Public Arguments

The Hope of Splendor

Our sister publication Commonweal (October 22) put together a stimulating set of commentaries on The Splendor of Truth, and with breathtaking speed—a splendid example of editorial foresight and efficiency. The range of opinion is impressive, too (from Charles Curran to Janet Smith, from Stanley Hauer was to Sister Anne Patrick). The editors deserve congratulations.

As is expected for The Commonweal, “progressive” voices predominated, and for the most part the tone they adopted was moderate. One could still detect in some of them, however, both a lingering contempt for “Rome” and a sense of superiority about their own enlightened positions. These latter they take to be in “advance” of those of Rome, as well as Poland. But there were no rabid calls to man the barricades or even appeals to open resistance; rather, an express hope that extremism will abate and moderation rule. This was a hopeful sign.

Less hopeful was the way in which several writers missed the main point of the encyclical, perhaps because they received it defensively. Since many progressives think of themselves as the vanguard for the whole church, not often does one see in their work a sharp awareness, or even a suspicion, that they are but a small minority in a very privileged part of the Church universal, perhaps not even close to being on the front battle-lines or near the main centers of activity. Reading everything solely from within their own horizon, they simply do not apprehend the great, buzzing, and active world that lies outside their categories. Thinking still in the categories of thought they developed during the Second Vatican Council and the heady days thereafter, they do not recognize how much the world has changed since then—or how different Vatican II now looks in the light of all those changes, and how ambivalent, even tattered, the legacy of the once-lionized “progressives” now appears.

A few in this symposium voiced the fear of being cracked down upon, but it may be that they feel a more poignant fear: the fear of being marginalized, simply passed by, without followers or relevance.

Consider what has happened recently to liberation theologians. Just ten years ago, according to the publishing houses and magazines, they were the wave of the future. Then the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 revealed the empirical face of real socialism in all its dreariness. This dealt their illusions a severe blow, from which their economic theory could not recover. But even before that, the internal unraveling of the liberationists’ position began with the Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation put out by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1984. That instruction laid out what was wrong in the vulgar Marxist theories of those days, and cleared the air like a sudden tropical storm. Immediately, several of the most prominent liberation theologians announced that the Instruction described forms of Marxism that they did not embrace, caricatures that left their own positions unscathed. They said that they embraced the Instruction, as far as it went. Rather than fighting it, they joined it.

Quite suddenly, then, a massive consensus appeared in the Church about certain boundaries that even the left agreed should not be trespassed. Liberation theologians began spelling out the ways in which they were not Marxists, even in their methods of economic or sociological analysis. Their enterprise became much clearer—more traditional, sound on fundamentals, and also more practical, down-to-earth, and likely to succeed.

Something similar seems to be happening in the present case. The moral theologians in the United States sometimes self-described as dissenters seem to be accepting The Splendor of Truth, as far as it goes, while subtracting themselves from the active list of candidates to be seriously considered as its targets. No one they know, they say, holds the positions condemned. As for the sort of “proportionalism” and “consequentialism” taken seriously in their circles, these do not even appear (they say) in the encyclical. In their place are “caricatures” which no American moral theologian holds, positions that plainly lie outside the pale of reason.

This defense does not mean that Pope John Paul II has described “phantom heresies,” empty sets that have no living members. Rather, its real significance is that even those sometimes taken to be dissenters are now emphasizing that cliffs have edges, beyond which they are not willing to step. Not everything, they agree, is up for grabs. They have begun to emphasize the boundaries imposed by reason upon itself. The image of the cliff in the fog is Chesterton’s, of course, as is the commonsensical view that it is precisely where low visibility settles over places of imminent disaster that reason itself develops the most acute respect for boundaries and markers. Not to put up signs—”Beware the cliff!”—would be for state officials in a state park a dereliction of duty.

It is good that those who have taken a certain pride in dissent now emphasize that there are cliffs in their vicinity, which they, too, recognize and are willing to place markers near. That they share the Pope’s horror at the growing flood of relativism is also comforting; that in battling against it the Pope may count on them as staunch allies is good news, indeed. Greater emphasis on the battle against relativism and subjectivism throughout the field of moral theology would mark a marvelous advance. It would also mean shifting the front line of attack from the battle against authority (the battle for which many of the troops of the last 30 years have been trained) to the life-threatening battle against relativism. For if there is no truth, and no good or evil, only my opinion and your opinion, then there in no such thing as sin, we need no Redeemer, and Christianity is not good news, but only a drag and a deception.

The Christian religion can best (perhaps only) incarnate itself within a culture that recognizes the difference between truth and falsehood and the distinction between good and evil. Absent such a culture, Christianity must appear to be gibberish, a tale told by idiots. To do battle for a culture within which citizens can say, “We hold these truths . . .” (that is, “We hold these propositions, they are true, and we will die for them”), is to do battle for a requirement of Christianity itself. Since a central name for our God is Truth, our very faith commits us to the defense of reason, in its restless hunger for truth. Even when no one else defends reason, we must. Our very breathing depends on it; reason is the air we live on, the very medium that faith illuminates, and must respect if it respects itself. This is why Catholic orthodoxy has always defended the nobility (not to say indispensability) of reason and natural law.

The Feminist Magisterium

The most disturbing characteristic displayed by the Commonweal progressives—particularly by Lawrence Cunningham, Dennis M. Doyle, Charles E. Curran, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Anne E. Patrick—is their tone of condescension about the Pope’s grasp of moral theology, as though he should take their instruction. In some places, they treat the Pope’s authority with less than full seriousness, while taking very seriously indeed a more powerful magisterium in our time, the feminist magisterium. What is the authority of a mere pope, compared to feminist authority?

Professor Doyle advises the Pope, who lived through the Nazi era and the Communist era while Doyle was sheltered in suburban America, that he would have more moral appeal to the young if he were to show more uncertainty and doubt. Enfolded within the horizon of his own understanding of Lonerganianism, Professor Doyle instructs the Pope, master of phenomenology—of Scheler and Husserl and Ingarden—that he, the Pope, has not made “the modern turn to the subject” described by Lonergan. (Your faithful servant yields to no one in his esteem for, and debts to, Bernard Lonergan, S.J., but this narrow merely rhetorical use of that master is a travesty.)

Professor Doyle says that among the moral positions dismissed by the Pope as subjectivist are those of Lonergan, who said that “objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.” Lonergan, Doyle says, “took the turn to the subject,” whereas “The Pope has not taken such a turn.” This is bad, because “It is precisely the ‘turn to the subject’ and the taking seriously of human experience that characterize modern thought.” But is not Auschwitz

part of modern experience? Subjectively, quite a few modern criminals, including Hitler, did not seem to have tormented consciences; indeed, they took the “turn to the subject” quite seriously, especially the Leader’s turn to la feroce volontá, the naked and ferocious will. And they had the approval of Heidegger. Perhaps that explains why certain prescient philosophers, after they had taken “the turn to the subject,” began to rally under Husserl’s cry: “Back to the things themselves!” Indeed, the very phrase from Lonergan quoted by Doyle reveals Lonergan’s own awareness of this return. Lonergan wrote, after all, that “objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.” The Pope grasps far better than Doyle the weight of the words here emphasized.

Before they write condescendingly of Pope John Paul II, the philosophers and theologians of the progressive camp had better master some phenomenology, just to make sure that they grasp the argument, and stop committing howlers.

“I know from my experience as a teacher [in Ohio],” Doyle further writes, “that many students are turned off by overconfident proclamations of absolute certitude. I think that the Pope could get a lot further in reestablishing basic respect for the ordinary magisterium if he would be a bit more hesitant, if he would share his concerns for certainty with a little less certainty.” Perhaps, though, given his methodological principle of consulting experience, Doyle himself should pay a little more attention to the Holy Father’s teaching experience in Krakow under both Nazi and Communist occupation, and to the reports on teaching experience in the Congo, Indonesia, Italy, and Argentina that reach the Pope’s ears through the streams of bishops and others who pour now through the Pope’s dining room. Does Doyle really think that the Communist thugs who beat Father Popieluszko to death would have had to kill him if his moral teaching had been more hesitant, uncertain, and deferential to modern philosophies?

Doyle seems to be so predisposed to seeing the Pope as less advanced, more backward, than his own progressive reference group that he never seems to question his own position. Might the Pope not have noticed, simply from his own experience as Pope (rich and well-travelled as it is), that the faith is growing more rapidly in the Third World and where fundamentals are clearly taught, and shrinking, even decaying, in those parts of the world where the progressives dominate the public life of theology and moral teaching? Might the Pope not be seeing the same simpleminded “turn to the subject,” without a concomitant “return to the object,” that led to the disastrous wars and atrocities of the early twentieth century spreading now in the bosom of the church itself, through philosophical and theological provincialism and carelessness? I wish Professor Doyle would lift up his eyes, and give the Pope’s full argument a chance. Once he takes it on board, he will certainly find it deeper, more powerful, and harder to dismiss than he did on a first and quick reading.

Lisa Sowle Cahill’s essay, too, was a great disappointment. She seems to have been attending too many meetings of activists lately, where the talk is all about “agendas,” hidden and overt. She approves of two out of three of the agendas she finds in this encyclical, which for a moral theologian isn’t too bad—it’s a better percentage than the Red Sox won/lost record this past year. She likes its emphasis on the common ground that diverse groups in a pluralist society can find in the natural law tradition. She also likes the Pope’s emphasis on the origin of moral life in the divine law, and its completion in faith. However, she does find this second effort “put forward in a confessional and even fideist mode which pulls the rug out from under the church’s and the moral theologians’ credibility as advocates of the human and common goods.”

But this objection shows that Professor Cahill hasn’t been listening to DeLubac, Balthasar, and Ratzinger, let alone the Pope, on how to conceive of the relation between the natural and the supernatural, the natural law and the divine law, prudence and charity. She has missed—or perhaps disagrees with—a major turn in the argument. First, what the Pope writes is by no means “confessional and even fideist.” He is defending reason, even where Richard Rorty and his deconstructionist allies are not. He is defending the integrity of nature, even while seeing it in the context of sin in which it is known (most by revelation and experience) to be situated. Second, Professor Cahill doesn’t recognize that, in a modern relativist intellectual climate such as the one she sometimes lives and works in, unbelievers cannot in right or truth claim a position of privilege, since relativism places everybody on the same amoral level. That she allows them to intimidate her is shown in her own words:

At a meeting of a national policy advisory board last month, another member advised me that my reservations about the compatibility of sperm and ovum donation with the human meaning of parenthood were just the result of my Catholic attitudes and hence not at all relevant to the policy debate.

But why on earth would Professor Cahill allow herself to be intimidated by such a comment? As a Catholic, she represents the faith of at least 59 million U.S. citizens; and nearly one billion world-wide; no need to apologize about that. This is a pluralistic country, and everyone has a right to speak up in the public square. She is much too defensive when she goes on:

The fideist and authoritarian conclusion of this encyclical will increase the marginalization of Catholics who try to enhance the role of human values in our culture’s moral sensibilities.

Marginalization? Catholics are one out of every five persons on this planet.

Further, Cahill is a moral theologian, and will certainly understand that reason, faith, theology and authority all have their proper places within Catholic moral theology—and Protestant and Jewish ethics, as well. Historically, some Catholic moral theologians did approach their discipline in a predominantly philosophical manner, with barely a garnishment of scriptural quotations. But that school of moral theology was heavily criticized at Vatican II. From which perspective does Professor Cahill call this encyclical “fideist” and “authoritarian”? One looks forward to reading her analysis of the relation of Christology to natural law. Meanwhile, one can only enjoy her foray into defending the Catholic faith against the Pope.

Finally, there is that little lesson that Cahill reads the Pope at the end, a lesson based on the claims of the tiny minority of the world’s Catholics who are highly educated American feminists. She seems to assume that the English language is normative for all other languages, for (having read it only in English) she writes that the encyclical exhibits “stubbornly noninclusive language,” and dwells “within a male-oriented mindset.” She especially protests that Mary is portrayed “in stereotypical feminine terms, as a compassionate and merciful mother to `man.’ ” She dislikes the sentence “[Mary] understands sinful man and loves him with a mother’s love.” Clearly, Professor Cahill is well-educated enough to understand this ancient and classical usage, asserting economically that Mary understands both sinful woman and sinful man, and loves both her and him with a mother’s love. Presumably, Cahill prefers feminist language, enforced by the feminist magisterium, as well as (in this case) by her.

Why is it “authoritarian” for the Pope to instruct her and her colleagues, but acceptable for her to instruct the Pope?

Morals by McCormick

Our other sister publication America gave its cover story (October 30) to Richard A. McCormick, S.J., probably the most distinguished American moralist of his generation. Father McCormick is a good man, a good companion to share a drink with and to have on your side in a tough fight; he is also a good priest and counselor—but most of all he has a razor-sharp mind, plenty of erudition, and a passion for getting things right. He has given much good service to the Church. Still, it may be permitted to argue against his interpretation of The Splendor of Truth. It is even essential that philosophers argue with him, since the locus of his disagreement with the Pope is not theological but philosophical, having to do with the analysis of the human act. Exactly here philosophers may well agree that the Pope makes a better philosophical analysis than McCormick does.

Like Professor Cahill, McCormick sees an “agenda” in the encyclical, an “unstated agenda item”: “It is this: I am convinced that the Holy Father will reject a priori any analytic adjustments in moral theology that do not support the moral wrongfulness of every contraceptive act. Proportionalism certainly does not give such support.” The Pope does not say that what really motivates this encyclical is the papal concern to find contraception immoral; McCormick reads that suspicion into the text.

But this kind of reasoning works both ways. If the Pope attacks the proportionalists’ account of the human act because they support contraception, perhaps proportionalists attack the Pope’s account because he doesn’t.

So this sort of argument, played by both sides, comes to a dead-end. To make a judgment on this encyclical, it is more honest to confine oneself to what it says, without reading anyone’s fears into it. Whatever you think about contraception, whether you are with the Pope or with McCormick on that one, which of them gives the better analysis of the human act?

Even by scholars who disagree with him in their analysis of contraception, after all, the Pope’s analysis of the human act may be accepted as a profound reappropriation of the Thomist tradition, displayed in the new light of phenomenological insights and methods. For the Pope, these two arguments may belong together—his analysis of the human act and his analysis, specifically, of the human act of contraception. Others, however, may accept the first but, for various clearly stated reasons, not the second. It is one thing to affirm that there are certain intrinsically immoral acts, and quite another to display the reasons why contraception is one of them. The Pope, of course, would be glad to offer those reasons—and probably will, in a later encyclical. But that is, in fact, a different argument from the one made in The Splendor of Truth.

McCormick uses an analysis that is neither genuinely Thomist (although it draws on textbook definitions that sometimes use that name) nor phenomenological. “In the past,” he writes, some have held that “certain actions are morally wrong ex objecto (from the object).” He asserts, further, that this is the Pope’s view. Well, it is, but not in the sense that McCormick asserts. McCormick contrasts the (sensible, he suggests) view of the proportionalists

with the (narrow) view of “the tradition” and the Pope: “The proportionalists are saying that an action cannot be judged morally wrong simply by looking at the material happening, or at the object in a very narrow and restricted sense.” The Vatican, he adds, does “precisely” this in matters having to do with sex.

A little earlier, McCormick had provided an ex ample, perhaps aimed at trivializing the discussion (or fixating it on sex, as the Pope does not): “Take masturbation, for instance. When masturbation occurs in the context of sperm testing, there are many theologians who believe that this context enters into the very object or meaning of the act. In other words, they regard it as an act different from self-pleasuring, much as they would think killing in self-defense is a different act from killing during a robbery.” Later in this issue, both Russell Hittinger and Ralph Mclnerny, distinguished philosophical analysts of human action, find the Pope’s account more penetrating than McCormick’s.

In this context some other dissenters (but perhaps not McCormick) accuse the Pope of having a physicalist view of sexual acts, but this is not true. At sections 47, 48, and 49, the Pope rejects physicalism and provides, in some detail, a powerful view of the unity of body and spirit in the acting person. In this light, the Pope is able to show that, besides the purpose or motive of the agent, there is also an intentionality (a dimension of spirit) in the human act itself—for besides its material part every human act must include what the subject has in mind. Put otherwise, the intentionality in the human act is not necessarily the same as the motive or purpose of the agent.

“Let me return, then, to Pope John Paul II’s language,” Father McCormick writes. “He cites as an objection to proportionalist tendencies the notion that some acts are intrinsically evil from their object. I believe all proportionalists would admit this if the object is broadly understood as including all the morally relevant circumstances.” Yet the Pope actually asks for more than relevant “circumstances.” He insists that it is “necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person” (78). The person who wishes to love God with her whole heart, mind, and soul must be watchful lest any of her actions—by their authentic, proper intentionality—be disordered. Similarly, a man must watch not only his motives and purposes but the nature of his own acts, guarding the holiness of his body and mind and the integrity of the tendencies endowed in them by God.

For the Pope, the “object” of a human act is “a freely chosen kind of behavior.” If that kind of behavior is “in conformity with the order of reason,” it makes the will good; “it perfects us morally and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love.” “The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on whether its object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who `alone is good,’ and this brings about the perfection of the person.” To choose otherwise is to defile, to wound, or even to destroy, the acting person, and to turn away from God. (See 76, 77, 78, 79.) Section 80 shows how the teaching of the Pope is also that of Vatican II.

Father McCormick asserts that relatively few people will read The Splendor of Truth. He may well be mistaken about that. Certainly the number will be larger than the readership of any one book by our current moral theologians. Moreover, Pope John Paul II places “the acting person” in a special context: drawn toward the light of God’s love, as splendid as the dawn upon the shimmering earth. This approach is certain to win Pope John Paul II many literary and philosophical admirers, for this letter is intended for a far larger circle than that of believers alone. Few works on conscience equal it in depth, thoroughness, subtlety, and beauty of expression.

As for those commentators who say there is “nothing new” in this encyclical—they are missing the excitement of witnessing ancient teaching rising from the sea of memory, in formulations unavailable before this point in the twentieth century, shaped into a language of rare clarity, accessibility, and radiance. Beauty is no small thing in moral treatises.

Southern Exposure

Recent issues of Crisis have displayed more than the usual share of commentary out of the Southern conservative tradition—with its anti-modern, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic accents. David Bovenizer’s November piece on Andrew Lytle, as well as Gregory Wolfe’s on Russell Kirk, and now Sheldon Vanauken’s essay this month may suggest that your editor-in-chief is tilting toward agrarianism: Not so. We like to keep these pages open to debate, and to explore the manifold forms of pluralism in America (and abroad). We think our readers enjoy the challenge to visions and arguments they can read elsewhere, as well as the music of heterogeneity.

The riches of the spirit in America are many. We hope to draw upon them abundantly in future issues—while not neglecting the riches of Poland and all other places on this planet. Since God is infinite, and each human being is made in His image, a virtually infinite number of humans would be required to mirror every aspect of our God. So rests the case for pluralism.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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