Robbie George is defending the right, nay, even proclaiming the duty, of a hypothetical Muslim school to fire a hypothetical Muslim teacher who is caught drinking, carousing, and publicly flouting Muslim norms, both on campus and off. God bless Robbie. The Muslim community in the United States must be so grateful for his attention and advice.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think Robbie's vivid hypothetical helps us resolve the specific questions actually facing the Catholic community here and now. In fact, I think it’s a distraction. I'm not denying that a religious school, Muslim or Catholic, has a legal right under American law to write a contract that includes a general morals clause, or even a highly specific clause. But a legal right isn’t a legal obligation. Furthermore, the inclusion of the clause in the contract doesn't end the necessity for wise decision-making. Under basic principles of contract law, that clause has to be interpreted and applied to particular cases in order to decide if there was a breach of the clause. Moreover, even if there is a breach, the non-breaching party has the power to waive it in a particular instance. The question that any religious school faces is whether under particular facts and circumstances, it is wise for a school administrator to terminate the employment of a teacher or mid-level administrator.
I do not believe myself competent to speak about how Muslim schools should go about trying to enforce Muslim moral and religious norms in the course of trying to educate the next generation of Muslims living in America. I’m a Catholic Christian moralist, not a Muslim moralist. I’m asked to give my financial and moral support to Catholics schools, not to Muslim schools.
As I argued earlier, within the Catholic framework, the decision whether or not to fire a particular teacher is itself a decision subject to moral analysis. It conveys a normative message to the students. It shapes the community and it expresses the communty's values. Its moral message is multifaceted; it is not reducible to a simple Facebook "like" or "not like" of the teacher's underlying offence, understood as a an abstract moral proposition.
So here’s my proposal for Robbie:
1. Let’s let the Muslim community take care of their own internal decision-making on these matters. Let's focus on the community to which we actually claim to belong--the Catholic community.
2. Let’s agree that there’s a legal right for religious schools, including Catholic schools, to include morals clauses in their teachers’ contracts.
3. Let’s agree that there are some instances where it is appropriate for a Catholic school to fire a teacher for morally inappropriate behavior.I gave the example of the two married teachers caught canoodling in the broom closet. But the specifics matter. We can't decide every case according to the most extreme examples of misbehavior. We need to consider each case on its own terms. (And more broadly, in my view, "misbehavior" cannot be interpreted only or primarily as sexual misbehavior.)
4. Let’s talk about the Montana case–a non-hypothetical case facing our community. Did the school act in accordance with the cardinal virtue of prudence, steadied by justice, and informed and elevated by Christian charity, in firing the pregnant, unmarried school teacher? Did it act in a pro-life manner? Did it teach Gospel values? Robbie, what sayeth thou about this particular case?
On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque.
But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam.Read more
What happens when you adhere to a system of ideas that prioritizes the market as an arbiter of value? What happens when you repeat incessantly that the best, or perhaps the only measure of value arises out of commodification and exchange? Should it be surprising that in the world created around that commitment, certain other "core values" become endangered or maybe even extinct?
I don't want this entry to be a polemic, but no doubt it will be read as such. My sense here -- not a fully-formed and elaborated argument to be sure, but an initial thesis -- is that in a practical and political sense, libertarianism is a form of nihilism. By this I obviously don't mean that libertarians believe in nothing, or that they are moral relativists. In fact, the opposite is true, if we move from a debate over this or that particular value to the question of systems of valuation. At this level, libertarians argue that a single system is in fact authoritative: the market authoritatively confers value. Other expressions, especially those mobilized by the state, are not only wrong but potentially oppressive.
This radical priority on what Marx called exchange-value has a problem: How do we value things in themselves? Is there a way of valuing objects or subjects -- human beings for example -- that doesn't address what they might contribute to the market of goods and services? What about the vulnerable who exist on the margins of markets and don't contribute anything commodifiable? The implication here is that life itself only gains value when it enters the market -- in the labor of a worker, for example. Before that moment, it's off the radar; we can't even speak of life in the libertarian vocabulary as being "devalued" because outside the market there's no scale, no measure of better or worse. It literally doesn't exist. It is in this sense that I would call libertarianism nihilistic: in its total commitment to exchange value it marginalizes and even kills-off other systems of valuation. Sadly, such systems might be more sensitive to entire ways of life outside the tedium of capital flows and commodity exchange.
Shirley Temple and her movies received a lot more attention in Commonweal in the 1930s and ‘40s than I would have expected when I began a search for more information on Graham Greene’s notorious (and ultimately libelous) review of her 1937 vehicle Wee Willie Winkie – an incident that has merited mention in a number of the obituaries after her death this week. More on Greene’s transgression (and what followed) in a moment, but here’s some of what Commonweal was saying at the height of "Miss Temple's" fame.
Richard Dana Skinner in August 1934:
Certainly in Baby Take a Bow [Shirley Temple] manages to be vastly ingratiating, in spite of being pictured as one of the most absurdly spoiled imps of the American home. Being “cute” is not necessarily good acting, nor is playing the part of a little show-off a real test of straight dramatic ability. What little Miss Temple needs, in justice to herself, is a part far removed from musical comedy formulae, something comparable to Chaplin’s The Kid, in which the quality of downright sincerity can show through. My guess is that Shirley Temple has that quality, but that it is in imminent danger of being throttled by the overexploitation of cuteness. At her age, the more sensitive the good qualities, the more easily they can be misdirected and warped. One might add the hope, too, that as a star of films for children, she will not always be surrounded by enough gun-men and sentimentalized ex-convicts to conjure up a succession of nightmares.
And, a year later, Grenville Vernon:
[Curly Top] is only another of Miss Temple’s vehicles, and one of the most saccharine yet. It fairly drips sentimentality. Of course it gives Miss Temple the opportunity to be arch, and charming, to make people happy, to dance and sing, and even to impersonate an old lady. This is all to the good, when done by Miss Temple, but how much better it would be if we could feel that she was not just being made to show her talents like a sort of child on a flying trapeze! That she swings through her stunts in a perfectly marvelous manner is of course true. But then she couldn’t help it--she is Shirley Temple!
And from May 1940, the editors on Temple’s “retirement”:
Miss Temple gives every token of being a gifted screen artist and (what is not necessarily the same thing) a very nice little girl. In the first capacity, she has enlisted us among those innumerable beneficiaries who have to date paid twenty million dollars to see her perform. In the second, she leaves us rather glad that she is retiring (to grade school) at the ripe age of eleven, with all her garlands and honors about her. As far as one can judge from a strictly outside viewpoint, Shirley's parents and managers have guarded her from some of the worst effects of a movie career involving precocious stardom; she still seems simple and happy, and she is universally believed to be so. But no effort or care can annul the essential abnormality of such a life--the consciousness of being the center of a vast system of production, publicity, adulation; the killing hours before the camera, especially (as has latterly been the case) when pictures are multiplied to catch the vanishing graces of childhood. So we feel that the leading female box-office star of the world has won the right to retire.
Running through those excerpts is a note of concern for the well-being of the child who would appear in dozens of movies by the time she was a teenager. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say it’s the same kind of “concern” expressed by Greene, some of whose words, if you haven’t read them recently, were rather more direct:Read more
A typically beautiful piece by James Wood, this time a memoiristic essay on music, home, exile, and W. G. Sebald:
When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.
Mark Ford on the "daemonic" nature of T. S. Eliot's poetry:
From the outset, Eliot’s work fused satire and mysticism; his denunciations of society depend for their authority on his conviction that the religious vision of his great hero, Dante, offered a securer means of interpreting and judging culture and experience than the formulae and rituals of liberal democracy.
Francine Prose on the salutary aspects of negative reviews:
For me, writing a negative review feels like being the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Few of us remember how the tale ends: The child cries out that the emperor is naked, which the emperor knows, but the procession continues anyway, “stiffer than ever.” This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.
In an earlier post I linked to this L.A. Times roundup of short-sighted critical reactions to the Beatles' first U.S. appearance, fifty years ago this week. It all reminded me of a favorite passage from Muriel Spark's short stories (in this case, from the 1967 story "Alice Long's Dachshunds"):
Sister Monica has said that there is no harm in the Beatles, and then Mamie felt indignant because it showed Sister Monica did not properly appreciate them. She ought to lump them together with things like whisky, smoking, and sex; the Beatles are quite good enough to be forbidden.
Commonweal didn't properly appreciate the Beatles at first, either, though it didn't get around to mentioning them until September 4, 1964. Then, the editors wrote:
Is there any connection between the fact that the Beatles' latest movie received good reviews in New York and Clare Boothe Luce's candidacy for U.S. Senator? As of yet there is no evidence; but, it is said, the FBI is investigating.
Ho ho. But to be fair, it took a lot of people by surprise when A Hard Day's Night -- not just the "latest" but the first Beatles movie, released in July '64 -- was met with critical acclaim. It didn't have to be good to be a financial success, after all. But good it was. Commonweal's film critic, Philip T. Hartung, contributed his own bemused but positive review in the magazine's next issue (September 18, 1964): "No doubt the biggest surprise of the summer was an English film, A Hard Day's Night, in which the Beatles turned up and proved that these four lads have more than so-so voices and mops of hair.... They are completely unpretentious and have sense enough to make fun of themselves along with everyone else."Read more
Last week, Univision released a survey of twelve thousand Catholics in a dozen countries across five continents. The idea occurred to them after the Vatican asked the world's bishops conferences to find out what their people think about a range of social issues and report back. But, as the Univision survey's executive summary notes, "the papal questionnaire is not an opinion-gathering instrument." True, it's not exactly reader-friendly (several dioceses chose to adapt it in order to make it more intelligible to the people whose views it was designed to gather). Nor were its results easy to compile. So Univision sponsored a large-scale survey that would adhere to contemporary standards of data collection, and allow us to say with a measure of confidence: This what the world's Catholics think now.
The results won't shock you. (The German and Swiss bishops certainly weren't surprised.) They represent "an alarming trend for the Vatican," because the "majority of Catholics worldwide disagree with Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and contraceptives," according to Bendixen and Amandi International--the communications firm that conducted the study. (It's been published a few ways: as an interactive feature, a slideshow, and an executive summary--which explains the survey's methodology.)
The country-by-country breakdown also holds few surprises. Generally speaking, the more developed a country is, the less likely its Catholics are to fully agree with certain church teachings. So, while a significant majority of U.S. Catholics (59 percent) say that women should be ordained priests, 81 percent of Ugandan Catholics disagree (the breakdown is similar on the question of married priests). Of course huge majorities of American Catholics (88 percent) have no problem with the use of artificial contraception. Ninety-four percent of French Catholics support the use of contraceptives--edging out Brazil's 93 percent to take the top spot in that category. And when it comes to divorce, the percentages line up similarly: 60 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that being divorced and remarried outside the church should not bar one from receiving Communion, while 72 percent of Catholics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo agree with that church teaching. On gay marriage, most Catholics agree with their bishops: about 40 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose it, compared with 99 percent of Catholic Africans.
The abortion results are more interesting.Read more
A year ago today, I came out into our living room where my brother had the morning news on. “The Pope has just resigned,” he told me. I was as disbelieving as everyone else was, I suspect, on hearing the news. I guess we all had a right to be, given that it was the first time in six or seven hundred years.
It’s worth taking note of the anniversary, particularly if we wish to celebrate the changes that Pope Francis has brought to the Church and those that one can hope are still to come. It was Pope Benedict and this self-denying act of his that made Pope Francis possible. How rare it is that a person, in any organization, with such power in his hands should lay it down voluntarily and with no strings attached, with no attempt made to choose or to determine his successor, with no effort, it seems, to influence that successor’s policies and decisions.
A high school teacher once told us, “There’s nothing deader than a dead pope,” and I can remember how our Scripture professor Fr. Myles Bourke's being annoyed that many people thought it necessary, in order to welcome John XXIII, to denigrate Pius XII, author of Divino afflante Spiritu, the liberating encyclical on the study of the Bible. Perhaps we need to remember St. Paul’s celebration of charisms in the Church and to apply it also to the papacy: There are varieties of gifts in the Church, and among popes. No pope receives all of them, and we can be grateful for the gifts any pope receives, whether a Benedict or a Francis. Grateful for the latter, we must be grateful for the former.
Sociologists and pollsters in the United States have noted that attitudes toward homosexuality have changed more rapidly than on any other major topic in the history of social science. The chart of overall change in the populace is stunning enough, and the generational change is even more dramatic (see below). But now, when I teach on this topic, I won’t bother using charts anymore. I’m just going to show a photograph of Michael Sam.Read more
Just posted to the homepage, our February 21 interreligious issue. Anchoring it is a four-part exchange on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, “Getting Past Supersessionism,” with contributions from Steven Englund, Jon D. Levenson, Donald Senior, and John Connelly. From Englund’s opening piece (subscription):
I believe that to foster a more productive Catholic-Jewish dialogue we need to pose two further questions, one backward-looking and one forward-looking. The first is “What harm have we done to the Jews?” and in addressing it I shall take a longer view than the three admittedly crucial decades covered by Connelly in his book. My reflections will present us with a contemporary situation rather more problematic than we tend to acknowledge—one that calls for stronger medicine as we answer the second question: “What more can we do to undo that harm?”
To begin with: How do we portray the ur-conflict, the “impossible relationship” between an old immovable object and a new irresistible force as they collided in antiquity? What shockwaves still reverberate from that Big Bang that was, for so long, an intra-Jewish religious schism, turning on the refusal of most Jews to adopt their neighbors’ view of the messiahship of Jesus? At the start we should observe that while Christians were wrong to see the Jews as “willfully blind”—the refusal to accept a contested claim is not willful blindness—it was nonetheless true that most Jews did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
It would be hard to exaggerate the shock and distress this turn of events produced in the first Jesus-followers, as gradually but inevitably there developed a widening separation and deepening conflict between them and their fellow Jews. From the outset, the Jesus movement included talented apologists and evangelists who created a corpus of oral and written stories and myths about Jesus Christ—the basis of future dogma and doctrine—that inscribed the rejection of Christ as foreshadowed in the Jews’ earlier rejection of their covenant with God. In time the refusal to acknowledge the Messiah became equated with an outright denial of God and the forfeiture of all claims to address God as father. The viewpoint dispossessed the Jews as sole interpreters and guardians of their own sacred writings. Thus, Justin Martyr: “These words were laid up in your scriptures, or rather not in yours but in ours for we obey them, but you, when you read them, do not understand their sense.” Or as a modern Jewish theologian, Ben Zion Bokser, summed up the charge: “Authentic Judaism is really Christianity.”
See the entire exchange on Catholic-Jewish dialogue here (subscription).
Also in the new issue, Charles R. Morris on the paradoxes of income inequality; George M. Marsden on Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicism; Eve Tushnet on Kathryn Edin’s and Timothy J. Nelson’s Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City; and Rand Richards Cooper on Spike Jonze’s Her. Full table of contents right here.
Of all the commemorations of the Beatles' arrival on these shores fifty years ago, my favorite is this roundup of hilarious-in-retrospect negative critical reactions, compiled by Cary Schneider at the Los Angeles Times. While teenagers were falling over each other to get a glimpse of a Beatle (and paying good money for mop-top novelty wigs), cultural critics were trying to outdo one another in expressing contempt for the flash-in-the-pan Fab Four.
That critics would have rolled their eyes at the hype is understandable. That they would have gone out of their way to proclaim the Beatles' music without merit is bizarre. And yet, as this roundup shows, one serious person after another declared confidently that the group owed no part of its fame to talent: "Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well," sniffed the L.A. Times. William F. Buckley, as usual putting a little too much effort into seeming totally above it all, proclaimed, "They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as 'anti-popes.'" And Newsweek said, "Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody."Read more
have arrived in the U.S. and become wildly popular. They were on Colbert the other night. He was apparently trying to catechize them (didn't seem to be having much luck). U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, wants to join their group, though they haven't been invited to the WH--yet.
Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina are the civil liberties cause of the week, if not the month. So this commentary at Foreign Policy about the views of their Russian fellow citizens was news.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published a report strongly criticizing the Vatican for its handling of the sexual-abuse crisis. It hasn't gone over very well. John Allen argued that it might actually hurt the reform movement within the Catholic Church. Austen Ivereigh called the committee a "kangaroo court." (While I don't agree with everything Ivereigh has to say about the report--for example, he claims the Holy See has been a "catalyst" on abuse reform "at least since 2001"--he's catalogued its many mistakes.) Michael Sean Winters declared, "To hell with the UN." Mark Silk criticized the report for treating the Holy See as it would any other state, calling it "worse than idiotic. It's counterproductive."
Apart from that significant error, the report foolishly wades into doctrinal waters, suggesting the Vatican revise its teachings on abortion and contraception. The committee urges the Holy See to provide "family planning, reproductive health, as well as adequate counselling and social support, to prevent unplanned pregnancies." At one point the UN committee asks Rome to remove from Catholic-school textbooks "all gender stereotyping which may limit the development of the talents and abilities of boys and girls and undermine their educational and life opportunities." At another it complains that the Code of Canon Law refers to children born out of wedlock as "illegitimate." The report says that in canon law instances of sexual abuse ought to be "considered as crimes and not as 'delicts,'" seemingly ignorant of the fact that "delict" means crime. (The committee's work is so sloppy that it doesn't even seem to know where to cut off a quote: That part of the report reads, "Child sexual abuse, when addressed, has been dealt with as 'grave delicts against the moral' through confidential proceedings...")
Even when the committee bumps up against a good idea, it seems uninterested in context. For example, it asks Rome to establish "clear rules, mechanisms and procedures for the mandatory reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation to law enforcement authorities," but fails to note that the world's law-enforcement authorities are not all made in the image and likeness of North America's and Europe's. That's why some diocese--in Africa, for example--haven't implemented mandatory-reporting rules. Shouldn't a UN committee show some awareness of that?
Some of their confusions could have been cleared up with a few clicks of a mouse, or by speaking to someone who knows something about the inner workings of the church. Apparently that didn't occur to the them.Read more
Saint Augustine, building upon such Pauline insights as "you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it ... If one member suffers, all suffer together, if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1Cor 12:27,26), articulated his key insight into the "totus Christus," the whole Christ.
Strikingly, Augustine applied this insight to the Church's praying the psalms. They are the prayer of the whole Christ: Head and members, though prayed diversely by each according to the content of the psalm, whether penitential, petitionary, or praising.
When praying the liturgy of the hours, I try to be mindful of the fact that I am praying in union with the whole body of believers, united with Christ our Head. I try to do so, not only at the time of the specific petitions, but throughout the praying of the psalm. When praying alone, I modify the invocation: "O God, come to our assistance; o Lord, make haste to help us!"
Friday Lauds always begin with the great penitential psalm 51, in which we cry: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me."
The whole Christ prays today for and with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Over on the Deacon’s Bench, Greg Kandra develops a public relations strategy on how to fire a pregnant unwed teacher at a Catholic school in a kindler, gentler way, so as to avoid bad publicity for the Catholic church.
I have another suggestion: you could just NOT fire her. The school has the option of not enforcing the contractual term in this particular case. It should consider exercising that option.
Everyone knows that St. Thomas Aquinas says that an unjust law is no law at all, but rather an act of violence (actually, Aquinas’s reasoning is much more subtle on this question, but that is for another day). But he also says something that gets far less attention: a law that imposes a burden unequally upon members of the community is also an act of violence–even if it furthers the common good.
Contract law is private law, not public law, but I think that Thomas’s insights are applicable by analogy here. The pregnant, unwed mother is no more guilty than the father–who cannot be as easily identified as she can. Nor is she more guilty than the more than 90 percent of people who have premarital sex, most of whom don’t get “caught” by getting pregnant, and many of whom might be members of that school community. In fact, if statistics are correct, we are in a situation in which there is massive disregard for the principle that all sexual intimacy outside of marriage is seriously wrong. She is also more vulnerable than other people, since getting another job while dealing with the stress of a pregnancy, much less an unplanned pregnancy, is significant. So the burden of the moral law against fornication is applied unequally. Moreover, the Church should consider that it is arguably against the common good, since it will likely encourage people, not to refrain from premarital sex, but to obtain an abortion if they get pregnant.
My guess is that the contractual provision at issue is a general morals clause–saying that the teacher is obliged to conduct herself in accordance with Catholic moral teaching. Aquinas tells us that prudence is required in the interpretation and application of general laws. It’s one thing to fire the Spanish and the French teacher, each married to other people, caught canoodling in the broom closet at school. It’s another thing entirely to fire a single teacher, who presumably did not behave inappropriately at school, and whose only evidence of sexual impropriety is her pregnancy–which in our culture, should also be seen as evidence of moral courage. Rather than obtaining an abortion, which would have allowed her to keep her job by hiding evidence of sexual activity, she is going through with the pregnancy.Read more
Over at the Week, Damon Linker argues that Woody Allen's bleak vision of the world would have given him no reason not to commit the terrible crime he's been accused of. Linker claims that Allen's films, as well as certain things Allen has said over the years, indicate that he is a nihilist, which leaves him without a warrant for morality. Nihilists, Linker writes, believe that "there is no justice."
From Plato's sociopathic sophists to Friedrich Nietzsche's ambition to "sail right over our morality," this has been the conviction and the insight of the nihilist. These are Woody Allen's philosophical compatriots.
I should note...that this doesn't mean he's a sexual predator. Nothing in the outlook of a nihilist necessarily implies that he will engage in immoral actions.
All that nihilism implies is the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.
Rod Dreher of the American Conservative agrees:
What is useful about Allen’s nihilism is that he really does see the implications of that worldview more clearly than many, many others who profess a softer form of nihilism. That is, many people would believe that there’s no ultimate truth, that whatever you think is true is true for you. That the universe is meaningless; whatever meaning exists is meaning we give it. If that’s your view, says Woody Allen, then you must agree that the murderer has understood the reality of things better than the moralist. Of course most people would recoil from that conclusion, but I don’t see how any other conclusion is sensible, given the nihilist’s basic premise (that moral truth does not exist).
Both Linker and Dreher quote an interview with Allen that appeared in Commonweal a few years ago. There Allen curtly declined our interviewer's invitation to acknowledge a religious dimension in his films. He made it clear that he regards religion as a form of self-deception. In fact, he regards most things as forms of self-deception. As he put it:
Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.
In the end, nothing matters. Until then, all that matters is finding something that will help you "get through." To this, Allen's "philosophical compatriots" would add: There is no right or wrong, no Last Judgment, no karma. There's only power, desire, and luck. Rational deliberation involves just two questions: What do I really want? And can I get away with it?
I agree with Linker and Dreher that "nihilistic" is not too strong a word for Allen's views and for much of his art. Crimes and Misdemeanors, which Linker and Dreher both consider Allen's best film, shrugs off Dostoevsky's existential anxiety. The film's moral—or rather its lesson—is: Yes, without God, everything is permitted, and what of it? Grownups will not pretend that the moral chaos visible to anyone willing to look is a good reason to believe in God.
Linker makes it clear that he isn't offering a theoretical argument against nihilism, which he describes as a "viable, albeit false and ultimately chilling, philosophical and existential position." And he points out, more than once, that Allen's nihilism doesn't give us any reason to assume he's guilty of child abuse. Nihilists, too, should enjoy the presumption of innocence.
Still, I think both Linker and Dreher do end up suggesting that we should at least be suspicious of self-aware nihilists like Woody Allen, the kind of nihilists who understand the chilling implications of their worldview. If such nihilism really has no practical importance, then why even mention it in connection to Dylan Farrow's accusations against Allen? Doesn't Crimes and Misdemeanors itself suggest that nihilism does have a practical importance? Nihilism may not "necessarily" imply a willingness to engage in immoral action, as Linker puts it, but he and Dreher seem to agree that, in general, those who believe there's no reason to act morally are more likely to act immorally. At the very least, the nihilist who consistently avoids evil is being inconsistent. Either he doesn't really believe what he says he does, or he lacks the courage of his convictions.
In a recent column titled "Ideas from a Manger," Ross Douthat of the New York Times pursued a similar line of argument.
The secular picture...seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than...its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.
In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism—tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.
Again, it isn't that those who believe in "a purely physical and purposeless universe" are all nihilists. Most of them aren't. It's just that their fundamental view of reality leaves them without a good way to get past nihilism; their "rope bridges" are too short. Hard materialism may turn out to imply nihilism in just the same way that nihilism implies amoralism.
There are important differences between Douthat's argument and Linker's. The most obvious difference is that Douthat is talking about the tension between two sets of beliefs commonly held by the same people, while Linker is talking about the tension between a certain set of beliefs (nihilism) and a certain kind of action (the dependably good kind). What Douthat and Linker seem to have in common is the conviction, shared by Nietzsche, that one's metaphysics, or lack thereof, ought to make a difference to one's ethics.
I'm sympathetic to this kind of critique, but I don't think it's likely to get much traction in a culture as pragmatic as ours. For pragmatists—including default pragmatists who would never use the word—the only important rule is "whatever works" (the title of another Woody Allen film). If you can be good without a a coherent theory of goodness, what's the problem? What matters isn't your theory's coherence but its effect. And if you can be good without even believing in goodness, more power to you.
The kind of secularists Douthat describes in his column—who, unlike pragmatists, do believe in objective truth, as long as it's properly scientific—would point out that nihilism's alarming moral implications do not by themselves provide us with a reason to believe either in God or in objective moral values. That is, they provide no evidence for such belief; at most, they provide a motivation for it. Whether the absence of such belief will actually make people more likely to do things that nearly everyone (now) considers evil is an empirical question: only time will tell, as fewer and fewer people believe in the old metaphysical myths. But so far, at least, Douthat's scientistic secularists aren't too worried.
Non-pragmatists, including Christians, won't be satified with the pragmatist's reduction of truth to "whatever works." And moral realists of all kinds, including most Christians, will find it strange that Douthat's secularists don't expect a radical change in our metaphysics to have an important effect on our behavior. Too easy to say time will tell; it may be too late for us once it has.
But, while many Americans are essentially pragmatists and an increasing number of them believe in a purely physical universe, few Americans can be described as nihilists. Nihilism involves a kind of pessimism, and Americans are supposed to be optimists. As Dreher writes, the nihilist believes that human experience has no meaning except the meanings we impose on it. These are, at most, temporary stays against the lucid recognition of our mortality. They cannot fully compensate for the universe's indifference to us. Mostly, they just mask it. And these makeshift meanings are all dwarfed, finally, by suffering and death.
A clever Christian may win an argument with a nihilist about the "chilling" moral implications of his worldview, but the nihilist is unlikely to change his mind until he can see, or imagine, his own experience in an entirely new light—see it backlit by something like Providence, imagine it casting a shadow beyond what is visible to him now. For nihilists, life is just one damn thing after another, from birth to death, and then nothing. Death gets the last word and speaks it in a language none of us understands. Christians (among others) believe that each life tells a story, one whose full significance only becomes clear beyond death, where all that is hidden will be revealed. It isn't just that without God everything is permitted; it's also that, with God, we have a reason for the hope that everything will finally be made clear. To the nihilist's "There is no justice," believers answer, "There will be." They shouldn't be surprised if many people find that too good to be true.
The AP's Carolyn Thompson reports on "Mass mobs," conceived and organized by some folks in Buffalo, NY, as a way for local Catholics to experience and support some of the city's beautiful and struggling parish churches.
It works this way: On a given Sunday, participants attend Mass en masse at a church they've picked in an online vote and promoted through Facebook and Twitter. Visitors experience the architecture, heritage and spirit of the aging houses of worship and the churches once again see the numbers they were built for, along with a helpful bump in donations when the collection baskets are passed.
There are other potential benefits, such as fostering a sense of connectedness across the diocese -- the priest whose parish hosted the last "mob" told Thompson, "It just shows that we are not just one parish, that it's the whole family of the diocese. We take care of each other." Whether the scheme could make a long-term difference in the fate of Buffalo's underattended parishes is an open question. But I love visiting new churches, both historic and ordinary, and I love a well-attended Sunday Mass, so I love this idea.
Apparently people in other cities have been inspired to start up Mass mobs of their own. Could it work where you live? Would you go?
There has been much attention given to the latest report that abortions have fallen to their lowest rate in 40 years. The rate of below 17 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44 is nearly half of the rate at its peak in 1980. Discussions in the wake of the report have focused on causation, an almost-impossible task given the complexity of the phenomenon of abortion. Isolating causes is certainly not possible, and it seems more reasonable to suggest that more-successful contraception and a more negative public attitude toward the morality of abortion have both contributed to the decline. The question of whether state-level legal restrictions on abortion make any difference is hotly disputed; since these restrictions ordinarily are passed in states where abortions are geographically less available and where the general moral culture is more anti-abortion, it would be hard to know how to separate out these factors.
I want to put these numbers in some larger perspective, by diving more deeply into the statistics about abortion. To me, these raise questions about the level to which one could drive down this abortion rate; as with our economic analysis, a focus on up-or-down trend numbers often obscures the larger phenomenon.Read more
Two new stories to highlight on our homepage. First, in "Botched Arguments," the editors comment on political gestures and the pro-life cause, in light of a recent New Yorker article that
makes the case that desperate women will seek abortions regardless of the dangers, and that restricting access to the procedure only guarantees their further victimization. This has long been the argument for keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” If the prolife movement is going to respond to it persuasively, it will have to convince Americans that its concern for the women involved in abortion is as great as its compassion for the unborn. As Peter Steinfels wrote in these pages (“Beyond the Stalemate”), the movement needs to shift more of its energies from partisan gestures and all-or-nothing legal gambits to the tasks of persuasion and witness. Gestures like the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” will change no one’s mind—and are not intended to. Neither do they protect the unborn—and they are not expected to.
Read the whole thing here.
And, in "Secularists for Christmas!," Albert Wu discusses the rise of groups in France like Résistance Républicaine that are wielding an old notion of "secularism" (laïcité) in a new way:
[T]hese groups employ the term as a form of aggressive anti-Islamic politics. They take pride in their contempt: the Résistance Républicaine website proclaims, “Islamophobia is not a crime…. It’s legitimate defiance,” and, “I’m an Islamophobe and I’m proud.” At [a] December demonstration, marchers switched seamlessly from chanting “Hands off Christmas” to “Islamists, fascists, killers.”
It might be easy to dismiss this hyperbolic rhetoric as limited to fringe groups. A routine demonstration against unemployment and inequality earlier in December attracted four thousand (about four times as many people as the Résistance Républicaine rally drew). An antigay marriage protest in May brought out nearly a hundred fifty thousand. But defining laïcité in a way that preserves France’s Christian identity is far from a marginal idea. It is also taught to new immigrants at a “day of civic formation,” a full-day class on French law, history, culture, and “Republican values.” Attendance is mandatory for all who wish to obtain a long-stay visa. Truancy can result in the rejection of future visa applications.
The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has spawned a mix of feelings among fans and followers of his work: grief over the loss, sadness over the work never to be seen, bafflement over the senselessness of his death—or at least, what we who have the good fortune of being able to pronounce it senseless can experience as bafflement. Why would someone with such skill and so vast an array of good work already to his credit, not to mention three children of his own and the knowledge one acquires over the course of forty-six years, engage in activity so reckless? Because even though young enough to promise so much more, and old enough to know better, he was nonetheless troubled enough to continue to seek relief in something he’d struggled with for decades.
Aside from the ugly little lecture from Ben Shapiro at The National Review, the appreciations have mainly and generously focused on the breadth and consistently high quality of Hoffman’s work in movies and theater. And what’s remarkable is just how much of it there is—fifty films in twenty-five years, from the amazing stuff in Paul Thomas Anderson films dating from Hard Eight through Boogie Nights, Magnolia (clip below), Punch-Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master (reviewed in Commonweal by Richard Alleva); to his depictions of real figures like Art Howe (he played Art Howe!) in Moneyball (reviewed in Commonweal by Alleva), Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and of course the eponymous author in Capote (reviewed in Commonweal by Rand Richards Cooper), for which he won an Academy Award. He appeared in indies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happiness and blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible III. For an entire still-thriving subculture he’ll forever be the obsequious Brandt from The Big Lebowski. And then there’s the stage work: his duet with John C. Reilly in the 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s True West, his performance as Jamie in 2003’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (reviewed here for Commonweal by Celia Wren), his directing and acting with the Labyrinth Theater Company.
Two passages describing Hoffman’s work have jumped out at me in putting this post together; one appears in the headline, and it comes from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Hoffman’s last appearance on Broadway, as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.” The other is from Richard Alleva’s review in Commonweal of the 2009 film Doubt: “When it comes to ambiguity, no actor is better than Philip Seymour Hoffman. He conveys … creepiness and possible saintliness not just by turns but simultaneously in a portrait that is downright cubistic.”
“Uncertainty” and “cubistic,” and for good measure throw in Lee Siegel’s “beautiful helplessness” from his New Yorker remembrance. All somehow fitting in tribute—but how unfortunate they have to be summoned this way at all.