Thursday, November 19, 2009

God, Notre Dame, Country

This past weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference at Notre Dame entitled "The Summons of Freedom." The conference was sponsored by The Center for Ethics and Culture, an interdisciplinary program founded and directed by Professor David Solomon of Notre Dame's Department of Philosophy. It was the tenth annual conference held by the Center, though the first I attended. Based on what I saw, heard, and experienced, it will not be my last. If there is to be not only a defense of, but a revival of, the full dimension of Catholicism in America today, I believe it will emanate from the work being done by this Center.

The Center for Ethics and Culture is deeply informed by the encyclicals and teachings of Pope John Paul II and, now, Benedict XVI. As the statement of Vision on the Center's website relates, "the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture aims to transform the culture in which we live into one where the dignity of human life is respected, the compatibility of faith and reason is recognized, and the connection between the truth and genuine freedom is understood."

The Center's main intellectual influences are pairs from the early Church, the papacy, and contemporary philosophy: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI (with attention as well to Pope Leo XIII, who is largely responsible for the revival of Thomism in modern times); and the Notre Dame philosophers Ralph McInerny and, above all, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre is philosopher-in-residence at the Center, and looms large in the discussions and guiding vision of the Center's work.

This weekend's conference attracted several hundred similarly inspired academics from across the nation and the globe for discussions of the conference's themes, "virtue, sacrifice and the common good." It is fair and accurate to say that the Center and conference participants are "traditionalist," and that - in matters of the "culture wars" - their work has been on the side of defending life, calling attention to the utilitarian philosophy that underlies many assumptions of the extension of modern biotechnology, and defending forms of traditional morality. The Center was in the middle of efforts to reverse the decision of Notre Dame to award President Obama an honorary degree, and helped organize "ND Response," which sponsored a protest rally coincident with the President's commencement address.

That said, there is further dimension of the Center - prominently present at the conference - that defies most contemporary notions of Left and Right. The Conference featured several panels that argued on behalf of a way of thinking about the economic life that might strike the casual observer as coming from the Left. Among the strong defenses of the central place of morality in human affairs was an insistence that an exacting moral code extend as much to the marketplace as the bedroom. Indeed, there was an overarching insistence - one informed by Alasdair MacIntyre, a former Marxist - that there is a continuity between the individualism and relativism of the market and "personal" lifestyles, a consistent relativism that erodes social cohesion, cultural continuity, a felt sense of generational obligation, and a the centrality of the virtue of self-governance and moderation of appetite.

Among the panels that were organized were sympathetic explorations of the thought of Wendell Berry, whose writings of several decades have severely condemned contemporary form of "absentee economy" populated by "itinerant vandals." These words were penned long before the current economic crisis, a crisis that he has essentially predicted based on a view of human anthropology and nature that cannot long be denied without severe repercussions. There was also a panel consisting of authors from the webzine "Front Porch Republic," a generally conservative online journal that has been strongly critical of the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy (full disclosure: I appeared on the panel, and write for the site). Among its stable of authors are those arguing for a second look at the "Distributism" of Chesterton and Belloc and more local forms of economic organization.

In my view, the highlight of the conference was a lecture delivered by Michael Baxter entitled "God, Notre Dame and Country." Baxter reviewed the mid-twentieth century efforts of Catholic intellectuals to formulate a seamless synthesis of Catholic belief and American values - for instance, a work such as We Hold These Truths by the Jesuit intellectual John Courtney Murray. While Baxter sympathetically explored the felt-need of the oft-ghettoized Catholic minority in America to gain acceptance by the broader culture, he concluded that these efforts had gone too far, to the point of a degree of intellectual dishonesty. He argued for a more vigorous Catholic contrarian voice in the broader culture, one that is willing to call out the false premises of American liberalism (whether informing the contemporary Left or Right). He insisted that Catholicism refuse any longer to be drawn into the contemporary culture wars, lining up neatly on the Right or Left (or worse, Republican or Democrat) in complete mindless submission to the political demands of the day. He called for a more thoughtful consideration of a consistent Catholic argument that would be equally critical of both parties where they departed from the consistency of the Catholic teaching. Hence his proposed reorganization of a Notre Dame motto: not "God, Country, Notre Dame," but "God, Notre Dame, Country." That is a more properly Augustinian standard.

It was an exciting weekend and presentation, finally because in the contours of its basic premises and arguments one could see the beginnings of a revival of a truly dissenting Catholic voice in contemporary America. For too long Catholics have lined up in "conservative" or "progressive" camps in ways that have aligned too closely with the existing political parties. Those arguments have pulled the Catholic electorate to the left or right, becoming THE swing vote in national elections - but for that reason, also effectively splitting apart the consistency of the full teaching of the Church, and thereby obscuring its power and damaging its effectiveness in the broader culture.

What exists today are two parties that effectively adhere to one part of the Catholic teaching (whether they know it or not), with the Right insisting on the dignity of life in all of its forms and the Left adopting a stance of moral condemnation toward the greed and concupiscence that contributed to the economic crisis. However, the resulting divide allows each side to blame the other for their respective immorality (personal/sexual or economic), thereby obscuring the fundamental moral consistency that was bifurcated in the cauldron of Cold War American politics. The work of the Center on Culture and Ethics is clearly aimed at healing that divide, and - if its work continues to unfold with the success and vision that I witnessed - the "blame game" that has existed at the heart of American politics will be increasingly harder to play. The major players in the Parties will insist upon retaining the status quo, but the penetrating vision of this Catholic revival in the American heartland may finally be too powerful to ignore. One can at least hope.

(This post also appears at the site "Georgetown/On Faith")


Daniel McWhirter said...

glad you discovered the conference. When I was an undergrad in Philosophy at Calvin College we made an annual trip of it, students and professors. The atmosphere the center has fostered made more of an impression on me, beyond the content of the talks (though those were always valuable). At very few times have I experienced such a strong convergence of my faith and my intellectual life.

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Professor Deneen,

You relayed: "While Baxter sympathetically explored the felt-need of the oft-ghettoized Catholic minority in America to gain acceptance by the broader culture, he concluded that these efforts had gone too far, to the point of a degree of intellectual dishonesty."

The question I have is this: At what point, or with what issues, did that effort go to far? Privacy rights? Economics? What date or issue did Baxter give as a turning point? Was it Murray himself who went too far? And if Murrary was the focus, what of so-called conservative Catholics who, since the 1970s, have taken their neoliberalism/neoconservatism too far (e.g. Phyllis Schlafly, Deal Hudson)?

I know your post isn't about assigning blame. But to ask Catholics to vigorously dissent, which likely means removing themselves---temporarily at least---from the public square, you/Baxter have to establish strong reasons why the Republican/Democrat dichotomy (admittedly one that sometimes presents false choices) has gone wrong. How is the current cycle of oscillation insufficient? What's the alternative? Why not reform one party from within?

And wasn't Murray's vital centrism a reaction to other Catholic ventures into the public square gone wrong? Namely, Coughlin in the 1930s and those 1950s Catholics who over-vigorously engaged in anti-communism activities (McCarthy and his allies, like Edmund Walsh, SJ)? So is it centrism or extremism that gets us in trouble?

Is it not better to always be engaged in the public square, no matter how painfully slow the change, than to risk even temporary abstention?

- Tim