Ephemera VI

Last week I made mention of David Bentley Hart’s provocative article “Christ’s Rabble.” Although Hart opted to target an Acton Institute General in that piece, Acton has sent a Private to return fire. Dylan Pahman, perhaps Acton’s only resident Eastern Orthodox writer, has a new piece over at The Public Discourse that attacks Hart’s literal reading of certain New Testament passages which pertain to wealth. While I still harbor some reservations concerning Hart’s characterization of early Christians as “communists,” Pahman’s response is a mess. Setting aside Pahman’s childish attempts to associate Hart with the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Gnosticism, the real problem with Pahman’s uncharitable critique is that he simply does what he accuses Hart of doing, namely wandering around the New Testament in order to proof-text his way to the conclusion that wealth isn’t evil; it’s how we use it that can be evil. (Pahman, unsurprisingly, ignores just how often it is used for evil.) In the end, Hart can defend himself, and should he choose to do so, it will likely be a bloodbath. While Hart has sometimes stumbled along the way, particularly when targeting Thomism and the natural-law tradition, when it comes to Greek, the Church Fathers, and Christian history, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Hart to play Mickey Gall to Pahman’s C.M. Punk.

Some mixed defenses of the Tradinistas are starting to pour in. Over at his web-log Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has penned a detailed piece explaining why he supports their project while also opting to not align with it. In various other writings (one of which Waldstein links to), I have tried to lay out a typography of both “illiberal Catholicism” (broadly understood) and the various approaches to the Church’s social magisterium which are available today. I have made no apologies for the fact that I believe integralism is the only sensible option available for those who wish to conform to what the Catholic Church teaches. There is no need to import problematic terms like “socialism” into the mix, nor the ideological baggage which accompanies it. Waldstein appears to believe the Tradinistas have their instincts in the right place — and I think that’s right. My primary reservation concerning them remains a seeming lack of seriousness on the one hand (e.g., group’s name and website aesthetic) and a deeply confused approach to Catholic thought on the other. As I said in my original critique of the Tradinistas, it is an endeavor comprised mainly of priv-kids from Ivy League and other high-ranking schools; it’s chances of growing any deep roots are slim.

Meanwhile, David Mills, writing for Ethika Politika, thinks we need the Tradinistas (or something like them). Mills highlights the centrality of the just wage to Catholic social teaching and appears to believe the Tradinistas will help promote it. Maybe, though there is almost nothing from the Tradinistas on the just wage or even a ready-hand acknowledgment that paying just wages means discriminating between workers based on their state of life. As Mills surely knows, Distributists have a rich history of discussing the just wage and fleshing out its meaning. Moreover, Distributists also hold to a thick (though not absolute) conception of property rights which better coheres to what Leo XIII and Pius XI taught than anything the Tradinistas have proposed. To Mills I would say that we do need “something like” the Tradinistas in the sense of an organized movement to promote authentic Catholic principles in society. What we don’t need are Catholics too afraid of their own shadows talking-up a limp-wristed form of Marxism and pretending that it’s “revolutionary.” By modern liberal lights, what is truly revolutionary is the integralist thesis, or simply the idea — enshrined in Catholic doctrine — that the state is subordinate to the Church even though it retains its own legitimate sphere of authority. What we need are Catholics willing to crawl to the Cross, not a hammer and sickle.

Last night, at the suggestion of Owen White, I watched the film Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a poor farmer and Confederate soldier who led a rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Like any historical drama, this one took some liberties with the facts while working-in some additional subplots for dramatic effect. Still, wholly faithful to history or not, the film raises some powerful points about the nature of a free society (albeit a small one) and the role rights ought to play in justifying political violence. What slightly unsettled me about Free State of Jones is not the fact a band of poor farmers and runaway slaves rose up against an ostensibly lawful political authority, but that their reasons for doing so are susceptible to two opposed ideological readings. As the movie presents it, Knight and his followers can be seen as quasi-socialists who wish to provide for the good of the commonwealth above individual gain or greed. And yet, at the same time, a very libertarian reading of Knight is available, particularly his insistence that his followers have an absolute right to their property and — citing St. Paul — ought to reap what they sow.

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