Constantly Risking Absurdity
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Not for a Godot, but for a St. Benedict(?)

Alisdair MacIntyre, the British philosopher and convert from Marxism, wrote in 1981:

"What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages whcih are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict."

Yesterday, the redoubtable Roger Kimball put two and two together: "Well, perhaps the elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI is a fulfillment of MacIntyre's wish." I don't know if this is what the Pope had in mind when he chose his name. But Kimball's comment raises in my mind two questions:

1. Does our new pope agree with MacIntyre's assessment of the present state of the moral condition?

2. What will be his approach to reforming it?

The answer to the first question is, I would venture to say, Yes. I think, though, that if Pope Benedict XVI is anything like our last pope, he would frame the present-day decay of moral discourse in anthropological terms. The starting point for ethics is the human person. Modern philosophy handicaps our ability to know anything true about the human person, and this is why morality today is reduced either to relativistic fluff or to a Kantian imperative. This is also why Karol Wojtyla decided to write The Acting Person; as he explained to Father de Lubac:

"I devote my very rare free moments to a work...on the mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out at that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order...."

The moral problem is the result of an anthropological problem--it's about the human person. But as for the second question on the approach: there are two approaches to the moral problem, I think, or two types of Christian witness. According to Michael Novak, anyway:

"Some Catholics commit their lives to an eschatological witness, some to an incarnational witness. The former (Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day) believe that the world is sinful, broken, even adversarial, and they choose to light within it the fire of the love of God, while having as little to do with the things of this world as they can. Those who choose the incarnational witness try to see in every moment of history, in every culture, and in every place and time the workings of divine grace, often in ways that are hidden like the workings of yeast buried in dough. And they lend their energies to altering that world in its basic institutions, even if ever so slightly, in the direction of caritas. Both traditions are legitimate."

This brings me back to my second question. Yes, Pope Benedict would agree with MacIntyre's diagnosis of the moral condition of the world--Novak probably would as well. But would Pope Benedict opt for the more eschatological approach of MacIntyre (who thinks we should start from scratch, with small communities like the previous passage suggests) or would he trust in the incarnational approach of somebody like Novak, who thinks that the "yeast" of the Gospel is still at work in history, even within non-Christian institutions?

Contrast MacIntyre's passage with this one from an article that Novak wrote about the French Thomist, Jacques Maritain:

"Yet Maritain does not say that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees 'Christianity as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.' He is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: 'It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.' He gives credit--by schematic suggestion, not comprehensive detail--where credit is due: 'Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.'”

This is why Maritain--and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Novak--is so controversial. There is a considerable difference between the two types of "wtiness"--the incarnational one, perhaps, lends itself more to a cautious optimism. But judging by this quotation, it looks like Pope Benedict is closer in his thinking to MacIntyre:

"[The Church will] become small, and will to a great extent have to start over again. But after a time of testing, an internalized and simplified Church will radiate great power and influence; for the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely…and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as they answer they have secretly always been asking for."

I guess we will soon find out how he thinks.


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The intimations of a mild-mannered Paraguayan undergraduate, studying Eng. Lit. and philosophy in a small, midwestern Jesuit college.

Email Me: constantlyrisking [at] yahoo [dot] com


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