Monday, February 26, 2007

Freedom is slavery

Audacity in the service of hypocrisy is rare; we prefer not to advertise ourselves as frauds. When it happens, it is usually because we are too blind or complacent to see the incoherence of our position. And so it was with last Sunday's Melbourne Age.

The Age featured an editorial, envoking the authority of no less than St. Thomas More, and arguing that David Hicks incarceration without trial for five years is an assault on the rule of law. I don't dispute the point, though I can think of characters who deserve my concern more than Hicks.

But that is not the question here. My question is this: how can the Age, with a straight face, call upon the authority of a Thomas More when their whole philosophy of law, a philosophy that More would have rejected with vehemence, is the culprit here?

The philosophy of law is called legal positivism. In essence, this is the view that the law is simply what we declare it to be. As long as legal and/or democratic process is respected, any law or legal right can be manufactured, without regard to natural or divine law, which are held not to even exist.

A topical example is the hotly-disputed "right" to gay marriage, of which the Age is a leading supporter. No matter that the institution of marriage predates any legal system, and reaches back into prehistory. A legal "right" to gay marriage can be constructed irrespective. It's simply a matter of marshalling the numbers, and sufficient propaganda can achieve that. Any attempt by opponents to engage the issue on its merits is deflected by accusations of discrimination.

Underneath this reluctance to defend the concept of gay marriage on its merits (or reject it otherwise) is a deep refusal to concede that the law is subject to reason, nature or God (the source of reason and nature). The logical conclusion is that these manufactured rights cannot and need not be justified rationally. Instead, they are justified purely by the exercises of power that brought them about.

A polity that becomes infected with legal positivism is always on the verge of a slide into fascism. If the majority rules, and is unrestrained by any appeal to an external moral or intellectual standard, then anything goes - provided only that a majority can be marshalled for it.

Because if rights can be manufactured, why can't they can be destroyed as well? If a legal system decides, according to the law, to remove a right - oh, let's say, habeas corpus for terrorists - on what grounds can we complain? Aren't we being anti-democratic?

As so happens often, the two poles of a "debate" are united (and trapped) in their common assumption: the Age's assumption that rights can be created by legal fiat, without regard to natural or divine law, and the assumptions of the US Government that they can just as easily be withdrawn.

The Age thinks that its positivistic conception of law and rights is part of the solution. In reality, it is part (and a big part) of the problem. Those who think they can sip at the cup of legal positivism will find instead they must drink it to the last bitter dregs.

And with that realisation, the Age's quotation from A Man for All Seasons suddenly seems more menacing:

"This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast, and if you cut them down … do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

Take cover. There's a hell of a storm coming.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A fraction too much faction...

I was recently struck by an article by John Allen at All Things Catholic, and especially by the following quote: undergraduate student approached me and thanked me for the response. He said that listening to Cordano, it struck him that the feelings of being underappreciated that Cordano attributed to [liberal/conservative] young Catholics are remarkably similar to what he and his more [conservative/liberal] Catholic friends have felt in many parishes, schools, and Catholic social circles.

“You tell people you [agree with the magisterium/believe in freedom of conscience], and they look at you like you’re a freak,” he said. “We end up quietly passing around books like [John Paul’s Theology of the Body/John XXIII's writings], almost as if we’re part of some underground.”

Try guessing which way the options should go around (I've added one of the options to the text, the other is original.) There's no way to tell. Either way, it sounds just like a complaint you'd hear if you spoke to enough young (and not so young) Catholics here in Australia.

How is it possible that both sides of this divide can both feel themselves a misunderstood and oppressed minority? That's the result of factionalism, one of the least Christ-like aspects of the Catholic community today.

I don't think Australia has polarisation problems as bad as North America's, but we have them nonetheless. Questioning the good faith of other Catholics, refusing to hear them, even branding them lesser Catholics, is a consequence of a partisan spirit that is flatly contrary to the Spirit of Christ. It occurs all too often amongst intellectual commited Catholics.

One of the outstanding features of Saint Francis was his refusal to condemn priests and bishops whose sinful lifestyles brought the Faith into disrepute. The only answer he offered to moral and intellectual error was the witness of his own holiness, and he instructed all of his followers to do the same. His humility forebade him from doing anything else. Peter Waldo, another advocate of evangelical poverty, failed this test, and brought himself and his followers to ruin.

Jesus had a simple word for the factionalist (left, right or whatever inappropriate political analogy you want to adopt): get the plank out of your own eye before you point out the splinter in your brother's. God's purposes are not served by human politicking, but His action in human lives.

This doesn't mean we surrender our judgement. Some things are wrong, and we can't be afraid to make a prophetic call to repentance. But our call only has credibility if it's an act of love. We aren't just handling ideas, and the Church isn't a debating society. The Church and the World is made up of people who are infinitely precious to Christ. They need the witness of our personal holiness much more than they need our rancour and criticism.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ignorance is strength

Schutz over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia notes a strange phenomenon:

When I hear an opinion expressed that shows signs of not having been
sufficiently thought through, I cannot resist embarking upon an examination of
the opinion....I usually receive one or both of the following

1) Everyone is/I am entitled to their/my own opinion.
2) I don't have to justify myself to you.

As Schutz notes, this is fair enough as far as it goes, but the response avoids the issue. No-one suggests that an opinion can't be expressed. What is at issue is whether the opinion should be taken seriously. And it's tough to take an opinion seriously if it owner won't defend it in a serious way.

Underlying this phenomenon is a deep cultural problem. The Enlightenment project was launched on the promise that a purely rational basis for moral knowledge could be found, one that did not depend on either religious authority or traditional natural law. Successive attempts to realise that project have failed, leading to the collapse of moral reasoning and a growing conviction that moral statements are simply statements of feeling, without any rational basis. In the prevailing emotivist ethos, moral statements aren't seen a propositions that must meet some external standard of truth.

In such a culture, any questioning of propositions is taken as a personal affront to a person's feelings. And any claim to be seeking the truth by testing propositions can only be a tactical move, made in bad faith.

The corollary of emotivism is the denial that there is any kind of "public reason" that can be used to test moral statements made in the public domain. Alistair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, developed the consequences of this fact in detail, and used it to explain why moral debate in Western societies is likely to remain both shrill and inconclusive.

Which places a responsibility on Christians to find better language that can express moral truth in compelling ways. Scripture suggests that philosophy won't be the vehicle for this; when Paul attempted to reason with the Greeks, he failed. At the end of his book, MacIntyre pins his hopes on the emergence of new moral communities within which virtue can thrive. A life lived in Christ "speaks" with a conviction that mere words cannot convey, and changes minds. Those same lives, lived together, can change the world.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Who was Athanasius?

Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt in the 4th century, and of course I am only borrowing his name.

Athanasius was the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation, and in his lifetime was called the "Father of Orthodoxy”. His lifetime coincided with outbreak of the Arian heresy, the Council of Nicaea, and a long period of political instability in the Roman Empire.

He was born sometime around 296. His intellectual gifts and religious sense apparently marked out for the priesthood from an early age. The Alexandria of the time was the intellectual centre of the Roman Empire, and the capital of theological learning of the Catholic Church. Athanasius imbibed this environment of classical scholarship under the mentorship of Bishop Alexander. His early writings included studies of the Incarnation, in which he defended the traditional Catholic view of Jesus’ divinity. These writings seem to have been prompted by a new and growing tendency to question this teaching. Athanasius detected this tendency early, and was one of the first to recognise the threat it posed to a meaningful belief in God’s commitment to humanity.

There was a great deal at stake in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Catholics had always maintained that Jesus was truly the Son of God, and truly divine. They never separated Jesus from the Father, whose Word He was and always had been. The full divinity of Jesus, co-equal with the Father, was the lynch-pin of Christian belief because it demonstrated that God spared nothing in His love for us, giving us His very self. The Incarnation of the Son as a simple carpenter made God present and available to all of humanity, not just to a self-appointed spiritual elite.

The logical corollary was that we should value each other as we are valued by God. This belief is the foundation stone for every concept of human rights and equality before the law over the last two thousand years. No Incarnation, then no John Locke, no "all men are created equal", and no liberal democracy.

This belief had its opponents then as it does now, and for similar reasons. For a particular kind of person, it is just self-evident that God cannot have anything directly to do with the sordid details of our existence. Why God would be so concerned with their sense of propriety is never really explained.

Earlier in the Church’s history, the Gnostic movement had attempted to sever the link between God and man by denying Jesus’ humanity. In Athanasius’ time, the challenge came from the opposite direction in the form of Arianism. Arianism was named after the leader of their faction, Arius, a Libyan in origin who trained for the priesthood at Antioch. Arius denied that Jesus was co-equal with the God. The Son was rather demiurge, created by God, and standing mid-way between God and his creation. Rather than deny Jesus' true humanity, Arius denied his true divinity.

What the Arians lacked in theological sophistication they made up for in a phenomenal capacity for political organisation, a feature they share with many modern theological dissidents. By the early 4th century, they had gained considerable influence amongst the Imperial household, if not amongst ordinary Christians. Unlike Catholicism, Arianism only thrived when it had political support, a weakness that would later prove important.

By 325, the Emperor Constantine was concerned about the implications of theological disagreement for civil order. He called for a Council to be held at Nicaea to settle the vexed issue of Jesus’ status. Athanasius was only in his late twenties, shorter than average, but wiry and energetic. Though still not ordained, he attended the Council where he played an important role. The Council concluded by affirming the traditional Catholic belief in Jesus’ divinity.

But as we’ve seen in our own time, the fact that a Council says something doesn’t prevent others from running their own agenda. The First Council of Nicaea was simply the opening shot in a long battle between Catholics and Arians in which Athanasius played a leading role through his writing, preaching, and spiritual leadership. Exiled from Alexandria on three separate occasions, he traveled as far as Gaul seeking refuge, avoiding assassination in what became an increasingly violent and political dispute.

As the Imperial leadership swapped between Catholic, Arian, and pagan hands, Athanasius’ fortunes rose and fell with those of orthodox Christianity. In all of this confusion he was buoyed by the conviction of faith, the support of loyal colleagues, and a droll sense of humour which never left him.

But in the later years of Athanasius’ life, the theological weakness of Arianism was evident, as it broke into factions and began to retreat. A Catholic Emperor ascended to the throne, cutting off the Arians’ political support, and some Arian leaders and factions made their peace with orthodoxy. The matter was finally settled at the Second General Council of Constantinople in 381, five years after Athanasius’ death, with the final reaffirmation of the First Council of Niceae’s formulation of Christ’s divinity.