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A socialist Dominican theologian

One of the highlights of our latest issue is Eugene McCarraher's profile of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe: "Radical, OP: Herbert McCabe's Revolutionary Faith." McCarraher explores how McCabe's socialism informed his Christianity, and vice-versa:

In a passage [from his 1964 book The New Creation] that should have tipped off the Dominican censorswho, a year later, would send him to Cambridge to edit New BlackfriarsMcCabe compared communism to the heavenly city. Just as the Marxist looks forward to...the final withering-away of the state, he wrote, so the Catholic looks forward impatiently to the withering-away of the organized church.That analogy, with its bold eschatological affinities, reflects the paradox of McCabes career: a vibrant orthodoxy wedded to a revolutionary political vision. Much of McCabes subsequent work lay in showing that it was truly a paradox and not a contradiction. ...McCabes socialist commitment was bound up with his devotion to the gospel and the church; almost all his remarks on politics appeared in reflections on theological matters. In his essays and sermonsand especially in Law, Love, and Language (1968), his most lengthy and compelling reflection on ethicshe explained and advocated revolutionary change in terms of orthodox theology, not as its repudiation, but rather as its fulfillment.

You can see both sides of McCabe at work in an article he wrote for Commonweal in 1966, which we've just posted online: "The Validity of Absolutes: An Answer to the New Moralists." It's a formidable defense of the concept of moral absolutes against "situationist ethics" -- and McCabe ends his argument by quoting Marx.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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It seems to me that McCabe, though he denies it, is really of two minds regarding the value of laws. On the one hand, he holds that conforming to a law simply *because* it is a law does not constitute virtue. But on the other he defends at least some moral absolutes without really showing *why* these absolutes have value.Stravinsky, that most radical of musical iconoclasts, said in his Harvard lectures that for an artist rules are necessary, adding that "It doesn't make any difference what the rules are, but there must be rules." Hmm. Considering that his "Rites of Spring" broke so many musical rules that its premier caused a riot to which the police had to be called, I find his statement at a minimum quite surprising. But his music seems to be lasting. Rites was not just a musical protest. It seems it has staying value. So I will assume he knew whereof he spoke. Ethics and aesthetics often parallel each other. So I ask: as with art, must there be ethical rules? And if there must be rules, does it make no difference what they are, as Stravinsky claims re rules and art? If any ethical rules would do, this would seem to yield a thorough-going ethical relativism. What is the relationship between ethical laws as such and a good life? (What would an ethical rule look like that was simply a random sort of prohibition or command??)

I'm glad to see Commonweal paying attention to McCabe's work. I also note that Larry Cunningham in The Christian Century, listed two of McCabe's books among his most important theological books of the past 25 years.As to Ann's question, I think clearly what the rules are matter to McCabe, because the rules are there to guide human beings to a fully human life. Some rules, however, do have more of a "random" character than others. For example, the ceremonial law of the Old Testament has a certain randomness to it. While it is part of the natural law (i.e. those guidelines by which we lead a fully human life) that human beings offer worship to God, the demand that we worship God by offering this or that sacrifice is not part of the natural law. However, once God has given us that particular law it is important that we follow it, since in doing so we submit to God, which is something necessary for human flourishing.

Rules are necessary because they tell us where we are and what we knownow. Humans always think through structures; even the crazy ones do. The irony is that in order to keep an implicit structure from becoming an impediment to creativity and thought, we need to work against an explicit structure, which is the thing the rules create.Can the rules be arbitrary? They certainly can be and still be productive. Its just that they will not be as productive as they could be if they are not arbitrary. A good test of this is reading Tarot cards. Buy a deck, read the instructions, then do a reading on a friend, or yourself, your cat or whatever. You will be amazed at how accurate the reading is. You will meet a dark haired man. In fact, you probably meet dozens of them every day. But your mind will attach to the arbitrary structure provided by the shuffle and some significant dark haired man will emerge in your thoughts. You can do five readings of your friend in a row. Each one will be different and each one will be true. Uncanny, isnt it?Rules and structures bring their own particular temptations in the way that a man with a good sharp set of teeth is more likely to over indulge in prime rib than a man with no teeth at all. There are two characteristic temptations about rules and I will give them religious names to fix them in the current context. These are the Bishops Temptation and the Mystics Temptation. The Bishops Temptation is to festish-ize the rules themselves. Being sinners, we should be generous to people falling into temptation. The job of a bishop is to define (or at least explicate) and enforce the rules. The rules are also the source of his power and much of his authority. An intelligent and well educated bishop (and I think that the majority of them are, even when we dont like them very much) can recount much of the 3,000 years of good ethical arguments that surround and valorize the rules. Its just that human self-knowledge is not complete (and perhaps can never be, since we are, in fact, human) and this is why the rules can only tell us what we know so far. Also bouncing against the rules is our endless God-given creativity that cannot, ever, be confined or exhausted by any system of rules. The rules in the context of the Church are a sort of map of our collective and historical soul, but they can never be the soul itself.Opposed to this is the Mystics Temptation to dispense with rules altogether. If we were capable of Perfect Love, I think that by definition we would in fact be able to transcend the rules. The problem is that we are not capable of perfect love. If we try to cut loose from the rules in the name of Love, we are not only blaspheming by claiming a quality that belongs only to God, we are also going to fail since we will in fact be trapped in a structure of our own making, incoherent to everyone else, that we ourselves can no longer see.I cant resist the temptation to plug here a book called Hatchet Jobs by Dale Peck. Peck skewers modern fiction writing, which has become decadent precisely because so many post-modern writers have fallen to the Mystics Temptation (which is also the Artists Temptation) to transcend all conventions. The most interesting thing to me is not just that these writers tend to suck, but despite all of this wonderful individual creativity they are celebrating they all tend to suck in the same way.

If you look at the Doctors of the Church, they tend to spread out along two poles -- the rule makers and the mystics. It's an ongoing tension, like the tension in a person between recognition and logic. You need both. Logic only works on inputs which have been identified; science only works because scientists have recognized some pattern and formed it into an insight prior to the experiment, which drives how to set up the experiment.Re rules, I think ethics rationally flow from the patterns we recognize.

It might be tempting to say that we might want our bishops to be mystics and our mystics to be bishops, but I won't.

I wouldn't either ;-) But a recognition of one lacks in either department is always in order.Puts me in mind of a great quote in the Ladislas Orsy book Receiving the Council about bishops and theologians ...No one has ever stated more clearly and succinctly the difference between bishops and doctors than Aquinas. He discussed it within the framework of the two cathedras: To be promoted to an episcopal cathedra, the qualification required is to be eminent in charity. Ordination then confers eminence in power in relation to the faithful; power that the person did not possess before. To be promoted to a doctoral cathedra, sufficient learning, scientia, is necessary. The position offers an opportunity to use the knowledge and the skill that a person possessed before (cf Quodl. 3.9.c).Comments: Ordination gives no knowledge; no person becomes more learned by it. Competent government, however, especially in our contemporary church, demands a high degree of learning. It follows that ordinarily, unless the bishop has personally sufficient knowledge and skill, he needs the help of the doctors to govern well.

I hope it is not self serving to point out that in the current Christian Century I was asked to name five of the best books written in theology in the last quarter of a century. I nominated two collections of essays by Herbert McCabe on my list. I was thus quite pleased to see the McCabe essay by Eugene Carraher. McCabe needs to be better appreciated on this side of the pond.

Ann:Though Stravinsky broke a lot of then-current musical rules, he didn't abandon all rules, he simply extended others into new territory. For example, he employed dissonance as a norm, rather than as an exception: He used conventional chords, altered by, for example, substituting raised fifths, flatted ninths, raised 11ths, etc, instead of regular dominant sevenths.He inserted truncated, lurching rhythmic devices instead of flowing orderly ones. But in all of this, the rules were still there. Now, Schoenberg and his twelve-tone disciples invented new rules.McCabe just wants it both ways in his theological musings. Like Socialism, his musings don't work. He is, in the words of the street, a loser.

Larry - not at all, and you're not even the first to point it out. I will do you one better and include a link: next time resist the temptation to resort to the "words of the street," and we'll be getting somewhere.

Ann, I do think you dismiss McCabe too easily. I think it is a value to state that it is wrong to burn children. Do you disagree with McCabe's example? At the same time, Fritz, are you sure that McCabe defends the natural law? His words quoted below seem to indicate otherwise. Or maybe I misunderstand you. McCabe is quite a thinker and am working on learning more about his works. His example of how we interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan is a dandy. "Let us by all means jettison the natural law view of man, according to which Fred is of a certain nature with a certain function rather like a hammer or a lawnmower. Once we understand what man is for we can tell what would be appropriate and what inappropriate behavior. Let us say instead that Fred exists in his world, in his dynamic personal relations with others, that the activity which is authentically his is to be discovered not by contemplating any static essence of man but by considering the existence of Fred in his context. Let us do this; but then the question arises insistently: What is my context? Or, to put it another way: Who is my neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan is notoriously easy to misinterpret. We say When I meet someone beaten up by the roadside, that is my neighbor. But we are inclined to place the emphasis on the meeting instead of on the need for help. This is a tendency I detect in the New Morality."

Bill M. --To disagree with one point someone makes is not to dismiss him. Among other things, McCabe in particular helped make Catholic theologians see the value of Wittgenstein's method of philosophizing. The relationships between law and freedom and even between ethics and aesthetics still present fundamental problems, I think. Many more questions need to be asked before their relationships become clear.

Socialist theories grew up to address the problems of alienation and exploitation in capitalism. The evidence is that these issue were cogent is that capitalism adapted to the workers' movements that socialism spawned. That all socialist societies have collapsed as socialist societies does not negate the fact that an economic system that looks at humans as forms of capital like other capital are going to be exploitative by their nature. Capitalism does not win by default because the Soviet Union fell. The original questions remain.

Unagidon --I agree with most of what you say. I don't agree that capitalism "adapted to the workers movements". It adapted to the unions, but the unions do not and never did represent *all* the workers, and that is its Achilles heel. It seems to me that socialism does have one virtue which capitalism lacks -- it claims to further the good of the economic system as a whole. Capitalism seeks the good of people with money (or the ones who run the businesses for them). On the other hand, the great socialistic experiments of the Soviet Union and its satellites, with their unified planned economies and lacking the intrinsic competitive forces within capitalism, seemed to degenerate easily into the worst sort of totalitarianism.Unfortunately, the word "socialism" has so many meanings and so much affective baggage, both positive and negative, that it is practically useless for a sane discussion of political systems. I can't see any party which calls itself "socialist" ever becoming strong in this individualistic society, and, indeed, the Partiers calling Obama a socialist might result in his loss of power if not office.

As a research scientist my world view seems to be a bit different as what is being presented here. When people talk about absolutes I think of constants. E= MC2. with C the constant. The constant would represent absolute truth. In Newtons's laws of gravity, the constant represents gravity. What happens when the constants for some reason change. What happens when we go to a place with no or very little gravity. What happens when C changes. I think that it is always important in life to consider both relativity and reletivism. Seems they are philosphically very related. There are therois and laws in science but good but when conditions are found to be different than those that are devined in the constant, then the constant is updated and the theory is modified. Laws in science even depend more precily on definintion. A straigt line is the shortet distance between two points--a fine law for Euclidian geometry as we are not thinking of spheres. Often times moral laws are historical in nature. They depend on what was thought by people of our past to be true

I am sorry for the above posting, my arthritic hands were trying to jot something down quickly and I hit the post button before I had a chance to correct my work. So I hope what follows is a little more acceptable. As a research scientist my world view seems to be a bit different to what is being presented here. When people talk about absolutes I think of constants. E= MC2. with C the constant. The constant would represent absolute truth. In Newtons's laws of gravity, the constant represents gravity. What happens when the constants for some reason changes. What happens when we go to a place with no or very little gravity. What happens when C changes. I think that it is always important in life to consider both relativity and relativism. Seems they are philosophically very related. There are theories and laws in science but when conditions are found to be different than those that are defined in the constant, then the constant is updated and the theory is modified. Laws in science even depend more precisely on definition. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points--a fine law for Euclidian geometry as we are not thinking of spheres. Often times moral laws are historical in nature. They depend on what was thought by people of our past to be true, but history is like the news often times reported differently by different observers. It is thus even more difficult to define any constants and thus the need to attempt to look even more carefully at the context of time and situation. Man is fallible and when he tries to define absolutes he can not do it with the Mind of God. Thus the need for the continued inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Einstein once said something like this, the more a man knows the more he knows he has more to learn. As fallible humans we can only find more truth. THE TRUTH that God knows will always remain illusive. Complete absolutes seem to me a non sequitur. It just doesnt logically follow!

Bill,McCabe certainly defends natural law, though, as the scare-quotes are "natural law" in the passage you cite indicate, he thinks that what passed for natural law in the moral theology manuals was only a parody of what St. Thomas and others taught. But any account of morality that focuses on how human beings must act in order to flourish qua human will have some form of natural law as a part of it.

Ann,I think the union movement was socialism adapting to capitalism.I think that overlaying capitalism, socialism, etc. are different kinds of political movements. The Bolshevism that emerged in Russia was just the most effective (because it was the most ruthless) of the different political movements that appeared under socialism. While I am not saying that there is no relationship at all between forms of political and forms of economic life. I don't think that "socialism" = "Bolshevism" and more than "Fascism" = "capitalism". I think that McCabe may make a similar point. I think that he may be saying (if I am reading the article in the latest Commonweal correctly) that socialism failed because of its grounding in a secular(izing) political ideology. A socialism grounded in Christianity (whatever that would look like) might be a different animal.

Unagidon --Except for pointing out the internal contradictions and weaknesses of a system, I don't think we can really make any very sound judgements about social systems as such. They're too complex. Oh, I do it myself, but really shouldn't. Another problem is that -isms are often amalgamations of groups with fairly or even very divergent opinions, and they often form only as coalitions to battle a common enemy.No, socialism doesn't equal Bolshevism, and I've said more than once that I don't think that the implosion of the Soviet Union and its satellites necessarily signifies the end of Communism. For one thing, there are various forms of Communism. Neither is capitalism Fascism. The Nazis party itself called itself socialist because some elements were socialized. History long term simply isn't predictable.I suspect there's no such thing as one best form of government for all people at all times, though I am mightily inclined to democracy (a form of government, not an economic system).

No, I know Ann. I come down especially hard on capitalism because unlike many of its defenders, I don't think that there is anything Christian about it whatsoever. I think that if we lived in a fully Christian world (where the Church itself had "withered away") the economic system would look a great deal like "from each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs."Christianity isn't a system, I think. And I think that part of being a good Christian is to see (and hate) those things that are. (I am using the word "hate" here in the most Christian way possible).

Unagidon --In a perfect world there still might be friendly competiiton, as in sports, to simply excel at providing good products. I think the best solution is to socialize certain things (police, military, education, health, welfare where needed) and treat capitalism like a tool or maybe a sport that needs an umpire (regulators).

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