Odd couple: Augustine & Blagojevich
Stanley Fish, the New York Times’ online “Think Again” columnist, is always good for sparking debate, and today’s column is no different: An argument for seating Illinois’ disputed senatorial appointee, Roland Burris, based on St. Augustine’s response to the Donatist controversy:
This debate was about the status of churchmen who had cooperated with the emperor Diocletian during the period when he was actively persecuting Christians. The Donatists argued that those who had betrayed their faith under pressure and then returned to the fold when the persecutions were over had lost the authority to perform their priestly offices, including the offices of administering the sacraments and making ecclesiastical appointments. In their view, priestly authority was a function of personal virtue, and when a new bishop was consecrated by someone they considered tainted, they rejected him and consecrated another.
In opposition, St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him.
Fish argues that this reasoning (and he cites other examples) means the Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been indicted for trying to sell the senate seat he appointed Burris to (apparently gratis), should be able to make the appointment and Burris should be seated. (Whether Burris’ standing measures up is another question.) He concludes:
The (perhaps paradoxical) truth is that while governing has or should have a moral purpose — to safeguard and advance the health and prosperity of the polity — it is not a moral practice. That is, one engages in it not by applying moral principles but by applying legal principles. Senator Reid and his colleagues in the Democratic party seem finally to have figured that out, which is why, in the absence of any more bombshell revelations, Roland Burris will be seated as the junior senator from Illinois.
Over at the CT blog, where I saw this, Stan Guthrie argues that Saint Paul would likely agree with Fish.
In any case, could be a good one for debate at the Chicago meeting of Christians ethicists that Cathleen Kaveny is attending this weekend.
UPDATE: Blago has been impeached. Now goes to State Senate for trial. Don’t know how long that would take, or whether it would affect Burris, or Fish’s (Augustine’s?) argument.