All posts filed under: Articles

3 Theological Reflections on Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed

Patrick J. Deneen’s thesis in Why Liberalism Failed is clear and direct. “Liberalism has failed”, he writes in the introduction, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded” (3). He argues that liberalism stands on a faulty foundation, fractured from the start under the weight of its own hubristic self-certainty. The book has already been reviewed extensively including thrice in the New York Times (1, 2, 3), in the Wall Street Journal, in the Federalist, and elsewhere, and these reviews have covered a substantial amount of critical ground for Deneen’s project. Leaving the evaluation of his argument to others, I instead want to trace the theological consequences of what Deneen perceives so as to orient the calamity of liberalism’s inevitable end to three fundamental errors in its premise: the first is about the meaning of the (un)created world, the second is about the basic anthropological claim and the natural state of human beings, and the third is about the human project and what constitutes …

The Pornification of Desire

It was nearing the end of my sophomore year. I had a pretty similar life to everyone around me. I’d wake up in the morning way too early than what was healthy so I could get to my 7:30 AM class at my school 30 minutes away. My dad would usually have eggs and bacon ready for me by the time I was out of the shower and my mom always made me a smoothie that tasted exactly how it looked, like slop. I finished up classes for the day, and then came my favorite part of the day, hockey practice. Earlier in the year, I made it onto my school’s hockey team which was the hockey team of my dreams. Playing hockey was the one thing that got me through the school day because I never felt more free than when I was skating. The cold air against my face while my feet glided across a smooth surface of ice. It was all great except for one problem. I was suffering through an abdominal …

Recent Reports on Sino-Vatican Negotiations Raise Many Complicated Questions

In recent months Catholics in China had anticipated the upcoming February 1 implementation of the government’s new, stricter regulations on religion with a sense of foreboding, viewing them as the regime’s attempt to achieve two goals with regard to China’s divided Catholic Church: 1) to greatly increase its already strong control over the “official” (government-recognized) church, and 2) to eradicate the activities of the “unofficial” or underground church though fines and prohibiting their gatherings (presumably stopping them by force, whereas they had previously often turned a blind eye), with the goal of eliminating it altogether by forcing it to amalgamate with the official church. I should note at the outset that virtually everything in China is complicated, and government policies are not uniformly applied and enforced the same way in all circumstances throughout the country. Understanding these events requires some background which is beyond the scope of this article, but I have provided elsewhere.[1] Simply hearing that an “underground Church” still exists in China naturally raises questions for Catholics in the West: what is it …

Petrine Primacy: Who Can Speak on Behalf of the Orthodox Church?

Concerning the question of whether the Orthodox Church needs a primus, and especially at the universal level, I will appeal to a personal experience. In 2005, I was given permission to attend the deliberations of the International Joint Commission on the Theological Dialogue between the two churches, which convened, after a hiatus, in Belgrade. I remember how that experience led me to the paradoxical realization that the Orthodox churches cannot unite with Rome as long as they are not united with Rome. What I mean by this paradox is that the very absence of the authority that a primus would have exercised at the pan-Orthodox level hinders the efforts of remedying this institutional lacuna. In other words, the fact that the Orthodox churches today refuse to recognize a Rome-like primacy among themselves becomes the major problem in their dialogue with Rome. Episcopal Equality For one of the fundamental presuppositions of any dialogue, especially a theological dialogue, is consistency. The demand for consistency is related, in my opinion, to the question of authority. Who can speak …

The Fear of Catholic Contamination at the Heart of American Individualism

Gothic fiction, the fiction of fear, has long been identified as paradoxically central to the literary tradition of the United States. Early exhortative texts such as the Declaration of Independence and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography clearly articulated an optimistic national narrative of rational, self-interested individuals escaping past tyranny to progress confidently together into an expansive future. By contrast, the Gothic fictions of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison have depicted nightmarish threats to national ideals, inherent flaws in those ideals and their implementation, or both—thereby radically challenging “America’s self-mythologization as a nation of hope and harmony.” Such is the critical consensus. What scholars have failed to recognize adequately is the recurrent role in such fiction of a Catholicism that consistently threatens to break down borders separating U.S. citizens—or some representative “American”—from the larger world beyond. This role has in part reflected enduring fears of the faith in Anglo-American culture. British Gothic fiction originated in the eighteenth century as what one scholar pointedly deemed Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, …

The Myth of Original Christianity and the Holy Sepulcher’s Immovable Ladder

“The Holy Land”—the modern state of Israel and the West Bank—is a space sacred not for its singularity in relation to the rest of the globe, but rather for its iconic representation of the human drama, condensed into a pressure cooker of 27,736 square kilometers or 10,709 square miles. To provide a sense of scale: Texas is 268,597 square miles, New York State is 54,556 square miles, and Indiana is 36,418 square miles. Located in the heart of this Maryland-sized plot of land, the Old City of Jerusalem takes up a mere 0.9 square kilometers or 0.35 square miles. Within this city, whose area is one-fifth the size of the University of Notre Dame’s campus, there is a piecemeal basilica-church which occupies approximately 0.007 square kilometers or 0.003 square miles. Since Constantine reclaimed it for the local Christian community in the 4th century, that church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, has been a keenly cherished destination for Christian pilgrims. Just as Israel/Palestine is a crux for crises wrought by human frailty and power compressed …

This Is What You Get When Politics Invades Our Ecclesial Lives

There are millions of Catholics who believe that abortion should be legally available and whose political ideology can only be described as contemporary American liberalism. Likewise, there are millions of Catholics who favor only minimal regulations on the market and reject economic redistribution and whose political ideology can clearly be identified as contemporary American conservatism. In both cases, the views of these Catholics are indistinguishable from non-Catholic Americans who share their respective ideology. Is it wrong to identify them as such? Does it undermine the fundamental unity of the Church? Does it place their political identity above their identity as a member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? I would argue that such labels are both accurate and useful, at least for those who study and write about politics. When politics invades our personal lives and we can only be friends with those who share our political orientation, then something is deeply wrong. Our political ideology occupies too much of our identity, and our emotional development has been blocked by obstacles we should …

What Can Catholicism Still Draw from the Wells of Ecumenism?

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity in 1908, eight days of prayer stretching from January 18 (Feast of the Confession of St Peter in some Anglican and Lutheran Churches) to January 25 (Feast of the Conversion of St Paul). Like all things in time, it has gone through many changes. It is fitting that the feast began with confession and conversion, because what I most hope for Catholics from the modern ecumenical movement is called confessional conversion. I want us to become more Catholic and more catholic. Confessional conversion is an ecumenical process that honors the distinctive gifts of each traditional strand of Christianity while working towards one visible church of Christ, diverse and one, like the Trinity. The Groupe des Dombes, an ecumenical movement that has been praying together for 80 years, has described this conversion in For the Conversion of the Churches. Jesus Christ is always calling to his people, and this call is realized at three inseparable levels: personal conversion, ecclesial conversion, and confessional conversion. Personal Conversion I didn’t grow up …

Why Can’t Both Sides of the Abortion Debate Settle on a Definition of What a Person Is?

However unwelcome the contributions of writers like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer may be to their fellow positionists, they have performed an inestimable service in clarifying the implication of the ultra personalist foundation of rights. The Definition of Person as Depersonalization Quite simply they have acknowledged what few were prepared to admit: that there is no essential difference between abortion and infanticide. The reason why the controversy over partial birth abortions has caused such discomfort is because the debate made the same connection factually clear. Late-term abortions are only possible if the fetus is actually killed before full delivery from the uterus. Yet it is one thing to acknowledge such painful medical details and another to declare they are morally permissible. Tooley and Singer have even gone further. They have conceded that the same moral arguments justify infanticide for the first couple of months. The implication is advanced without the slightest hint of irony, unlike Swift’s modest proposal to alleviate poverty by making babies available for consumption. Tooley and Singer have not set out to shock …

The Language of Autonomy, Especially in the Abortion Context, Robs Autonomy of Its Most Serious Connotations

The much-agitated issue of abortion persists because it is couched in terms that are irresolvable. Rights of persons, the mother or the fetus, are posed on either side and with an absoluteness that cannot be compromised. This is in the nature of rights claims. It is not simply that rights are abstractions and inherently unlimited, although that may be a part of the problem. The real difficulty lies in the character of personal prerogatives. A person is a whole, a world unto himself or herself, defined by self-determination untrammeled by outside interference. One cannot exercise partial self-determination, for any mitigation is tantamount to the surrender of control to some other source. No, there is something unassailable in the modern clarification of what is owed to persons as such. Unless one is fully responsible for oneself one can hardly be counted as claiming one’s humanity. Even obedience to the law of God requires the free exercise of decision if it is to have any value, for conformity without inward agreement is of little worth. It is because …