his pursuit of philosophy:

Our suffering and dryness grew greater every day. Finally we understood that God also was waiting, and that there would be no further light so long as we should not have obeyed the imperious voice of our consciences saying to us: you have no valid objection to the Church; she alone promises you the light of truth - prove her promises, put Baptism to the test.

We still thought that to become Christian meant to abandon philosophy forever. Well, we were ready - but it was not easy - to abandon philosophy for the truth. Jacques accepted this sacrifice. The truth we had so greatly desired had caught us in a trap. "If it has pleased God to hide His truth in a dunghill," Jacques said, "that is where we shall go to find it." I quote these cruel words to give some idea of our state of mind.

How fortunate for us, that Jacques would subsequently discover the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and continue to enrich the Church with his philosophical investigations. Catholics of many stripes have been influenced by (and lay claim to) Maritain's thought: "neoconservatives", progressives, traditionalists, Catholic Workers -- we can consider ourselves blessed. To echo Michael Novak:

". . . so many of us feel immensely indebted to this layman, perhaps the greatest exemplar of the Catholic laity in the last two centuries: this master of many wisdoms, this metaphysician, this philosopher at once humane and Christian (and able to speak in either of those languages), this ethicist and philosopher of history, this political philosopher, this saintly and childlike man.2

Related Links:

  1. The Christian Personalism of Jacques Maritain Faith and Reason Summer 1991
  2. A Salute to Jacques Maritain, by Michael Novak. The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989): 65-82.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Culture and Thomist Tradition

Fellow blogger Chris Burgwald blogs about theologian Tracy Rowland's Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II:

This was one of the most exciting reads I've had in a few years. Rowland combines the philosophical analysis of modernity by Alasdair Macintyre with the theological analysis of the Communio school (deriving from Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and today, David Schindler in particular) along with others to argue that the culture referred to by the title of "modernity" (which includes modern American culture) is not as open to the Gospel as many think, but in fact is oriented away from Christianity. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture encountered by the early Church, the very structure of modernity is antithetical to the Gospel, meaning that the mileu in which Americans live is in a systemic way hostile to the Gospel.

What this means is that the problems the Church faces in evangelizing our culture are not due simply to the fallout of the sixties, but in fact go to the core of the American way of life, which in many ways is derived in its worldview from the Enlightenment.

Now, this isn't to say that there is nothing good in American culture for the Church to engage in... that's not what these scholars are saying. Their point is that out culture is not as open to the Gospel as many theologians have heretofor believed, and that we need to take a more discerning (critical) approach in how to reach those who live in this culture.