If Politics is Downstream from Culture

Is political iconoclasm downstream from recreational drugs?

Here’s why the question makes sense. If more people drank wine at lunch, would be they be less moralistic? Which is related to how much marijuana have neo-Nazis and antifa smoked to reach their adult years?

The apparent popularity of the idea that drinking at lunchtime is unacceptable tells us two things about Britain today – one is about attitudes to drinking, the other is about the way we assess or evaluate things. The first is straightforward: drinking at lunchtime is becoming more unpopular partly because of changing working habits – people work too hard, essentially – and partly because of concerns about the effects of alcohol on health and the fashionability of the healthy lifestyle.

That is not how things used to be. An academic friend of mine from Switzerland, recently retired, told me he had a glass of wine (or two) every day at lunchtime during his productive and satisfying thirty-five-year career. It’s hard to imagine any of today’s academics telling such a story in twenty or thirty years’ time. But fashions change, and maybe today’s will change too.

The second thing, though, is more insidious: the growing tendency to assess all human activity in moral terms: in terms of obligations, duties and the ideas of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, fair or unfair.

Politics is one area of life that has become deeply moralized. Most political decision-making in peaceful well-functioning democracies concerns practical questions about the allocation of resources, and the structure of social organizations. These decisions are for the most part not moral decisions, nothing to do with obligations and rights and wrongs, but the result of compromises based on what is desirable, practical and efficient. Yet people find it so attractive to think of politics – even in this plonking, practical, reliable sense – in moral terms.

In other words, can’t a cigar just be a cigar? Or an Asian-American sportscaster just a guy with a good voice and telegenic demeanor?

It should be emphasized that things in our lives can be evaluated in ways that have very little to do with morality – for example, whether things are pleasant or disgusting, delicious or bland, funny or boring, gauche or stylish, awkward or harmonious, sensible or silly – and in many ways these evaluations come more easily and naturally to us than the abstract judgements of today’s moralists. Yet the preaching tone of the moralist lurks in the speeches of politicians, on the Left and the Right – whether it is about climate change, what we eat, what art or music we enjoy, how we bring up our children, what kind of gender we identify with, etc. My point is not that these are unimportant questions – but that it is not obvious that they are moral questions. Nonetheless, our current political leaders in the UK find it alarmingly easy to adopt moralizing personae, from the honest and pure teetotal bearded vegetarian, to the stern yet fair authoritarian who knows best. Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to have politicians who were not preaching to us?

Imagine if U.K. politicians had to live statues of people who executed heretics.

(thanks to one of our Southern correspondents who assures me he is not a neo-Confederate)

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How to Observe Reformation

If you are Roman Catholic, forget Martin Luther and remember Thomas More:

We should not celebrate the Reformation, because we cannot celebrate the defense of erroneous conscience held up against the authority of the Church. As St. Thomas More rightly said in his “Dialogue on Conscience,” taken down by his daughter Meg: “But indeed, if on the other side a man would in a matter take away by himself upon his own mind alone, or with some few, or with never so many, against an evident truth appearing by the common faith of Christendom, this conscience is very damnable.” He may have had Luther in mind.

More did not stand on his own private interpretation of the faith, but rested firmly on the authority of Christendom and, as Chesterton put it, the democracy of the dead: “But go we now to them that are dead before, and that are I trust in heaven, I am sure that it is not the fewer part of them that all the time while they lived, thought in some of the things, the way that I think now.”

More is a crucial example of standing firm in a rightly formed conscience. We should remember why he died and not let his witness remain in vain. He stood on the ground of the Church’s timeless teaching, anchored in Scripture and the witness of the saints. If we divorce conscience from authority, we will end in moral chaos. As Cardinal Ratzinger asked in his lucid work, On Conscience: “Does God speak to men in a contradictory manner? Does He contradict Himself? Does He forbid one person, even to the point of martyrdom, to do something that He allows or even requires of another?” These are crucial questions we must face.

Rather than celebrating the defender of erroneous conscience, let’s remember and invoke the true martyr of conscience, who died upholding the unity of the faith.

But, if you’re Roman Catholic, you follow the pope, right?

In light of the current controversy on conscience, it is troubling that Luther is now upheld as genuine reformer. The most troubling is from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in its Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and throughout the year 2017: “Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel’ (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.” The Vatican also announced a commemorative stamp (which to me sounds like the United States issuing a stamp commemorating the burning the White House by British troops).

Pope Francis has spoken of Luther several times in the past year, including in an inflight press conference returning from Armenia: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.” In response I ask, what did Luther reform? Francis pointed to two things in his journey to Sweden. The Reformation “helped give greater centrality to sacred scripture in the Church’s life,” but it did so by advocating the flawed notion of sola scriptura. Francis also pointed to Luther’s concept of sola gratia, which “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.” While the priority of God’s initiative is true and there are similarities to Catholic teaching in this teaching (that faith is a free gift that cannot be merited), Luther denied our cooperation with grace, our ability to grow in sanctification and merit, and that we fall from grace through mortal sin. Francis also noted, while speaking to an ecumenical delegation from Finland: “In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther 500 years ago was to renew the Church, not divide Her.” Most recently he spoke of how we now know “how to appreciate the spiritual and theological gifts that we have received from the Reformation.”

Doesn’t the magisterium know more and better than Dr. R. Jared Staudt?