The tribal Catholic on the value of loyal intellectuals

Professor Grisez, architect of the New Natural Law Theory, died on February 1st.  From a tribal Catholic point of view, the relative merits of this version of natural law theory are of less concern than Grisez’ clear and unwavering loyalty to the Church.  This particularly stands out in the affair over contraception, during which most of the Church’s intellectuals betrayed her and made common cause with the Enemy.  Because tribalism is a matter of will rather than intellect, it allows a great deal of intellectual diversity, and it is notable that some of the most distinguished defenders of the Church during these dark times have made creative departures from orthodox Thomism.  Dietrich von Hildebrand rejected the Thomist framework for ethics altogether but still became a hero to traditionalists.  Grisez was not nearly so radical, but he and the other New Natural Law theorists are addressing a real problem, that there is serious work to be done in getting moral duties from natural teleology–our version of the jump from “is” to “ought”.  A Catholic tribalist might not be convinced that splitting off human goods from an integrated teleology actually helps solve this problem, but he will always distinguish friends who are trying (with perhaps mixed success) to address a real intellectual challenge to the Faith from enemies whose goal is to dilute our religion and to subjugate us to some hostile ideology.  Just as a nation based on blood can allow more ideological diversity than one based on a sacred proposition, tribal Catholics can venture more safely into foreign philosophical waters.

I am reminded of the dispute over Cardinal Newman in traditionalist circles.  It’s perfectly fair to point out that Newman’s “development of doctrine” is ambiguous in places and liable to abuse.  His defense of the Syllabus was certainly inadequate.  However, it is unfair and un-tribal to forget that Newman was addressing a real problem for us, the question of whether historical variations argue against the reliability of the Church.  This challenge must be faced; simply reciting old formulae will accomplish nothing, and Newman’s arguments will probably form part of the ultimate solution.  In any case, his personal loyalty to the Church and hatred for theological liberalism are not in doubt.

Is there perhaps something dishonest in an intellectual possessing loyalty?  Should he not follow arguments dispassionately, and concern himself only with the truth?  Indeed, as an intellectual, his concern is exclusively with the truth, but for that reason, he should not ignore things that he does know.  He knows that the Church is good; his love for her is an affective response to this goodness.  He intuits that the way of life she proposes is ennobling and that its rejection is degrading, even if he is initially unsure why this should be.  As a conscientious intellectual, he will insist on uncovering the true basis for this intuition, never resorting to rhetorical obfuscation or emotional manipulation.  In seeking the reasons for his spontaneous convictions, he is no different from moral philosophers of any other type.  In philosophy, intuition (the heart’s reason) is our data.  The reasons the Catholic intellectual uncovers may have little to do with the reasons he was taught, and he will have to be creative and ruthlessly honest as he is being loyal.

I suspect that in the coming decades, even greater philosophical and theological creativity will be needed to address the challenges of modern science and a history whose trends seem decidedly against us.  Our intellectuals can choose between two paths.  First is aggiornamento:  contempt for our past, slavish adherence to secular fashions, a failure of both courage and creativity, ending in apostasy.  The second path is hard. In fact, we may not be able to do it at all.  Consider the fate of the Jews after Emancipation.  The loss of their ghettos could have been a cultural calamity for them (however much it was a boon materially).  Instead, by intelligence, creativity, and dedication, they overturned our civilization and made themselves our cultural masters.  They were able to do this because they never forgot who they were or that we were the enemy.  We must become the new Jews of the new secular West–lacking their IQ advantage and facing a dominant culture far more confident and unified than 19th century Europe.  Our one advantage is that our enemies in their arrogance have cut themselves off from the wisdom of centuries past.  We have this store of wisdom, but it is a resource, not a finished product, and it may not directly answer the questions we will face.  Which path a given thinker takes will have a great deal to do with his degree of loyalty.

5 Responses

  1. Your list of modern orthodox Catholic scholars grappling with lacunae in classic Thomism’s argumentation on moral issues misses someone important. All of the following (including the Endnote) is a unedited quote from Rev. Donald J. Keefe SJ (1996). Covenantal theology: the eucharistic order of history. Revised edition. p. 445:

    The classic Thomism can explain the intraspecific communication of the materially individuated members of the species only in terms either of formal necessity or of quantitative randomness. The members of a material species are either (1) locked within the immanent formal intelligibility of the species (viz., of the abstract specific form), or (2) are submitted to the extrinsic and thus purely ideal material intelligibility which a statistical analysis may assign them in order to reduce the randomness of spatio-temporal individuation and extension to a mathematical description of the mechanics of the physical universe.

    The classic Thomist metaphysics is thus unable to account for the intelligibility which the act-potency method supposes, as a systematic and a priori necessity, to be intrinsic to the material individual: even when the individual is considered as a creature, this attribution is also finally extrinsic to the intelligibility of the creature and thus is nominally understood as at best a merely logical reference to the entirely transcendent freedom of the Creator.

    The Thomist ethics habitually masks the unacceptable moral implication of the concrete inconsequence of the individual member of the human species by the invocation of a “natural” morality, and thus of a moral human nature, but without providing any metaphysical basis for it other than the immanent rationality of an ungraced intelligence: abstract nonhistorical rationality is taken to be rationality itself. This is only to restate the original problem: how can that rationality, and the ethic which it would ground, be moral rather than merely immanently necessary? Namely, how can it be so individuated as to be at once free and certain in its unique and personal application? To this quandary the “natural law” elaborated by St. Thomas provides no sufficient reply. [* Endnote] One may summarize the flaws in the classic Thomist analysis of material being by remarking that all act-potency analysis must be seen to bear upon substance, not upon some supposed component of substance such as an essence denuded of existence. The contingent intelligibility and thus the substantial reality of a created substance cannot but be free: if form and matter correlate as act and potency to compose it, that correlation must be free, for the prime analogate of such a composite substance is the free union that is the New Covenant. Any other view of the Thomist matter-form analysis is no more than the reinvocation of the Aristotelian material substance, which knows alike nothing of the Esse-essence correlation and of the historicity or the free contingency in being which it is intended to underwrite. It is yet the more evident that such a metaphysical analysis can do no justice to the humanity of our Lord, whose freedom is personal and therefore intrinsic. Neither can it do justice to those for whom he died, whose freedom is also intrinsic, because it is grounded, created, in his.

    [*Endnote]The consequentialist school of morality, into which at least one signal exponent of the “natural law” arose from the ashes of disillusionment over the latter’s abstractions, is no more than the working-out of the implications of the cosmological unintelligibility of the material singular and thus of concrete acts in history. From this despair of history, concrete acts can be given moral significance only as referred to some abstraction immune from the inconsequence of history, precisely as without reference to a common specific form concrete particulars are meaningless for classic Thomism. Four and a half centuries earlier the nominalist exploitation of this Aristotelian postulate had led ineluctably to the Lutheran denial of moral freedom in history. Much the same view is now taken for granted by a number of contemporary moralists still committed to the natural law, as witnesses their distaste for Lord Patrick Devlin’s defense of the common law’s ancient reliance upon popular custom rather than upon some product of the abstract rationality beloved of the juridical academy: see, e.g., the failure of the editors of the contemporary version of the old Natural Law Forum (lately The American Journal of Jurisprudence) to review Devlin’s books, while respectfully attentive to those of his critics. I have pointed out the incongruity of this predilection for the timeless norms of morality in “The Law and the Covenant,” Biotechnology and Law: I.T.E.S.T (Institute for the Theological Encounter of Science and Theology) Proceedings (April 10-12, 1987) 34-63. Such distrust of the historicity and the public character of the moral tradition is clearly vulnerable to the rationale underlying the moral consequentialism of Josef Fuchs, and to the sort of “realist” moral critique now focused upon historically-grounded legal and political institutions by the Critical Legal Studies movement and already implicit in the disdain for an “original intent” that marks most contemporary American constitutional jurisprudence.

  2. “I suspect that in the coming decades, even greater philosophical and theological creativity will be needed to address the challenges of modern science and a history whose trends seem decidedly against us. ”

    Indeed. One of the big challenges is going to come from neuroscience and a gaggle of philosophers, lawyers and activists about reforming the law because free will is a myth.

    And then there is the endless march of technology.

    “he second path is hard. In fact, we may not be able to do it at all. Consider the fate of the Jews after Emancipation. The loss of their ghettos could have been a cultural calamity for them (however much it was a boon materially). Instead, by intelligence, creativity, and dedication, they overturned our civilization and made themselves our cultural masters. ”

    From what we can, it would be more accurate to describe it as Anglo-Protestants and Jews.

  3. “… facing a dominant culture far more confident and unified than 19th century Europe.” Really? We face a horrible dominant culture, but it is far from confident or unified. That makes it more difficult to defeat in many ways, but, if it is defeated, it will crash very quickly.

  4. The unity of the dominant culture seems quite clear to me, so I’d be interested to hear more about the alternate view.

    In the 19th and early 20th century, there was a lot of disagreement within the intellectual elite about very fundamental issues. One can name high-profile monarchists, democrats, anarchists/syndicalists, and communists. There were atheists, modernists, theosophists, and unreformed Catholics and Protestants. Romantics disputed the Enlightenment, and the wisdom of democracy was very much open for debate. By contrast, today there is a single respectable opinion on everything, and almost no one of influence disputes that opinion.

  5. The dominant culture is based entirely on here-and-now materialism. If and when there is another severe depression (we came close to one ten years ago), the current regime will face serious problems without being able to offer anything to mitigate the suffering. It will become a free-for-all society. For example, the Democratic Party will probably fall apart as the coalition of the fringes turns on each other to fight over the scraps. Once it becomes obvious that the current regime cannot deliver materially, there will be no loyalty left to hold things together. That was not true as recently as the 1930s. Which is why the vanguard say “the worse, the better.”

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