Saturday, December 03, 2005

Fr. Neuhaus & Caleb Stegall - A Brief Exchange

Natural Law, the Death Penalty, and Political Theology: An Editorial Response to First Things, by Caleb Stegall. The New Pantagruel Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 2005. Analyzing the recent correspondence of First Things editor Jody Bottum and editor-in-chief Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus, Caleb Stegall observes a disjuncture of positions:

So what’s going on at First Things? In sum, Bottum contends that accepting the modern state requires the abandonment of any political theology and the concurrent abandonment of natural law in favor of the positive law. Bottum does accept the modern state and therefore is compelled, by intellectual honesty, to abandon man’s experience under nature and within a cosmic narrative, at least in its political form. Neuhaus, on the other hand, contends that to abandon political theology altogether is social suicide, resulting in politics as naked power grabs and constant warfare by other means, and he prescribes as a remedy a renewed attention to natural law.

If it is true that a demythologized modern state has no room for political theology or natural law as Bottum says, and if it is true that a state without a political theology will devolve into raw power politics, either in the open or more likely hidden behind lip service paid to positive law, as Neuhaus says, then the sheer circularity of their contradictory conclusions is dizzying. The fact that Bottum and Neuhaus are so hung up in this intellectual feedback loop is useful for what it reveals: namely, that despite all the valiant efforts of the First Things crew over the years, the modern public square really is naked–which is to say, shorn of any real political theology or mythology–and will always remain so. Better to abandon the liberal project altogether, at which point a penitent, Christian, political theology will again be possible.

Fr. Neuhaus offers a rather curt response here:
Stegall’s is an interesting argument, and he raises a few questions deserving of detailed attention. But that is for another time. Very briefly, what he calls the demythologized modern state is not capable of bearing “the story of the world,” namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. No state is. That is the mission of the Church. I am not at all sure that we should want the kind of “political theology” that Mr. Stegall apparently has in mind. The goal, rather, is a secular state in a confessional society in which government is democratically held accountable to the moral truth to which the Church bears witness.

While Mr. Bottum and I decline the invitation to fight, it should be noted that the New Pantagruel, while not as Rabelaisian as the title may suggest, is a lively Internet quarterly well worth a look.

(Well, let's hope for more substantial engagements in the future).