The Catholic perspective, Part I: escape from subjectivity

What is distinctive about the Catholic mind, that Catholics believe things that no one else believes?  Identifying specific differences is not hard; what is tricky is figuring out which one is the ultimate cause of all the others.  For example, many would say that the authority of the Pope is what makes Catholicism unique, and hence we are called “Papists”.  However, the papacy is for Catholics a conclusion rather than an axiom.  We accept it because we see the modern hierarchical Church as the historically legitimate development of the Apostolic Church.  But looking at the same historical and scriptural data, Protestants and Orthodox see corruption rather than development.  What underlying difference causes us to read the data so differently?  Again, one could cite specific dogmas that are distinctive to the Catholic faith:  the assumption of Mary, Purgatory, the filioque, the immorality of contraception, etc.  But why do Catholics believe these things when others don’t?

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La Nouvelle Theologie

You know, I’ve never run across a quantum mechanics textbook that builds the case for its subject around how dull, dry, and uninspiring most texts on classical mechanics seem to be.  Running across such a frivolous argument might lead one to suspect that quantum mechanics is actually a big fraud.  Fortunately, quantum theory is not a fraud, and so students are instead given examples of phenomena that are described by classical physics incorrectly, not just boringly.  That’s how intellectually serious disciplines work.

A growing tide of soft arguments

Of course, there’s nothing new about bad arguments, but a particular class of bad arguments seems to be getting more common.  This is why I distinguish a “weak” argument from a “soft” argument.  Weak arguments fail to prove what they promise, there are gaps in the reasoning, objections and counterexamples are not adequately dealt with.  A weak argument tries to convince but fails.  By a “soft argument”, I mean an argument that “isn’t even trying” because the arguer doesn’t really expect his claim to be contested.  So there will be flagrant contradictions in reasoning, grossly question-begging formulation of questions, obvious objections not dealt with, and the like.  The arguer will be smart enough to do better, but will not feel the need, because the point of the argument is not to convince.  The point of the argument is to signal assent to the dominant view while presenting a facade of independent reasoning.

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It’s actually the liberal Catholics, not the conservative ones, who are always trying to get back to the fifties.  During most of the time since the eighteenth century, it has been obvious that Christianity and liberalism are incompatible ideals, and the great debate in Western civilization is which should triumph and which should be vanquished.  “The fifties” (say 1945-1965) were a brief, historically aberrant period when it appeared that these two forces could be reconciled and work together for “social justice” and against “totalitarianism”.  Liberal Catholics I know are genuinely pained by the collapse of America’s New Deal alliance.  Although they take liberal positions on abortion, sodomy, and the like, they dislike these fights, and they wish they could be overcome as quickly as possible (by the defeat of the Catholic position, of course) so that America could return to the wealth redistribution fights they relish more.

Of course, the old Democratic alliance of liberals, southerners, negroes, and Catholic workers was unsustainable.  The logic of modernity was against it.  The Democrats have reconciled their contradictions by becoming a straightforwardly Leftist party.  The logic of the French Revolution is inescapable.  Some thought that America was exempt from this logic.  This was the idea of “American exceptionalism”, and it also is nothing but nostalgia.  The Exceptionalists believed that America is a magical land where the principle of noncontradiction does not apply, and Christianity and liberalism can live side by side and even inhabit the same minds.  Of course, it was not so.  The issues facing us are the same as those facing the Europeans, and there are only two ultimate positions.  The Democrats are now unmistakably part of the anticlerical, Jacobin international movement.

Rather than face this logic, the Republicans have opted for a nostalgia of their own, as evidenced by their bizarre rhetorical fixation on entrepreneurs and business owners, as if they didn’t realize that in America for the last century and a half most people have been employees.  It’s not that Republicans have decided they want to attack big business and free trade and return to an economy of small farms and artisans–which may or may not be a good idea, but at least starts from an acknowledgement of reality as it is; it’s more a case of pretending that the America of the age of Thomas Jefferson still exists and that the main thing threatening it is Democratic over-regulation.

Reactionaries are the ones most often accused of nostalgia, and it is no doubt true that we regard the past as in many ways superior to the present, not simply in virtue of being the past, but in virtue of being more Christian, more communal, and having a healthier appreciation for sex differences.  However, we are in a key sense more fitted to our time than liberal Catholics, in that the battles of the day over contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce are the ones we want to fight, the ones that most directly touch our ideological core.  We don’t think the contest between liberalism and Christianity is a big misunderstanding or a distraction from the real issues.  We see it as the one ultimate issue, the war in heaven replayed on Earth.  I myself have little interest in any public issue that does not touch this great debate, meaning that I see the issues that stirred publics of most previous ages as being of far lesser importance than the great contest of my own age.  I am in that sense a man of my time.