Roman Catholic 2K (and it's not Stellman)

A good article, “Eudaimonia in America,” from last month’s issue of First Things by Robert T. Miller (it may not be available for free yet) shows that 2K thinking is even attractive among Roman Catholics. He doesn’t call it 2K. But the intellectual move is the same, namely, not to expect correspondence between the political philosophy of the nation and one’s own theological convictions.

Here is how Miller describes the problem that afflicts many conservatives (Tim and David Bayly take note):

America is under attack in the pages of First Things. In a recent article Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen tells us that America is founded on a philosophy of “unsustainable liberalism.” Implicit in the ideas of the American founding, he argues, are certain mistaken philosophical premises about individual choice and man’s separation from nature. Moreover, these mistakes are not merely intellectual because, as their logical consequences play out over time, the inexorable results are severe and pervasive social pathologies: a corrupt political order, a collapsing economy, and a degraded and degrading culture. Indeed, in Deneen’s account, pornography, sexual promiscuity, abortion, divorce, violent video games, cheating in academia, and Wall Street frauds all stem from the faulty political philosophy of the American founding.

Miller goes on to disagree with these observations about the U.S. but is especially critical of efforts to link the U.S.’s moral decay to an inadequate philosophical base (or w-w):

Liberal political philosophies are incompatible with the eudaimonism of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. Does that mean that eudaimonists cannot support the American political system? I share Deneen and MacIntyre’s Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical commitments, but I am also deeply loyal to the American political tradition. The reason is that there is a great gap between politics and moral philosophy. Thinking that a certain set of political arrangements is the best way to organize a particular society in particular historical circumstances is a prudential judgment, and in supporting America’s liberal political system I do not thereby commit myself to a liberal political philosophy.

This point is obscured by the fact that liberal political institutions are naturally and commonly justified on the basis of liberal political philosophies, such as a theory of natural rights as in Locke, or a theory of personal autonomy inspired by Kant, or a theory of justice as in Rawls. People who support liberal political systems on such bases are philosophical liberals. But we can also view a liberal political order as embodying not grand philosophical principles, but reasonable, pragmatic, political compromises worked out among individuals who disagree sharply on matters of morality in order to allow such people to live together in peace and to pursue their various, often incompatible, goals.

In other words, while living on planet earth, we need to live on planet earth, not in our minds or the eschaton. Or, this is a matter of prudence, not of intellectual or theological certitude. Miller explains:

The pragmatic liberal thus makes a political calculation: The cost of prohibiting some appalling speech is the risk that the government will someday use the power it thus acquires to suppress other speech that the pragmatic liberal wants to protect. People like Deneen and me, who are in a religious minority now at odds with many of the norms of the larger, increasingly secular society, should reflect carefully before advocating an expansion of government power, for we are some of the people whose speech could easily be found disgusting and worthless. For pragmatic liberals, therefore, the decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants is sound not because people have a moral right to play disgusting video games (they don’t), but because the danger of censorship is too great to allow the government the power to restrict speech merely because, in the government’s view, the speech is disgusting and worthless.

An Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonist can thus be a pragmatic liberal in contemporary America. There is a deeper point here, however, and it is that, although the philosophical liberal must reject as immoral any form of government other than liberal democracy, the Aristotelian-Thomist can be much more flexible. Leaving aside some extreme systems that would substantially prevent a person from attaining his final end (e.g., a Shari’a theocracy or a Nazi or communist dictatorship), an Aristotelian-Thomist should conclude that, in the right circumstances, almost any form of government may be the best available. Hence, St. Paul urged respect for the Roman emperor, who was an absolute autocrat;St. Wenceslaus was a feudal overlord; and St. Thomas More served Henry VIII, who was a constitutional monarch.

The same goes for the confessional Lutheran or Reformed Protestant. Feel the ecumenical love.

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8 thoughts on “Roman Catholic 2K (and it's not Stellman)

  1. In other words, we can do business with any civil magistrate who lets us gather peacefully for worship each Sunday. Everything else is negotiable. But the Baylys demand so much more.

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  2. Marxism/Communism claims that what ails mankind is the evil system of capitalism. In other words the problem is the way government and society is organized. Solution? Reorganize the civil society. Yet society is made up of sinful people. Ironically, the Theonomists and transformationalists fall into the same diagnostic trap. If the real problem is that every man is a sinner, alienated from God by his sin and under the sentence of eternal death, then proclaiming Christ in and through the church is the solution. A healthy 2K understanding is necessary in order for the church to not get sidetracked with the false hope of building better Tower of Babel in the here and now as opposed to faithfully and simply calling and saving sinners with the gospel; and then nourishing and maintaining them faithfully throught the Word and Sacraments. Not as glamorous, but Scriptural.

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  3. I liked this piece very much as well.

    For pragmatic liberals, therefore, the decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants is sound not because people have a moral right to play disgusting video games (they don’t), but because the danger of censorship is too great to allow the government the power to restrict speech merely because, in the government’s view, the speech is disgusting and worthless.

    An Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonist can thus be a pragmatic liberal in contemporary America.

    I always thought Leo Strauss’ criticism of Thomas was unfair, that “natural law” was just a dodge for Biblical morality, and further that “natural law” was too inflexible to allow for wisdom.

    But one need only read Thomas on prostitution, that just because it subverts the ideal in every way, that we should undertake eradicating prostitution is unwise for just as many reasons.

    What’s lost in all this–and perhaps we could even get the Baylys to agree if we only had the time and the good will–is that we can acknowledge reality without abandoning the ideal.

    For instance, Thomas notes that one of the great tragedies of prostitution is that children will be conceived who will be forced to grow up without the benefit of a father. Well, we can’t abolish single motherhood–you can’t kill the baby [well, you can in the womb, but that’s another issue], you can’t jail the mother or then the poor kid will have zero parents. But does this mean we abandon the ideal of one father and one mother, which is what every child deserves?

    Well, that’s rather the question before us as a society right now, as we know. 2 mommies, zero daddies? 6 daddies, no mother? Etc. We’ve let the equation get completely out of hand.

    Leaving aside some extreme systems that would substantially prevent a person from attaining his final end (e.g., a Shari’a theocracy or a Nazi or communist dictatorship), an Aristotelian-Thomist should conclude that, in the right circumstances, almost any form of government may be the best available.

    Why I’m still asking about the Barmen Declaration re 2K. “Leaving aside some extreme systems” is exactly where the rubber meets the road, Darryl, and why I can’t sleep at night.

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  4. Believing that God will resurrect us from the dead on that day when Jesus comes again to earth, this kind of ideology results sometimes in folks who are deeply disloyal to the American empire’s tradition of pragmatism. But so also can faith in God’s sovereign control of the universe—-the future does not depend on our prudence. There is no other remaining sacrifice for sin or sinners….

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  5. Tom, I think you make the mistaken assumption that the Barmen Declaration was in opposition to the majority of German Christians.

    I make no assumptions. Consider it a question. That is not an answer.

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