But We Already Have Ethics Experts

Several weeks ago while listening to NPR I heard a phrase I had not encountered before — ethics experts. These were people with expertise to comment on the conflict of interests surrounding the newly elected President Trump (as if the press needs to hind behind such expertise). This is part of the story in particular:

We are continuing our coverage of the Trump administration’s executive orders implementing a permanent ban on those coming from Syria and a temporary ban of citizens coming from six additional Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.

Now, one aspect of the new policy that has drawn notice are countries that are not on the list, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And those are the countries of origin of a number of people who carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. starting with September 11, 2001. Those countries also happen to be places where President Trump and his family have business interests.

That’s one reason ethics experts continue to raise questions about how President Trump is addressing potential conflicts or even the appearance of them.

I also noticed that one of the experts to which the reporters turned was — wait for it — formerly in the Obama administration:

One of them, for example, spoke with NPR. That’s Norm Eisen. He’s a former ethics adviser to President Obama, and he’s a fellow now at Brookings Institution. He says that it looks to him like Trump was singling out countries that did not pay him tribute. That was his words.

If Rush Limbaugh brought on ethics experts to comment on Nancy Pelosi, would anyone inside the editorial offices of NPR think such expertise credible?

But we are surrounded now by ethical expertise (though it seems to be fairly easy to come by — a general rather than expert sense).

But ethics experts say the broader conflict between the White House and Nordstrom is more worrisome, raising questions about whether the United States is entering a new environment in which presidents use government to steer money to their inner circles.

Here’s another:

Outside ethics experts say Trump’s conflicts-of-interest plan does almost nothing to clear up problems that could arise during his presidency. Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the plan “meaningless.” Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney under President Obama, told Mother Jones that Trump’s plan “falls short in every respect.”

And yet, just six months ago, according to a Google word search, ethics experts were not so easy to come by (even in the midst of all the allegations swirling around both the Clinton and Trump campaigns). One story wondered about ethical food:

Andrew Chignell, a philosophy professor at Cornell University who teaches an ethics in eating course each spring, had a change of heart when he embraced a vegan diet five years ago. But he still identifies as more of a flexitarian when he’s been invited to someone’s home for a meal.

Another commented on the ethics of a judge:

A controversial Nashville judge who retroactively signed orders committing dozens of people to mental health institutions violated ethics rules by doing so, according to a judicial expert’s opinion.

Another link led to the defense of such a thing as an ethics expert:

Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause. It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.

That’s a concern that puzzles me. Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel – that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.

Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.

But now, after the Trump victory, ethics experts are easy to find.

So when John Fea says that times such as these call for the special work of historians, I’m left wondering what ethical work is left to do once every journalist and editor and academic and Hollywood celebrity has already taken a number to condemn Trump again:

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals. Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now. History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions. They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

Is the argument for not living like Trump based on evidence or on ethics? Were historians worried about Trump before becoming president? Did they condemn billionaires, real estate developers, adulterers, divorcees, outer borough New Yorkers? Now, when some of the coarser aspects of American society attach themselves to the presidency — as if for the first time — we need historians to teach us how not to be like Trump?

I get it. My friend John finds Donald Trump repellent. (Is that ethical for a Christian who is called to love his enemy? Think Jesus and Zacchaeus.) But again, why gussy it up in the aura of academic expertise? Speak truth to power as a citizen. Do it as a Christian. But as a historian do remember that ethics is a different academic discipline that seldom leaves history as an unfamiliar territory. Moral indignation renders the past something to be condemned for not meeting now’s standards.

Why History Matters

Journalists and historians can — we get it — perform moral outrage well. Consider the Times on Stephen Bannon:

[T]he defining moment for Mr. Bannon came Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council — while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities. It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defense, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.

The quotation comes from John Haines piece on Bannon’s appointment to the NSC in historical perspective:

While Mr. Bannon has sardonically compared himself to “Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors” (perhaps choosing to ignore how that role ended), his national security brief might better analogize to Nelson Rockefeller. As noted earlier, he succeeded C.D. Jackson as Special Assistant to the President for Cold War Planning in the Eisenhower administration. Mr. Rockefeller’s appointment was memorialized in a March 1955 memorandum to President Eisenhower from Rowland Hughes, the director of the Bureau of the Budget (later renames the “Office of Management and Budget”):

b.The appointment of Mr. Nelson Rockefeller as Special Assistant to the President to provide leadership on your behalf in the development of increased understanding and cooperation among all peoples and in reviewing and developing methods and programs by which the various departments and agencies of the Government may effectively contribute to such cooperation and understanding.

c.The assignment to a Special Committee chaired by Mr. Rockefeller of responsibility for coordinating the implementation of the policies contained in NSC 5505/110 and NSC 5502/1.

Mr. Rockefeller assumed a direct role in national security and intelligence operations when President Eisenhower named him chair of the Planning Coordination Group (PCG), which was subordinate to the NSC’s Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). The OCB was established by a September 1953 executive order “to provide for the integrated implementation of national security policies by the several agencies.”[26] According to a letter to Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, “At the time of the issuance of the Executive Order creating the OCB the President designated his Special Assistant for Cold War Planning as his representative on the OCB.”

President Eisenhower authorized the PCG in a 10 March 1955 letter to Mr. Rockefeller. He directed that the PCG was to be advised “in advance of major covert programs initiated by the Central Intelligence Agency;” and furthermore, that the PCG “should be the normal channel for giving policy approval for such programs as well as for securing coordination of support therefor among the Departments of State and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.” The two referenced NSC reports — NSC 5505/1 (“Exploitation of Soviet and European Satellite Vulnerabilities”) and NSC 5502/1 (“U.S. Policy Toward Russian Anti-Soviet Political Activities) — are January 1955 directives for an “active political warfare strategy” against the Soviet Union.

Mr. Rockefeller’s brief was defined in a March 1955 NSC memorandum that discussed “The Foreign Information Program and Psychological Warfare Planning.” Declaring “the principle that propaganda in both peace and war is a continuing mechanism of national policy directed toward the achievement of national aims,” the NSC charged Mr. Rockefeller to conduct:

[A] high level review of the existing arrangements in the light of NSC 59/1 and NSC 127/1 should be undertaken with a view to preparing appropriate recommendations for consideration by the National Security Council. Such a review should be undertaken with a full understanding of the existing arrangements and current plans and programs in this field, as well as the status of planning for the possibility of limited or general war.

The NSC further directed that “responsibility for making such a review and recommendations [was] assigned to Mr. Nelson Rockefeller as Special Assistant to the President:”

[T]o provide leadership in the development of increased understanding and cooperation among all peoples and in reviewing and developing methods and programs by which the various departments and agencies of the Government may effectively contribute to such cooperation and understanding. In this assignment Mr. Rockefeller should be provided with such advice and assistance as he requires from the Bureau of the Budget, the Office of Defense Mobilization and the Operations Coordinating Board as well as the responsible operating departments and agencies.

Never let real historical details get in the way of surreal moral outrage. Do notice that Bannon is not as well dressed or coiffed as the Ivy League’s own, Rockefeller.

A Genie Out of the Bottle

What Jason and the Callers don’t understand about history, historical consciousness, or what happened at Vatican 2, they could well learn from Mark Massa, a Jesuit and Dean of the School of Ministry and Theology at Boston College. Particularly instructive is this excerpt from the conclusion to his book, The American Catholic Revolution:

. . . there are at least three lessons to be learned from the Catholic sixties in the United States. . . . First, it seems highly unlikely that historical consciousness — the awareness that everything, including the Church, changes as history unfolds — can ever be effectively explained away again. True, some whom the secular press term traditionalists have been attempting that very thing since shortly after the Second Vatican Council closed. Those on the extreme end of these efforts view Vatican II as an anticouncil; that is, they see that even of 1962-65 as not being a real council of the Church at all, but rather an event abetted by the Forces of Darkness against the Fortress Church of Pius IX and Pius X. This group has always constituted an interesting but numerically insignificant group of Catholics.

More numerous — and more influential, at least in Europe — are those Catholics who even in the 1960s and certainly in the contemporary Church wish to claim Vatican II for the side of continuity and ahistorical Catholic truth: no “Rupture” did — or could — emerge from the implementation of the reforms of the council because the Church cannot change. But more to the point, they argue, is the fat that the council fathers implementing the reformed intended no such rupture with previous councils or Church practice. The efforts of this group — some in key hierarchical positions of authority — to ignore the genie let out of the bottle, or at least to act as though that genie offered nothing new and important, have found powerful spokespersons in the highest levels of Church government. But their arguments ignore the perspicacious law of unintended consequences, a law provable to the extent that it provides intellectual clarity on what in fact happened in the Catholic sixties. Mainstream Catholics in the United States, after the sixties, have come to understand their own revered brand of Christianity as having undergone historical development and change. The law of unintended consequences goes a long way in explaining why that perception has triumphed so broadly in the American Catholic community. Whatever the strengths of the arguments offered by the group attempt to claim Vatican II for the side of continuity, their failure to take into account the clear results of that law undercuts the important aspects of their position. Whatever the intentions of the bishop passing the conciliar decrees, the resulting documents sponsored a revolution that took on a life of its own, just as all events in history have a tendency to do. . . .

Second, the widespread acceptance of the seemingly self-evident truth that things change will make it increasingly difficult to propound or defend Church teaching and practice by appealing to timeless, static categories of propositional truth. This applies most particularly to the intellectual tradition of scholastic natural law, which the Catholic tradition has relied on for presenting its most important teachings since the thirteenth century. The fractious nonrecption of Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, if nothing else, illustrates this with startling clarity. Whatever the truth of Paul VI’s teaching, the massive noncompliance accorded his encyclical shows that the great majority of American Catholics did not form their consciences along the lines of such moral reasoning, and have not since. There are of course many possible reasons for this lack of compliance on the part of the vast majority of practicing Catholics on an issue that the hierarchical Church has termed “serious matter.” Some of those reasons may indeed involve personal ignorance, sinful willfulness, or just plain selfishness. But an important reason for that noncompliance, what I would label as the main reason, is that the classical unchanging world it presupposes no longer makes sense to the vast majority of the faithful in the United States. What Bernard Lonergan so elegantly called the “transition from a classicist world view to historical mindedness” in fact describes the intellectual revolution that mainstream Catholics underwent during the sixties.

Whatever the strengths of that older classicist worldview — and it served the Catholic Church extraordinarily well for centuries — it can no longer provide plausible explanations for Church teaching . . . . The older intellectual categories of scholastic natural law, first enunciated so brilliantly by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, appear unable to accomplish that now. Perhaps the intellectual justification offered in its place to explain Catholic teaching will represent the most important long-term fruit of the intellectual revolution sponsored by historical consciousness in Catholic Christianity. Time will tell.

The third lesson that Massa draws is that the labels conservative and liberal no longer make sense of Roman Catholicism:

What the historical consciousness allows us to see is that none of these figures [Bernard Lonergan, Avery Dulles, the Catonsville Nine] can be appropriately understood by the application of political labels. What they had in common as central players in the socioreligious drama I’ve termed the Catholic sixties was a deep appreciation of how the religious tradition to which they all belonged had undergone historical evolution and change. That appreciation was as Catholic as it was modern, in the sense that Pius X so feared. At its core was the radical recognition that what faithful Christians did and believed in the mid-twentieth century was not always a faithful replication of what the early Christian and the medieval builders of the great cathedrals had done and believed. Sometimes this recognition was good news; sometimes it was a cause for reform. . . But at its root was an appreciation of disruption, discontinuity, and evolution as part of the very fiber of the Catholic tradition. Change was not foreign to the Catholic tradition: it defined it.

This is why the bumper sticker line, “This is the church Jesus founded,” can no longer be uttered with a straight face. (And for those who want to claim with a straight face that Rome is the church Christ founded, they need to consider that Massa’s book came out five years after Benedict XVI outlined the hermeneutic of continuity by which the magisterium was going to read the history of Vatican II. Apparently, Massa, an official at a prominent Roman Catholic university, did not get that memorandum.)

Papal Obsession: What's in A Name?

One positive consequence of recent interactions with Roman Catholics like Brad Gregory, Christian Smith, the indefatigable Bryan Cross, and the stellar work of Francis Oakley is an awareness of just how complicated and fascinating the history of the papacy is. Eamon Duffy puts it this way in his new book on the papacy:

Thomas Hobbes famously remarked that the papacy was “not other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof.” The comment was certainly not intended as a compliment, but it encapsulated an important historical reality nonetheless. Through no particular initiative of their own, the Popes inherited the mantle of Empire in the West; the papacy became the conduit of Roman imperial values and symbolism into the European Middle Ages. In a time of profound historical instability at the end of antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the see of Peter was a link to all that seemed most desirable in the ancient world, custodian of both its secular and its sacred values. The papacy embodied immemorial continuity and offered divine sanction for law and legitimacy. So popes crowned kings and emperors and, on occasion, attempted to depose them. Even in the eighth and ninth centuries papal authority stood high, although the papacy was the prisoner of local Roman politics and many of the popes themselves were the often unlearned sons of feuding local dynasties. (17-18)

Anyone with a historical awareness, with visions of Christianity having access to and reach within corridors of power, and with a desire for a church that has roots deeper than some denomination that emerged in the 1780s, would likely be drawn to membership with a church such as Rome presents. At the same time, a concern for the spiritual depths of Christianity has not always been at the forefront of the papacy’s ministry, unless maintaining supremacy in European politics and mediating the Roman Empire were crucial pieces of that spiritual service.

The historical and cultural depth of the Vatican gives almost every aspect of the papacy significance beyond surface impressions and as a result should stimulate the imagination of anyone who studies the past. The case of Gregory XVI, who became pope in 1831 and who is the subject of Owen Chadwick’s first chapter (A History of the Popes, 1830-1914), illustrates the point.

The most famous pope of the Middle Ages to assert papal power against emperors and kings was Pope Gregory VII, Hildebrand. Ever since the high Middle Ages popes were conscious that in Gregory VII they made an emperor to kneel in the snow at Canossa, that in Innocent III they acted as the international authority of Europe, that in Bonfiace VIII they asserted the ultimate secular power of the pope as well as his ultimate spiritual authority. They were also aware that these tremendous claims were not often recognized and sometimes were repudiated with contempt or with force. Gregory VII died in exile, Boniface sickened and died after being kidnapped and rescued. In the Counter-Reformation, when Spanish and afterwards French power became strong in Italy, they grew hesitant of using such names lest they remind Europe of the contrast between the past glories of the Holy See and the weakness of its present occupant. No one had chosen the name Boniface since 1389, when the see was divided by the Great Schism. Gregory XIII was a famous name of the Counter-Reformation and shortly afterwards there were two more Gregorys; one ruled for less than a year, the other for two years, yet they were important. Towards the end of the seventeenth century and early in the eighteen century there were three weighty popes who took the name Innocent. But in the eighteenth century they preferred to take gentler-sounding names, such as Clement (four of those), Pius, or Benedict. The coronation of Pius VI in 1775 stared the age of the Piuses — during the next 183 years there were only fifty-four years in which the pope was not named Pius. And when they were not called Pius they avoided high-and-mighty sounding names — with one exception. . . .

The name Gregory was a claim. This was a cardinal who reacted against the French Revolution and all that it stood for. He seems to have had Gregory VII in his mind; but also, while a cardinal, he did a lot for the Congregation de Propaganda Fide, and the last Gregory had founded the Congregation. When the French Revolution kidnapped the Pope, he published a cry of resistance to the revolution The Triumph of the Holy See and the Church against the Attacks of Innovators (1799).

Just when the papacy looked moribund, and many said that Pius VI was the last pope in the history of Europe, and no one could see how the institution could survive even in Italy, he published this book, which rejoiced in the coming victory of the Church over its enemies. . . .

In not liking the way the modern world was going Gregory XVI was characteristic of the popes, with one possible exception, for the next 127 years. (1-3_

This messiness of Europe and the papacy’s place in it is what defenders of the popes and their infallibility generally leave out. Does history undermine spiritual authority? Critical biblical scholarship has long raised the issue of the humanity of the Bible in ways the complicate assertions of Scripture’s divine origin. Conceiving of and maintaining the papacy’s spiritual rights and gifts while paying attention to its tawdry political successes, setbacks, and ambitions is perhaps just as plausible as conservative Protestant defenses of the Bible’s inerrancy. But the problem for folks like the Callers is that we actually can see how they make the sausage. The papacy is an institution that left behind records, and combated other institutions that also left a paper trail. The authors of Scripture left no such traces. We don’t know how many drafts, for instance, Paul may have written before getting it just right to send a letter to the Christians at Rome. When the Callers don’t acknowledge the actual guts of the making of the papacy and insist only on the spiritual truths of the papacy, they appear to be in denial. They may simply be ignorant. But their claims for the papacy’s power, antiquity, and charism are decidedly partial.

But for the rest of us, the papacy is breathtaking in its preservation of an ancient order, despite all the changes between Rome in 70 and Paris in 2010, even if that order is now confined to 109 square acres.