Populism and corruption

Last week I couldn’t shake Andrew Sullivan’s introduction: “We always knew this would happen — that the rule of law and Trump would at some point be unable to coexist.”

This week, I can’t shake Alan Jacobs:

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.

General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.

Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possessall the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.

(Bold added, italics in original) I have read so many Catholics in this dreadful hour asking “Lord, where shall we go?” — specifically about the longing for a valid Eucharist, ex opere operato — that I sense another facet of why Francis has little incentive for repairing what’s broken.

Jacobs’ P.S. is an interesting speculation, too.

We’re conditioned to think of populist autocrats as reactionary conservatives, aren’t we? But remember that Trump was widely (and accurately in my opinion) excoriated as “no conservative” or things along those lines, and Pope Francis has been hailed as a “breath of fresh air” and such, suggesting a reformer of a stale and conservative institution.

I once read (sadly, I think around and of the Roman Church’s “long lent” the last time sexual abuse was in the spotlight) that sociology defines “corruption” along the lines of “lacking resources for self-correction.” It takes someone or something from outside to fix things.

Peter Beinart thinks he discerns a different, semi-fascist meaning of “corruption” at work among the President’s supporters, citing Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley:

Corruption, to the fascist politician … is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.

According to that school of “corruption,” I guess Trump is supposed to be America’s restorer of the traditional order, Pope Francis the Vatican’s bringer of a new, better order. The two construals of “corrupt” converge.

That, I guess, brings us back to Alan Jacobs sense that neither is going anywhere.

(This all feels a little bit half-baked and inelegantly written even to me, but it’s the best I can do on a notion (insight?) that came to me and has already exceeded any reasonable time budget for writing it down.)

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

Follow me on Micro.blog Follow me on Micro.blog, too, where I blog tweet-like shorter items and … well, it’s evolving. Or, if you prefer, those micro.blog items also appear now at microblog.intellectualoid.com.

Monday Potpourri, 8/27/18

1

I tend to think of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (which I’ve never finished reading) as all about the evils of artificial contraception. That’s a blind spot.

Carl Trueman points to its prediction of the moral and social chaos sexual revolution would leave in its wake, and to contemporaneous commentary by Dietrich von Hildebrand that entails “a moving account of human love and a critique of a society that reduces love to sex and sentiment.”

In this volume, von Hildebrand clearly draws upon earlier arguments from his 1927 book In Defense of Purity: Love is ecstatic and joyful, transcending rational analysis. Von Hildebrand’s key text is Song of Songs, the biblical poem that captures the mystery, power, longing, and exuberance of erotic love. Much conservative Protestant writing on marriage typically neglects the Song for a prosaic, patriarchal focus on male authority and female submission. Those tempted by such a drab view of love ought to read von Hildebrand, for whom passion, mystery, and ecstasy all play their biblical parts.

Still, the part of Humanae Vitae that leaves me leery is the insistence that every marital act instantiate both the unitive and procreative purposes of sex. I’m willing to admit mistakes in how I’ve lived my life (my blogs are not my confessional, but I’ll not deny here what I confess there), but I’m not conscience-wracked — even now, when I know so much more about the Christian tradition on contraception than I knew then — that my wife and I tooks steps to prevent pregnancy during our first year of marriage so she could complete her college degree.

Granted, the same contraceptive technologies, by Supreme Court decisions of half a century or so ago, must be available to fornicators and adulterers as well as married couples, but to put it in reductionist terms that the encyclical presumably avoids, is delaying or spacing pregnancy in marriage a slippery slope to all the evils of the sexual revolution?

Apart from the possibility that I’ve thought more about that than most people, my response lacks any authority, but here goes: that’s not my lived experience.

2

Alan Jacobs, who doesn’t write all that much about matters political, musing on two heads of state, the U.S. and the Vatican:

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry.

He’s not expecting either The Donald or Pope Francis to be “forced out” or to change course.

So why do we get the vapors so badly when news breaks?

The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump …

[T]he greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

Alan Jacobs again, elsewhere. Do read it all. There’s a payoff.

3

Jeffrey Bilbro, Learning to Distinguish between Demonic and Redemptive Technologies, at Front Porch Republic responds to a Christianity Today essay that tends to reduces Agribiz to “genetic seed modification and GPS-guided harvesters,” ignoring assaults with on crops and earthy by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Bilbro’s most important contribution, it seems to me, is a not-too-vicious debunking of what the CT author seems to think is the only alternative to Agribiz in the manner Monsanto pursues, and some allusive hints we may just be cruising gradually toward sudden calamity.

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

Follow me on Micro.blog Follow me on Micro.blog, too, where I blog tweet-like shorter items and … well, it’s evolving. Or, if you prefer, those micro.blog items also appear now at microblog.intellectualoid.com.

Religious Calvinball

My first reaction to the Pope changing the Catechism on capital punishment was pretty much a yawn. It’s only slightly to the left of my own, though its reasoning differs much from mine.

But now I’m thinking I was wrong, and that it is a big, big deal because it repudiates earlier church teaching. Repudiates, not clarifies.

Consider first that the Church teaches that Scripture is divinely inspired and cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals. Yet there are a great many passages in Scripture that teach the legitimacy of capital punishment. For example, Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Romans 13:4 teaches that the state “does not bear the sword in vain [but] is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Many other passages could be cited. The Fathers of the Church understood such passages to be sanctioning capital punishment, and the Church has for two thousand years consistently followed this interpretation. The Church also teaches (for example, at the First Vatican Council) that Catholics are obliged to interpret Scripture consistent with the way the Fathers understood it, and consistent with the Church’s traditional interpretation. Taken together, these teachings logically entail that the legitimacy of capital punishment is regarded by the Church as a divinely revealed doctrine.

Every pope who has addressed the subject of capital punishment up to Benedict XVI has reaffirmed this traditional teaching. For example, Pope St Innocent I taught that the state’s right to execute offenders has been “granted through the authority of God,” and that to condemn capital punishment in an absolute way would be to “go against the authority of the Lord.” Pope Innocent III made acceptance of the legitimacy of capital punishment a matter of Catholic orthodoxy when he required the Waldensian heretics to affirm its legitimacy as a condition of their reentry into the Church. The Roman Catechism issued under Pope St Pius V solemnly taught the legitimacy of capital punishment, as did the catechism issued under Pope St Pius X. Pope Pius XII affirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment on several occasions, and taught that a murderer has, by virtue of his crime, “deprived himself of the right to live.”

Even Pope St John Paul II explicitly reaffirmed in the Catechism he promulgated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” under certain conditions. It is true that John Paul thought that capital punishment was in practice best avoided, but this was a non-binding prudential judgment rather than a doctrinal matter. Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II’s doctrinal spokesman and later to become Pope Benedict XVI, made this clear when he stated in 2004 that:

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment…he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities… to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to…have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty. [Emphasis added]

Edward Feser, last October when a change was foreshadowed..

But it gets worse. The attempted change of doctrine on capital punishment doesn’t stand alone:

It’s important for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality to take note of this change because for decades Catholic opponents of LGBT equality argued that it is impossible to change church teaching. They often pointed to the fact that condemnations of same-sex relationships were inscribed in the Catechism, and so were not open for discussion or change. Yet, the teaching on the death penalty is in the Catechism, too, and, in fact, to make this change in teaching, it was the text of the Catechism that Francis changed.

Frances DeBernardo. DeBernardo is not a doom-and-gloomer from the fringes of the Catholic Right. He’s a gay rights activist within the Church, as his opening implies.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is not impressed:

(Calvinball explained if you are among the uninitiated.)

Since I recognize my tendency to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, let me point out the silver lining in this cloud. If Pope Francis prestidigitates a similar change in the Catechism on sodomy, we Orthodox will have been handed high trump for the next time some Catholic triumphalist gloats that we have changed 2000 years of doctrine (on contraception, particularly).

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Follow me on Micro.blog Follow me on Micro.blog, too, where I blog tweet-like shorter items and … well, it’s evolving. Or, if you prefer, those micro.blog items also appear now at microblog.intellectualoid.com.