Friday, August 28, 2015

Down that Road

One might have wondered why I am not blogging much these days. This will only be my second post in August. Busy, I guess. But writing (that is not financial remunerated) is inspiration-based and no one controls inspiration.

I want to talk about the road from spiritual to material values. One of the reviews for the Fall issue of the Catholic Review of Books concerns nuns. It's a book written from a worldly perspective, and while it's easy enough to discountenance it because of that, the kind of thinking that it presents is a kind that can easily affect more careful Catholics. The book was about nuns who were SJW (social justice warriors, an abbreviation I was recently taught).

Think about it for a second. Nuns being appraised by what they do to make the world a better place. Okay, so far so good, but let's see where this can go.

Obviously, the key word is 'better.' Does providing contraception and abortion for poor people make the world better? Of course not.

But what about providing healthy lunches for poor school kids?

What about forbidding unhealthy food at schools?

What about educating poor families about good nutrition?

What about making these courses mandatory?

Alright, we can split hairs about this kind of thing, but you can see where I am going here.

It's the old Feuerbach catch, for lack of a better word. BTW, Charles Taylor talks about this catch-22 in his A Secular Age. What I mean is the accusation that Christianity, because it is other-worldly, diverts people from making the world a better place. We can respond in one of two ways, each of which runs into problems: (a) no, it doesn't; it is oriented to making the world a better place, or (b) that's true, Christianity is about what's really important: going to heaven and therefore doesn't care about the world.

In this day and age option (a) tends to predominate in our discourse. We point to the Church's charitable works in Africa, etc., its role in ending slavery, opposing Nazism, Communism, expanding science, education, etc.

The consequences of this are fairly obvious, though sometimes not so obvious.

The way that liberal Protestantism has killed itself by slowly turning itself into a social justice organization that nobody cares about anymore, is a rather obvious example.

But Catholics who talk about Catholic teaching promoting healthy families, the best pedagogy, good economics policies can be effecting the same thing. Is it good because it is godly, or is it good because of how it improves social life, economic conditions, education? Of course, it is not a case of either/or in itself, but in the minds of actual people it can be.

The temptation to explain spiritual values materially is always there. It's good apologetics, but I would argue that it's not good spirituality for the more advanced. Maybe this is an effective test of one's spiritual state: how do you understand your faith - as good because of its material benefits (i.e. it makes the world a better place), or as good because it brings us to heaven, brings us closer to God, etc.?

A friend once gave a talk to a group of Catholic educators and told them that our educating should be directly at the service of the pro-life cause. Sounds about right? I strongly disagree with him.

This was Karl Marx's essential point in The German Ideology, where he excoriated philosophers who removed their thinking from the practical matter of wealth distribution. I am paraphrasing, but think I am right here.

This sort of thinking became attractive to us when Kant (and Locke) tried to justify religion "Within the Bounds of Reason Alone." And we do this whenever we say things like "prayer is good for your health, blood pressure," etc. Of course it is, but that's not why we do it. Good things are often healthy things, but health is not why we do them. They are healthy because they were given by the same God who made our bodies to be healthy in such a way.

You will notice that John Paul II never defined education in this way in Fides et Ratio, not B XVI in his numerous writings on the subject. They talked about wonder at the reality of the whole world, the meaning of the whole and of every part. They never said, subject your thinking to the material betterment of the world exclusively. And why did they not?

Because it's a self-defeating proposition: how do you make the world better when you haven't wondered about the word 'better,' because you haven't wondered about everything, because you haven't wondered about God, goodness, life itself? You have rushed to a certain definite end and have failed to truly understand anything. You want to do God's work but don't care about what God said about it in the book He wrote called "The World."

This is why Plato puts true philosophers first and why Aquinas and Bonaventure said theology was the highest science. Not economics and not politics.

The mass does not justify itself as somehow making the world a better place, nor does the priesthood, prayer, religious life, marital fidelity...

Obedience is obedience, and as a side-effect it is healthy for you, good for families, economies, world peace, etc. Confusion about this may be part of the confusing surrounding Laudato Si.

Happy Feast of St. Augustine, ya'll!

BTW, the difference St. Augustine made lay in enriching the inner lives of the Christians who read his works, not by introducing new agricultural techniques, making peace between Germanic tribes and the Romans, not by inventing penicillin. None of these are bad things, but they aren't why Christians should be Christians.

So many times a God-fearing young person will begin by getting into medicine because they want to love their neighbour in an effective manner, and before you know it, they are pushing contraception, abortion and euthanasia. Why? Because effectiveness began to trump everything. Quantity diminished quality. It happens all the time: good apostolates are turned into institutions of efficiency. Mother Theresa never let this happen to her order. More does not mean better; often is means worse. And this is what happens when we turn to material thinking. The state is far more efficient than the individual, than the Church, and so people think more and more about the government and its all-embracing prerogatives, not for bad reasons, but for misguided good reasons.


  1. Very interesting post Colin. This explains a lot of your political banter. I think I agree with you though I do tend to get sucked into the "making the world a better place" rhetoric. As a person with an INFP idealist personality type I'm predisposed to have that as my bottom line. I do fundamentally agree with you on an intellectual level that the spiritual good of souls always must be the goal of Christians. However, corporal works of mercy are an essential part of Christianity and they have the subsequent result of making the world a better place, though that can never be the end goal and such works should always flow from the Sacramental and liturgical life of the Church otherwise they'll be immediately outflanked by secularism. You should read Matthew Tan's book called Justice, Unity, and the Hidden Christ - it is about the social justice narrative as it was outlined in Vatican 2 and why it lead to such a huge loss in Catholic identity. I could review it if you like.

    One of the reasons I choose to espouse some political positions that some would deem "left-wing" is because I think that Catholics have formed a right-wing ghetto and have in essence led most people of a leftist persuasion to believe that orthodox Christianity is a right-wing thing. Meanwhile, the right-wing ghetto has brewed its own form of heterodoxy (or heteroheresy) that teaches that gay marriage and abortion are wrong but avarice and oppression of the poor are a-ok. Its a mentality, (that I honestly have come across frequently), that overlooks some pretty fundamental passages of scripture (Mt 6:24, 1 Tim 6:10 to name a couple) and two of the four of the sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. I think it is impossible to argue that aiding the poor and the oppressed is not essential and fundamental aspects of Christianity. Again, these things are done for an eschatological reasons but, more often than not, have the added effect of making the world a better place.

  2. I think the only reason why you and I ever disagree is that I see the liberal boogeyman everywhere and you see the conservative one.

    Yes, please, review the book!