A Paradox Epistemology Won’t Solve

Once upon a time Andrew Sullivan edited The New Republic. Once before that time, Sullivan was a graduate student in political theory at Harvard. He was and still is a practicing Roman Catholic. He is also of English descent and gay. Those may be reasons why he spotted way back when he was a graduate student what many contemporary converts never seem to contemplate — namely, that being American and Roman Catholic are incompatible identities. The same goes for Reformed Protestants, though you’d never know about any tension between church and nation — unless the nation is blowing it — from the every-square-inchers, the neo-Confederates, or the God-and-country Calvinists who dominate mainline and sideline Presbyterian churches. But Roman Catholicism comes to the U.S. table with different bags and Sullivan understood why thirty years ago:

There was a moment on the pope’s recent visit to Chile that still lingers in the mind. Tear gas was fired into the crowd in Santiago, Rioting broke out within a stone’s throw of the altar. And John Paul II knelt to pray. Faces were turned toward him, looked up to him to take sides; and instead he proceeded to pray. The act was moving, but more important it was ambiguous. The pope’s presence alone was to measure the extent of his commitment.

Political explanations for the pope’s behavior—the advice of local bishops, his personal experience in Poland, the dangers of encouraging violence—have been offered, but they fail to capture the drama of what was really happening in Santiago. It would be better to ask why the pope was there at all. The answer is simple: the Second Vatican Council. That event, decades distant, contains the clue to the pope’s predicament. After over 20 years, the Council’s most enduring effect has been to have removed the possibility of a complete separation between the Church and the modern world
(a separation represented perhaps most clearly by the late 19th-century papacy). For the Vatican, a political engagement with the world, a compromising commitment, is in full swing. It was such an engagement that was articulated in Santiago, where the ironies implicit in living the apostolic life in the modern world were bluntly revealed.

The Second Vatican Council was aware of the risks of opening a dialogue with the modern world, though the text of its proceedings breathes an optimism now quaintly anachronistic. In its mass of documents issues were grasped with unnerving directness. Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council was the first papal document addressed not merely to the faithful, but to “all men of good will,” He reached out even to the Communist world, by drawing a distinction between the systems of belief that it represented and the men and structures that enforced these beliefs, “Besides,” he continued, “who can deny that those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval?”

More significant, though less noticed, was the peace that the address made with liberalism. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out at the time. It rather easily laid to rest the long-standing confrontation between natural rights and natural law, by conflating the two. John XXIII both asserted the necessity For “freedom” and attempted to make it compatible with the moral strictures with which natural law constrained us. Catholics had a natural right to freedom, but they were not entitled to use that right for any ends they chose. Catholics were not “free” to accumulate wealth without
limit, nor to exploit, nor to commit adultery, nor indeed to commit any sin. Yet the admonishing rhetoric deliberately suggested that they were still “free” in a modern and politically charged sense of that word. It was, it is, an explosive mix.

These overtures made sense within the historicism of the documents, especially Pacem in Terris. It talked of a “new order” in which “the conviction that all men are equal by reason of their natural dignity has been generally accepted.” This was an order as inevitable as it was largely unsubstantiated in the text. It presented an opportunity for the Church to assist in the creation of a universal common good by which nations could address one another. A notion of progress had entered the spirit of the Church, bound up with particular political structures and ideas. And yet at the same time the Church was to maintain an independence from them. In subsequent years that independence proved rather paradoxical. . . .

. . . it is argument, not assertion, that is needed for the discussion inaugurated by the Vatican Council. That discussion can no longer be wished away. And that discussion will go nowhere fast unless it acknowledges the contradictory nature of Catholicism in the modern world. This Weigel, the happy synthesizer, does not do. By declaring natural law to be compatible with America, by making the solution so comprehensive and so simple, by articulating a theory that will banish all the complexities, Weigel misses something essential in the fate of the modern Church: its uncertainty. History has not provided the Church with a comfortably Hegelian purpose by which everything has been, or will be, resolved. It has instead presented faith with a moral challenge, with a choice that includes both good and evil. Far from showing the inevitable triumph of natural law, modernity has
seen the destruction of even the concepts that make natural law thinkable again. Weigel’s confidence misses the depth of this crisis, and its consequence for Christianity. Modernity leaves Christians with a challenge to gamble. We do not know whether alliance or attack is the safest option. But we do know that escape, or a cozy coincidence of philosophical and political opposites, is no longer possible.

Weigel’s book represents just such an escape from the dilemma that Hanson’s book describes. The escape is certainly coherent; but its coherence is its flaw, since it transforms the risk of faith into a safe bet. In so doing, it obscures the essence of the Christian calling: to act in radical doubt, in the knowledge that any action, even the best intended, can be a manifestation of evil. This is the risk for the Catholic Church in world politics. It is this uncertainty that explains the anguished expression on John Paul’s face as he knelt to pray in Santiago. And it goes some way, at least, toward explaining the contemporary challenge, even in America, of the cross to which he turned.

9 thoughts on “A Paradox Epistemology Won’t Solve

  1. Hauerwas addressing Roman Catholics who made “revisions” to adjust to American ideas of religious liberty—

    “When Catholics came to America you learned—though it is not yet a lesson you have taken to heart—that your “natural law” ethic was community-and tradition-specific. You came to America with a moral theology
    shaped by the presuppositions of Catholic Constantinianism. Natural law was the name you gave to the moral practices you had discovered were essential to Christian living in that barbarian wilderness we now call Western Civilization.”

    “You could continue to believe in the theoretical validity of a natural law ethic, especially one interpreted through
    Kantian eyes, as long as you saw the sociological and historical center of your life in Europe. After all, Protestantism, whether in its Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican forms, still had to make do with societies that had been formed Catholic—which is but a reminder that Protestantism remains sociologically a parasitical form…”

    “Yet everything changed when you came to America. By “came” I mean when Catholics took up the project of being Americans rather than Catholics who happened to live in America. For when you came to America for the
    first time, you had to live in a culture that was based on Protestant presuppositions and habits now transformed by Enlightenment ideologies. For the first time you had to live in a society that was putatively Christian and yet in which you were not at home. The church knew how to live in cultures that were completely foreign—as in India and Japan—but how could you learn to live in America, a culture which at once looked Christian but seemed in certain ways more foreign than China.”

    “You came here with the habits of a Constantinian ethic allegedly based on natural-law presumptions, and you discovered that to sustain those habits you had to act like a sect. Protestant Constantinianism forced
    Catholic Constantinians to withdraw into your own enclaves—your own ghettos—in order to maintain the presumption that you possessed an ethic based on natural-law grounds. What a wonderful thing God did to

    “Confronted by supposedly neutral public education that presumed that everyone agreed that church and state ought to be separated, you were forced to build your own school system. Where else would Catholics
    learn that the life of the mind could not and should not be separated from the life of prayer?”



  2. While the Church risks being wrong by saying something, it is a sure bet that the Church has become complicit with evil when it stays silent.


  3. Darryl wrote this incredibly confused post quoting an even more confused scholar who tried to use the visit of JP II to Chile in ’84. If he is trying to use this to support his R2K kookism, it is a fail.

    If he is trying to use this to smear the Catholic converts he regularly bashes, it fails especially with me.

    If he is trying to say that Pope St. John Paul II was silent in the face of evil, then he really needs some history lessons, especially about the Catholic Church and Chile during the 1980s.


  4. Oh, Jeff! Did you notice? I made a mistake. I was wrong! I forgot. See, 1984 holds special meaning for me.

    It was April of ’87.

    Brother Hart, notice the timeline. Pope St. John Paul II visits Chile spring of ’87. The military ruling junta calls a national plebiscite Oct. 88. the junta respects the results of the plebiscite.

    Elections are held in Dec. of 89, and Patricio Alwyn is installed as president of Chile in 1990. Vice President Quale went to the inauguration as US rep.

    You think that JP II´s visit had nothing to do with Chile´s return to democratic rule? Here´s a question for you. What party did Alwyn belong to?


  5. Oh, so now you changed the subject back to Pope Francis. Good dodge. Yes, I think he is an amazing man. All roses? He does not claim infallibility in all he says and does. There are plenty of roses, though. More on that later.

    For now, let me give you some background info. you seem to be lacking about Pope St. John Paul II´s visit to Chile in 1987. Then you can check out what the same Pope did to set into motion events that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Oh, and he also prevented a war between Chile and Argentina. They were very close to declaring one, but JP II intervened in a border dispute. Both sides, out of respect for his office, accepted his decision.

    It seems you would be more interested in taking a closer look at the man and why the Catholic Church recognizes him as a saint.

    Sullivan article quoted said:
    “It is this uncertainty that explains the anguished expression on John Paul’s face as he knelt to pray in Santiago. And it goes some way, at least, toward explaining the contemporary challenge, even in America, of the cross to which he turned.>>>

    It seems that Sullivan is focusing on what seemed to be confusion on the part of Pope St. JP II as though it 1.) were confusion and 2. ) the only Catholic response to the political situation in Chile during the 1980s. In the first place, kneeling in prayer, asking God’s intervention, does not seem to be a confused action on the part of a Pope. That is a very American way of interpreting the action.

    Given the circumstances, it was the only reasonable response for the Holy Father to have.

    I can assure you that the people of Chile at the time saw it that way. If the writer of the article is trying to prove his point that American’s really don’t understand Catholicism, then he has given us a fine example of same. He does not understand Catholicism, especially in its Chilean form.

    I can assure you it was not viewed as confusion by those present.

    I will give you one clue as to what else was going on. The Church did not support Pinochet. Because of their lack of support for his regime, Pinochet turned towards Evangelicalism for help.

    He opened the doors to Evangelical missions work in Chile in part as a protest against the Catholic Church.

    Well, that, and the tremendous work a fundamentalist missionary, Mr. William Strong, had done among army men in the north of Chile. A young army officer by the name of Agusto Pinochet saw how much Mr. Strong helped his men. That officer never forgot that example.

    The Church – which has no standing army, remember – put pressure on the Pinochet government to return to democracy – which it finally did.

    The Demócrata Cristiana party was the largest of the political parties in the Concertación. O sea, the party the Catholic Church backed. Patricio Alwyn of the DC was elected as first president after Pinochet.

    This is an example of how the Catholic Church was able to push a country back towards democracy in spite of the extremely difficult political climate in Chile at the time.

    You had to have been there…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.