All posts filed under: Articles

Burke’s Romantic Restoration of Natural Law

This point (see: previous instalment “The History of Natural Right”) was put supremely well by Edmund Burke: The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes, between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.[1] Burke’s argument is that what he calls “real right” depends upon this priority of the proportionately relational and reciprocal. Thus, he is by no means denying the validity of a modern universal claim right aspect to ius, but on the contrary fully re-inscribing it (beyond the limitations of early-modern scholasticism) within a traditional and essentially Aristotelian (or even Thomistic) horizon. In this spirit he declares that if civil society fulfills human nature, “the advantages for which it is made” (in other words its objective telē) also become …

Renewing Nouvelle Théologie

There was a depression over the Atlantic. It was travelling eastwards, towards an area of high pressure over Russia, and still showed no tendency to move northward around it. The isotherms and isotheres were fulfilling their functions. The atmospheric temperature was in proper relation to the average annual temperature, the temperature of the coldest as well as of the hottest month, and the a-periodic monthly variation in temperature. The rising and setting of the sun and of the moon, the phases of the moon, Venus and Saturn’s rings, and many other important phenomena, were in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The vapour in the air was at its highest tension, and the moisture in the air was at its lowest. In short, to use an expression that describes the facts pretty satisfactorily, even though it is somewhat old-fashioned: it was a fine August day in the year 1913.  —Robert Musil Robert Musil, the early 20th century Austrian novelist, begins his multi-volume classic The Man Without Qualities (1930-1943) with a meteorological report about …

Gripping the Book of Nature’s Reality

There’s a repeating image in José Ortega y Gasset’s first book, Meditations on Quixote, of a bird flying through and then falling from the sky. When we first see the bird, it is gliding over a “miasmic swamp,” a metaphor for the “past falling dead within our memory.” The bird then becomes a truth hunted by great scientists and falling lifeless at their feet. An “ideal bird,” representing creatures of a heroic future which are unable to yet exist in the harsh conditions of the imperfect present, is laughed at as it pathetically falls from its branch. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Gasset, birds sing on the edges of a forest which we are trying to penetrate, messengers of a depth which we can only intimate through their music. The notes of their song express a sylvan interiority which is “condemned to become a surface if it wants to be visible.” Meditations is only partially about the Quixote. It is more a rumination on the national spirit of Spain. But more than that even, …

The History of Natural Right

Given this revisionary account of the development of natural law (click for previous instalment in this series) in western intellectual history, how does it relate to the story of natural rights? In the case of Aquinas, as with many other medieval theologians, and the canon law itself, the Christian exaltation of individual uniqueness and liberty led to a greater recognition of subjective rights in the sense of both claim and exercise rights than had previously been the case. However, the claims generally remained claims upon others to exercise their more primary duties, while exercise rights were attached to social roles whose duties were derived from justice as distribution.[1] Later, in the 16th century, in the case of both Catholic and Calvinist thought, there was a greater development of the idea of “rights” as attaching to human beings as such, especially with respect to life, freedom and ownership. Thus for example, Suarez no longer, like Aquinas, defined ius as id quod iustum est, or as the equitable, but as “a kind of facultas which every man …

Chief Obstacles to Good Spiritual Direction

I recently had a conversation with a group of friends about the state of parishes. During the conversation, one of them said something like, “What people really need is spiritual direction. That’s what people want, and what they need. That’s what parishes need to provide for us. Imagine how things could be different.” This corresponds to my experience working with parishes all around the country. When conversion begins to awaken a desire for intimacy with God, one of the first things people begin to desire is “spiritual direction.” Somewhere along the line they are introduced to the practice, perhaps through a friend, a book, or a speaker. More than any other kind of involvement in Church life, they desire and need guidance. I would like to propose that individual spiritual guidance be a primary ministry, in addition to the sacraments, that parishes provide. But there are some definite obstacles to this being the reality. I would like to identify just three of them: Catholics tend to have an overly mystical conception of spiritual direction. There are …

The Darkness of Hope

Recalling Mark 10 or its synoptic correlates,[1] we are often told to relate our faith to that of a child, surrendering our attempt at autonomy and resting in the security of being loved as the kind of creatures we are—namely, finite beings dependent on God for the beginning, continuation, and end of our existence. The model of a child has much to commend it. It contains not merely the virtues of unconditional love and trust but also the qualities of unflagging curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for repetition. Without discounting the attachment of this description to the virtue of faith, French author and poet Charles Péguy offers another suggestion for our imagination in his poems, where the personification of hope is the one who enlivens all with her childlike enthusiasm and with the simplicity of her dependence. Hope becomes the “rest” of the child, and Péguy links this virtue explicitly to the Resurrection, arguing that Christian salvation from the consequences of sin must, if it is to truly be the new life of the risen Christ, …

The Anti-Catholicism of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks

The publication in the last few years of several volumes of the Black Notebooks (Schwarze Hefte)—consisting of Heidegger’s unedited ruminations from the early 1930’s to the early 1940’s on Being, human being, destiny, religion, ethics, and politics—has had about it the character of a sensation. It was thought that if we are to find beneath the complexities and opacities of Heidegger’s expression regarding his basic attitudes towards contemporary culture and political events, then here in these journals or notebooks, which Heidegger expressly forbade to be published in his lifetime, one can finally gain clarity in real time of the views Heidegger held during the fateful years of the Third Reich. The Notebooks, we are told, provide the raw and unfiltered versions of Heidegger’s attitude towards things of which he best provides notices in his published works. The Black Notebooks are understood to be the ultimate exposé, the smoking gun that was needed to put the nail in the coffin for a colluder masquerading as a thinker. The genre of the advertising for the Black Notebooks …

Confessions of a Feminist Heretic

During the advent of my first pregnancy, in 2012, I was comfortably settled into my own unique brand of postmodern feminist Christianity. I remember lounging on the couch amidst waves of debilitating nausea, watching news coverage of the controversial Contraceptive Mandate, rolling my eyes in anger and disgust at those regressive Catholic priests in their prim white collars, telling women what to do with their bodies. Yet almost exactly two years later, I would be standing before such a priest at the Easter Vigil Mass, publicly confessing my desire to be received into the largest, oldest male-helmed institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church. My sudden swerve into Catholicism prompted a dramatic worldview inversion on a number of issues related to feminism and sexuality, including the central feminist tenet that abortion is good for women. I can trace my paradigm shift on abortion to two underlying recognitions that dawned slowly during those two short years: a recognition of unborn personhood, and a recognition that the feminist ideal of autonomy sets a woman at war …

When the State Kills

Going through old albums can really pull you into a remembrance of things past. For instance, when I came across my old Metallica album, Ride the Lightning, it took me back to a time when we unironically used Polaroid cameras, watched time-travel movies on VHS in which 2015 was considered the very distant future, and—as indicated in the album’s title—the state still killed people with electric chairs. Ancient history, right? Except that we killed a man in Tennessee via electric chair just last month. Tennessee only allows those convicted of a capital crime before 1999 to choose the electric chair, but Edmund Zagorski elected to be killed in this way because of what we are now learning about death by lethal injection—the strong possibility that it causes “immense pain and suffering.” Perhaps he had also heard about the lethal injection of Jack Jones who was “coughing, convulsing, lurching, [and] jerking” during his botched execution. Indeed, just weeks after Zagorski, a second Tennessee death row inmate requested the electric chair. These are remarkable choices, especially because some botched executions by electric chair have resulted in the …

The Political Pawning of Saints

It is fitting that Pope Francis canonized Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Óscar Romero together. Although through the eyes of United States politics Romero is often labeled a “liberal” and Paul VI pegged as a “conservative,” Francis’s canonization of these significant figures at the same Mass is no cheap compromise, no attempt at constructing a “big tent” Church. Francis has no delusions of tossing each saint to “conservatives” and “liberals” in the hopes that this will magically resolve tensions and divisions in the Church. Instead, Pope Francis is letting the Communion of Saints powerfully reveal the unity of the Catholic Church. The genuine holiness of Paul VI and of Romero demonstrates that the Church is, as the Nicene Creed proclaims, “one.” Long before Giovanni Montini became pope and Óscar Romero became archbishop, their lives intertwined. Montini served as a professor and mentor to Romero while the latter completed seminary studies in Rome. After Montini became Paul VI, he appointed Romero as archbishop of San Salvador and encouraged him in his work. Romero frequently cited Paul …