I know little about Alan Jacobs other than the fact he teaches, writes a number of books that draw glowing reviews from evangelicals, and has a blog. Oh, and he also pens pieces for The American Conservative, such as his ongoing “Dialogue on Democracy” series which officially jumped the rails today when the topic of distributism came up. Here’s an excerpt:
I have never read Comment magazine, but I couldn’t help but wander over there to catch the first part of James K.A. Smith’s interview with Joan Lockwood O’Donovan on law and political institutions. Early on in the exchange, O’Donovan makes the following statement:
A small uproar can be heard from conservative Catholic circles over Notre Dame University’s decision to honor Vice-President (and pro-abortionist politician) Joe Biden. But an uproar is all it is, and soon it shall pass just as all of the other uproars common in American Catholicism when some figure or wing of the Church shakes hands with evil. Nothing ever comes of it though, just as nothing usually comes from any disciplinary or doctrinal affront occurring within the walls of the Church. (Child sexual abuse and gross financial misdealings are the notable exceptions here.) People, even clerics, get indignant, but then life goes on. Despite this, Catholics continue to insist to their estranged Orthodox and (even more estranged) Protestant brethren that one of the “selling points” of the Catholic Church is its clear, unambiguous rules which, allegedly, forestall doctrinal and disciplinary anarchy. Such claims are utterly implausible at this stage in the game. While I cannot speak for the various Protestant sects, it is unimaginable that the various Orthodox churches in either the United States or abroad would allow church-backed institutions to openly support immoral politicians and/or policies. This isn’t to say it never happens or that there aren’t pockets of exceptions in Orthodox-dom, but it is hardly commonplace.
I make mention of this for two reasons. First, Catholic triumphalism over the Orthodox in the realm of discipline and doctrine simply needs to stop. Second, and more importantly, there is a discussion which needs to be had concerning the particular virtues of decentralization when it comes to taking meaningful action against those who openly dissent from Church teaching. Many fear that decentralization in the Roman Church will lead to chaos . . . but is not the chaos already here? Contrary to the magic longings of certain conservatives and traditionalists, the Vatican is not going to swoop in and save the day. If subsidiarity still means anything, then perhaps it is time to get jettison the Latin fetish for hyper-centralization and top-down, command-plan ecclesial politics. Or maybe people just enjoy complaining.
Daniel Schwindt, writing over at The Distributist Review, offers up what he calls “The Case for Popery.” Although Schwindt is normally on his game when it comes to Catholic (social) teaching, this is not his best effort. Consider, for instance, these paragraphs:
Although most Catholics will readily claim “faithfulness” to the Church, in practice this tends to look a lot like the Protestant obedience to Scripture. It begins in good intentions and ends in arbitrariness, and the individual just winds up being obedient to himself alone.
Enter, the Pope.
The office of the pope—the Chair of Peter—was instituted to prevent precisely this sort of descent into abstraction and arbitrariness. Christ knew humanity, and in his supreme wisdom he left behind, not a book or an abstraction, but an Apostle. An Apostle named Peter. And he left him with instructions and a set of keys. The papacy provides the Church with an actual point of reference—a living, breathing, center of gravity within time and place.
Whether intended or not, this type of maximalist rhetoric is deeply insulting to Eastern Catholics everywhere, none of whom recognize the pope as their patriarch nor belong to his rite. Acknowledging in full the pope’s supreme jurisdiction over the Church does not mean following on every word and action he undertakes, particularly if his words and actions are ever contra fide. This is not true just for Eastern Catholics; it is true for Latins as well. 2,000 years of Church history has witnessed scoundrels, rogues, and — yes — even a heretic or two sitting on the papal throne; should these men be considered “point[s] of reference” for the faithful as well? And what of the college of bishops? What are they worth in Schwindt’s papal-centric scheme? Did Christ not have 12 Apostles? Is the Church not more than one man’s successor?
A blessed and holy Great Lent to all of my Orthodox and Eastern Catholic readers who celebrate according to the Julian Calendar. For those Gregorian-types who got things off on the wrong foot last month, well, life is full of second chances.
In the past month The Distributist Review has published two pieces which, inter alia, take aim at the incomplete (if not inept) pro-life platform of the Republican Party: Arturo Ortiz’s “Towards a Pro-Life and Pro-Family Economy” and John Medaille’s “Pro-Life or Anti-Abortion?” (I previously discussed Medaille’s article here.) Unfortunately, neither offer up equally excoriating remarks for the Democratic Party despite the fact it continues to lead the political charge in America for wider access to abortions. Consider this passage from Ortiz’s article:
While most Republican candidates tend to be nominally pro-life, their platform has little to offer that is truly pro-life and pro-family. Influenced by the principles that promote radical individualism and low wage dependence, the Republican Platform makes it difficult, if not altogether impossible, for expectant mothers to support their children post birth. Even if abortion is made illegal, if Roe v. Wade is overturned (both of which would be good things), an economic philosophy that makes abortions desirable and resolves to have charity provide for those who take the courageous decision to keep their children, is hardly pro-life.
How do the Democrats fare any better here? Although the average Democrat is more likely to support entitlement programs and transfer payments than the average Republican, the Democratic Party is by no means anti-capitalist nor anti-individualist. Moreover, Ortiz’s low view of the role charity can and ought to play in assisting “those who take the courageous decision [“right decision”?] to keep their children” betrays a lack of knowledge of what the Church’s social magisterium actually teaches. In a first-best world, local charities, with the cooperation of Church and state, ought to be providing assistance to those in need, including single pregnant women who cannot afford to properly care for themselves and their unborn child. While it is true that we have to face the second-best reality that charities alone are likely not enough to provide all of the support these women and their children require, looking to a large, centralized, and bureaucratic distributional scheme is not necessarily the answer either.
Granted, neither Ortiz nor Medaille come right and proclaim that the Democratic Party is the answer, but there appears to be an underlying implication in both articles that attacking poverty through entitlement programs and transfer payments will reduce abortion rates in the United States. The empirical evidence for such claims is thin at best, and it is far from clear that the Democrats, should they take the reins of governance in Washington in November, will deviate from its pro-abortionist platform. While no distributist worth his salt should cast anything other than a scornful glance toward the Republicans, it does not follow that the Democrats — or, for that matter, the modern administrative state — will set things straight. In fact, there is good reason to believe they will simply make matters worse.
Some things will never fail to mystify me, such as how a young, intelligent, and articulate web-logger who leans in the exact opposite political direction from yours truly can attract a flurry of Twitter “Likes” posting pseudo-intellectual jokes not unlike, “If Zizek was a bear, he would have to eat more Frosted Flakes each morning than Ribbentrop” or “Trump’s speech is Lacanian in the same distorted manner Marx interpreted Downton Abbey.” Similarly, I remain baffled by the legion of conservative-to-traditional Catholic writers and web-loggers who are falling over themselves to support Donald Trump, a candidate as low-brow and rank as any that has ever graced the American political scene. (Could it be that conservative-to-traditional Catholicism, at least in America, is also rank? We shall see.) Then there is another blogger, an ex-Catholic, who, though well meaning, seems intent on making a certain aesthetic lifestyle choice made possible by income most folks have no access to the singular ideal to which all should strive if they are truly committed Christians and not just lapdogs of late-modern liberalism. Oh, and how could I forget the pair of jokers—academics of high repute in certain fashionable circles—who posture hard against liberalism all the while remaining well within its orbit, offering up superficially profound theological critiques of our present reality while doing absolutely nothing to combat it.
There is a way to explain all of this, or so I believe. What I remain unsure of is if it is even worth the effort. I have made mention of capitulation a great deal in the past—so much so that I am starting to capitulate to the idea that capitulation is inevitable. People can say what they want about the present age and lament “our situation” (whose situation?), but when the money box is counted and the “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign is flipped forward, there is no longer any reason to be invested in the questions, hard truths, and maddening uncertainties of the day.
It’s impossible to say for certain whether the present—now, now, now—represents the most horrifying period in human history, but I would feel safer betting on that possibility than I would Conor McGregor in his next UFC fight. Despite what you may have heard, lamenting “the times” is far from a thrill ride or even a cheap opportunity for a momentary sense of self-importance; it is absolutely terrifying. But more terrifying than that is what reckoning we will face for letting it all come to this, for taking opportunity after opportunity and squandering it, not in pursuit of poorly formulated idea or even in defense of breaking a sacred boundary for the sake of greater knowledge (or surety), but simply because we quickly tire of the myriad of entertainments produced to keep is neither happy nor fulfilled, but simply distracted.
Oh, but maybe a reckoning won’t come. That is the “sure bet” of millions who see the small space between birth and brain death as time to fill with sex, booze, and 18-holes of golf. For those with a thought, even a passing one, that perhaps a reckoning could come, that maybe all shall be called to the heavenly carpet one day to give an account of their life, there remains the escape-card now called “mercy” which all may play in order to get their undue reward no matter how decrepitly they have lived. Ah, but what if that reward, what if the final end, is simply the worship of God? Imagine this: All of Heaven an eternal Divine Liturgy (St. Basil’s, not St. John’s) with endless litanies and a rendition of the Cherubic Hymn that puts “American Pie” to shame. Maybe Origen, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Al Kimmel are right: There is no hell—just an unimaginably rich liturgical experience that will prove exponentially more painful than eternal flames for those accustomed to banal expressions of “spirituality” and “piety.”
Our third remark aims at the infinite singularity of historical reality. Let us take as our departure a passage (p. 196) of [Karl] Löwith’s book [Meaning in History], where he writes that the message of the New Testament does not consist in a call to a historical deed but in a call to repentance. It is, to be sure, in general the case that history does not consist in calls to historical deeds. Rather, it is like a passage through lack, hunger, and invigorating impotence. However, in order to clarify our thought, let us juxtapose Löwith’s proposition with a different one, which is supposed to keep us from any philosophical, ethical, and other acts of leveling, and let us dare to suggest: Christianity is in its essence no morality and no doctrine. It is no penitential sermon, and no religion in the sense of comparative religious studies, but a historical event of infinite, non-appropriable, non-occupiable singularity. It is the incarnation in the Virgin Mary. The Christian Credo speaks of historical events. Pontius Pilate belongs there essentially. He is not just a pitiful creature who oddly ended up there. Christians look back on completed events and find a basic reason [Ingrund] and an archetype [Inbild]. Through the active contemplation of them, the dark meaning of our history continues to grow. The Marian image of history of a great German poet, the Christian Epimetheus by Konrad Weiss, emerged from it. In the Vienna journal Wort und Wahrheit [Word and Truth, April 1949], Friedhelm Kemp published an essay, which provides an excellent introduction in this respect. For Konrad Weiss, the merely restraining forces are not sufficient. He claims that historical circumstances are more often to be seized rather than to be restrained. One may dismiss his Marian image of history as mere historical mysticism. However, its dark truth is thereby not disconfirmed, and neither is its significance as a historical counterforce against the leveling of history to the status of universal humanity, to the museum of the past, and an exchangeable costume to conceal the bluntness of activist attempts to give meaning to the meaningless.
All of this—the great parallel, the katechon, and the Christian Epimetheus— becomes for us an ardent theme because of Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History. By way of expressing this, we distinguish his book from a variety of other publications that address issues from history and the philosophy of history. We draw concrete consequences from the great impression of his critical analysis and dare to once again speak of a history that is not merely an archive of what has been, but also not a humanistic self-mirroring or a mere piece of nature circling around itself. Rather, history blows like a storm in great testimonies. It grows through strong creations, which insert the eternal into the course of time. It is a striking of roots in the space of meaning of the earth. Through scarcity and impotence, this history is the hope and honor of our existence.
– Carl Schmitt, “Three Possibilities for a Christian Conception of History,” Telos pg. 170 (Spring 2009) (originally published in 1950)
I am no fan of the German heterodox theologian Hans Küng, but I did want to make mention of his newly released appeal to Pope Francis to reexamine the question of infallibility, particularly papal infallibility. Since Opus Publicum draws a contingent of both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic readers, I would be curious to know what they think of Küng’s appeal. Here is a brief excerpt:
It is hardly conceivable that Pope Francis would strive to define papal infallibility as Pius IX did with all the means at hand, whether good or less good, in the 19th century. It is also inconceivable that Francis would be interested in infallibly defining Marian dogmas as Pius XII did. It would, however, be far easier to imagine Pope Francis smilingly telling students, “Io non sono infallibile” — “I am not infallible” — as Pope John XXIII did in his time. When he saw how surprised the students were, John added, “I am only infallible when I speak ex cathedra, but that is something I will never do.”
Whether Catholics want to admit it or not, the question of infallibility will have to be examined in more detail going forward, not necessarily to upend or erase the dogma, but to further contextualize and clarify it in the light of 2,000 years of Church teaching and witness.