Well Worth an Argument

In the April issue of First Things ("Religion Within the Limits of Morality Alone," Public Square), Richard John Neuhaus says that my article "Writing History in a World Without Ends" (Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1996) is "well worth an argument." In setting forth his part of the argument, Father Neuhaus contends that my comments on the U.S. Catholic bishops’ neutrality as regards slavery in the antebellum era "egregiously and . . . smugly imposes contemporary moral criteria upon the past." This imposition, he says, is driven by an ecclesiology that is limited by morality, to the neglect of several other dimensions of Church life, such as "revealed truth, dogma, ordered ministry, sacramental bonds, and diverse traditions of discipleship." Calling for "a doctrine of the Church that rests on more than the one pillar of ethics," Neuhaus admonishes me by noting that "the Church is constituted more by mystery than by morality."

The crux of the problem, he goes on to argue (drawing on a critique of feminist theology by R. R. Reno that appeared in the same issue of Pro Ecclesia as my article), is that I am captured by a modern, post-Kantian paradigm that puts forth an "ecclesiology within the limits of morality alone." After conceding that "philosophically and theologically" I am "light years away from Kant," Neuhaus still finds enough problems in my article to warrant this indictment: "Baxter, like Elizabeth Johnson and Rosemary Radford Ruether, is a child of Kant, a modern theologian who critiques the entirety of the tradition by a criterion of his own choosing."

Neuhaus’ critique is also "well worth an argument," so for the sake of argument, I offer the following three responses.

First, my article is directed primarily not at the antebellum Catholic bishops and their neutrality on slavery, but rather at John Tracy Ellis’ account of their neutrality, an account that was first set forth in 1955 and then revised in 1969. Although this would still qualify as an instance of imposing moral standards upon the past, it is a past that is rather recent; so recent a past, indeed, that it weighs very heavily on the present, for, as I show in my article, Ellis’ narrative, and the faith/politics autonomy that controls it, still shapes the present-day writing of U.S. Catholic history.

And yet, even to the extent that my article does cast judgment on the U.S. Catholic bishops of the antebellum era, it should be noted that their neutrality on slavery was judged and found wanting according to the moral criteria of their time by such prominent Catholics as Daniel O’Connell of Ireland, Monsignor Doupanloup of France, William Gaston of North Carolina, Father Claude Pascal Maistre of New Orleans, and Archbishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati, who broke with his fellow bishops’ neutrality late in 1862. These people, who do not appear in Ellis’ history but who do appear in Cyprian Davis’ The History of Black Catholics in the United States, testify to the fact that at least some Catholics of the mid-nineteenth century found the moral resources to condemn the institution of slavery. My article suggests that we try to imagine an historical narrative whose plot line gives prominence to their stance rather than that of the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Second, my article is not, as Fr. Neuhaus claims, premised on a Kantian understanding of the relation between the Church and morality. Kant’s project was to free morality from tutelage to the authority and tradition of the Church by providing an account of the autonomy of morality grounded in reason qua reason. My article is part of an attempt to demonstrate the necessity of the Church for moral reflection, and the inextricable relation between ecclesial and moral discourse. If Fr. Neuhaus can show that Kant held there to be an inextricable connection between the Church and moral reasoning (and I doubt that he can), then I would readily acknowledge my identity as a child of Kant, in this limited sense.

But at the same time I would still point to another lineage in showing a connection between the Church and morality, a lineage stretching back to Moses and the prophets. In this tradition, the Church is constituted by mystery (Fr. Neuhaus is right about this), but the mystery centers on Christ’s redemption, which, as Pope John Paul II has explained in Veritatis Splendor, opens up for us "the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being," a realization that includes overcoming domination by concupiscence and enjoying the healing, restorative gift of the Holy Spirit. In this tradition, the Church is not held "within the limits of morality." Rather, morality is expanded to include all aspects of church life.

This is why St. Paul exhorts his readers (in language at once liturgical, ecclesial, and moral) to present their bodies as a living sacrifice of praise and thus to live as members of the Body of Christ, teaching, preaching, giving alms, doing works of mercy, providing hospitality, repaying good for evil, and so on (Romans 12). This is also why Aquinas identifies the sacramental life of the Church as the means by which the virtues are formed and perfected. This is also why the Church excommunicated not only for doctrinal offenses such as Nestorianism and cultic offenses such as breaking the seal of the confessional, but also for moral offenses such as abortion. My point is this: there is no sphere of church life that is located in some sphere beyond morality, as Fr. Neuhaus implies, and you do not have to be a child of Kant to hold this view.

Third, Fr. Neuhaus is mistaken when he accuses me of criticizing "the entirety of the tradition." My critique is not of "the entirety of the tradition," but of only one tradition within the tradition, namely, the Americanist tradition. The confusion stems from the overall position that Fr. Neuhaus has been developing for years now, a position that merits the label "Americanist" inasmuch as it holds that "the entirety of the tradition" unequivocally endorses the political order established in the United States of America.

In good Americanist fashion, Fr. Neuhaus seems to think that the theology and political theory of Augustine and Aquinas automatically point ahead to the founding fathers and their Catholic supporters, John Carroll, John England, John Ireland, John Ryan, and John Courtney Murray, to name a few. If one dissents from this intellectual trajectory, he surmises, one must be drawing on "a criterion of [one’s] own choosing," not on an alternative reading of the tradition. Thus Fr. Neuhaus never seriously faces the theoretical tension between justice grounded in true religion (Augustine) and the natural law (Aquinas) and the proceduralist notions of justice sponsored by the modern liberal state.

Nor does he face the practical tension between mores in the United States and the moral teaching of the Church. Instead, much like his hero John Courtney Murray, he continues to insist that there exists a fundamental harmony between Catholicism and the United States, all the while explaining away any friction in terms of recent cultural decline (hence his lament over "how far the disintegration of society has progressed in the past four decades"). Thus, whatever questions Neuhaus raises about the moral capacity of the United States to adhere to the natural law, as in the "crisis of democracy" forum sponsored in this journal, are purely reformist in character: the nation will get straightened out morally once we get our people onto the Supreme Court.

As I see it, the much celebrated "crisis of democracy" points to a deeper problem endemic to politics in a liberal society, the problem of generating a politics without substantive agreement on the ends to which political life is to be ordered. For Neuhaus, this problem can be solved by making politics a matter of means, and reserving the matter of ends to religion, which would then permeate the body politic. What he fails to consider is the extent to which the body politic can permeate religion and bleach out its distinctive character. When this happens, the Church ceases to respond critically to the political life of whatever nation in which it is located. It loses its shape and substance as a body and its members learn to tolerate practices such as slave trading and abortion---usually with the aid and comfort of theological formulations such as "the Church is constituted more by mystery than by morality."

(The Rev.) Michael J. Baxter, C.S.C.
Department of Theology
University of Notre Dame Notre Dame, IN

RJN replies:

Fr. Baxter’s position is well worth further argument, and I will get around to that in due course. For the moment, I simply state for the record that I do not believe the Catholic tradition "unequivocally endorses" the political order of the U.S. I emphatically reject such a view. As to other matters, more later.

A Confessional State?

When I was at Princeton last year, I read a draft of Father Michael J. Baxter’s article, "Writing History in a World Without Ends." At that time, I expressed agreement with him that the temptation to Americanism was by no means a figment of the Roman curia’s imagination---either then or now. The large-scale collapse of faith and morality among American Catholics in the last generation proves that Rome was actually quite prescient about what could happen once the Catholic immigrants were assimilated.

Of course in the last century the assimilationists like Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop Ireland were eager flag-wavers, and the anti-assimilationists were German Catholics who wanted to retain their own cultural identity and disliked the Irish bishops. The Americanizers responded that German particularism is potentially anti-Roman and can lose sight of Catholicity. Both sides made valid points, and Leo XIII responded appropriately in Testem Benevolentiae.

What I argued against Fr. Baxter is that he, too, is an Americanist in a more subtle way. I asked if he intended to take the position of Bishop Dupanloup and Montalembert in the last century: that the "thesis" or objectively best form of government would be a Catholic confessional state, but that in contemporary circumstances Catholics must accept the liberal state as a "hypothesis"—that is, as a tolerable situation necessary in order to avoid greater evils but not as a good thing in and of itself. Fr. Baxter hesitated to say this even though he knows well that John Courtney Murray’s critics (such as Cardinal Ottaviani, Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, and Father Francis J. Connell, CSSR) did uphold this in the American Ecclesiastical Review. I told Fr. Baxter that unless he was willing to uphold in theory the thesis of the Catholic confessional state, his own accusations of Americanism would recoil on him.

I also suggested that Fr. Baxter’s pacifist politics owed more to American sectarian Protestant radicalism than to the Catholic tradition. When Fr. Baxter writes Catholic history as if it began and ended with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, he manifests an Americanist myopia more marked than any displayed by John Tracy Ellis, Jay P. Dolan, or David O’Brien. Fr. Baxter’s purportedly prophetic and evangelical alternative sounds typically American to me---the standard fare long since provided by the Quakers and other "peace churches" in their policy statements. What is so profound or prophetic about that?

As I understand Murray, he held that the thesis of the Catholic confessional state was not a necessary aspect of the Catholic doctrine of church and state, though the medieval and post-Tridentine Catholic states were defensible in their historical context. Fr. Murray’s critics held that he had conceded too much to the theory of the liberal state. Looking at the present American situation, I now think that we should uphold the thesis precisely in order to pursue the ideological critique and political engagement pioneered by John Courtney Murray.

If one realizes that the confessional state is not possible under present circumstances and that all Christian political involvement assumes that any political order is a "hypothesis" in relation to the Kingdom, it is possible to appreciate John Courtney Murray’s seminal work and yet avoid slipping by degrees into what Fr. Baxter calls a "world without ends."

Ironically enough, this theoretical defense of the old thesis would serve a purpose in our dialogue/controversy with other groups who do not conform to liberal political assumptions: the Christian Reconstructionists (who criticize Abraham Kuyper in much the same way as Fenton criticized Murray); Orthodox Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora, whose normative tradition has a problematic relation to the Israeli state and to the fact that it is not a Torah-state; and Muslims, whose religion in principle acknowledges no relative autonomy of the temporal sphere. Our mode of argument may be useful to them in their analogous political and religious reflection and action.

If Fr. Baxter is serious, then let him rise to the challenge of defending in principle the thesis of the confessional state. Otherwise, he should take his place next to the Catholic historians whose Americanist assumptions he so sharply criticizes.

W. Robert Aufill
Stillwater, OK

Michael Baxter replies:

Recalling a conversation we had last year better than I, Mr. Aufill complains that I hesitated to endorse in principle that the Catholic confessional state is the best form of government. I still hesitate. I distrust attempts to provide an account of "the state" in the abstract because such attempts legitimate what is in the name of what ought to be. I especially distrust such accounts in modernity because, as Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, the modern nation-state is a dangerous and unmanageable institution that often masquerades as an embodiment of community and a repository of sacred values. Faced with this situation, the Church does not need a theory of the state. What the Church needs is a description of the true character of the state and a set of practices to resist it. To designate the modern nation-state as an instrument by which to propagate the Christian faith is to imperil the Christian faith.

Mr. Aufill, if I read him correctly, is likely to reply that what he is proposing is nothing more than a normative principle to be accepted in theory (as a "thesis") as a way to remind Catholics "that any political order is a ‘hypothesis’ in relation to the Kingdom" and thus to instill in them a critical perspective from which to engage the present political order in the United States. I am sympathetic with his aim, but I do not believe this to be a very promising strategy, for two reasons.

One, moral and religious formation is not achieved by means of a theory alone, especially a thoroughly disembodied theory such as that of "the confessional state," which, as Mr. Aufill admits, is "not possible under present circumstances." Two, the logic Mr. Aufill uses to explain our relation to the liberal state---that it is "a tolerable situation necessary in order to avoid greater evils but not a good thing in and of itself"---smacks of the kind of "lesser evil" logic that undercuts the integrity of moral action, including political moral action, whereby the intention and object must be ordered to the good. Indeed, given the structure of the argument put forth by Mr. Aufill, it is difficult to see what bearing a substantive account of the good has on politics "under present circumstances." Here he could respond, I suppose, that the good provides guidance for critical, ad hoc engagement with the liberal state; in which case I would agree (this is a central claim in my article): but in order to function in this way, the good must be socially embodied in an actual community.

Rather than retrieve Bishop Doupanloup’s thesis/hypothesis construction in order to inform the sixty million Catholics in the United States that they live in a state of "hypothesis," I suggest we set our sights on the good as set forth in the natural law and fulfilled and perfected in the supernatural life of Christ, and ask: what practices and institutions are necessary to sustain this form of life? The answer, as I see it, should come by way of descriptions of practice-based, ecclesial communities that exemplify a Christologically shaped politics. At the heart of such a politics is the belief that the peace Christ bestowed as a gift to this Church is best received by embodying that peace as a gift to the world.

But it is not appropriate to label this politics "pacifist," for the case can be made that it is also represented in the just war tradition, which likewise stands as a challenge to the state-sponsored violence of modern war. Nor is it appropriate to trace the roots of this politics to "American sectarian Protestant radicalism," for it originated long before Protestantism and it has taken root in places that do not fit the adjective "American" (which Mr. Aufill confines to the territorial boundaries of the United States), as becomes clear in light of the host of martyrs, saints, and disciples who embody it, including Polycarp of Smyrna, Martin of Tours, Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, Franz Jaggerstatter, Oscar Romero, Christian de Chergé and the other Trappist monks murdered in Algeria last year, to name but a few.

The significance of the Catholic Worker Movement in the context of the history of Catholicism in the United States is that it so clearly exemplifies this kind of Christologically shaped politics. History does not, of course, begin and end with the Catholic Worker. But history does begin and end with Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, and the Catholic Worker at its best has conformed its aims and purposes to this truth. In so doing, it has demonstrated a basic point that seems to have been lost to Mr. Aufill: that it is possible to avoid an Americanist accommodation to the liberal state without resurrecting the fantasy of the confessional state.