From the Narthex
Ed. Note: In this special section, which runs as an occasional feature, we present samples of the offerings in the Narthex, the NOR’s online blog. If you like what you read, visit newoxfordreview.org/narthex for more — much more! Our bloggers, in addition to John M. Grondelski, James G. Hanink, and James M. Thunder, include Jason M. Morgan, David Daintree, and Barbara E. Rose. The Narthex is updated on a regular basis, so there’s never a shortage of NOR material to read and reflect on.
Another Missed Catholic Teaching Moment
By John M. Grondelski
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former Associate Dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.
Many Americans were rightfully repulsed when they watched students on American college campuses openly declaring support for the Hamas terrorists who’ve killed some 1,200 people since their October 7 surprise attack on Israel and have taken and still hold hostages. Students even projected pro-Hamas slogans — including “Glory to Our Martyrs!” — onto the walls of George Washington University’s main library in Washington, D.C.
These events should be a call to action for Catholic moral teaching — but we’re too busy with our “accompaniment” of modernity to notice.
The fact that the average American at least momentarily woke from his moral slumber to say, “Hey, there’s something really wrong with kids celebrating killers,” shows that not all is lost in this country. For a spell, people recognized that applauding killers requires a certain interior rot.
Why? Because you must not kill innocent women and children. Period. You must not take innocent women and children hostage. Period. You cannot murder and maim people indiscriminately because of their nationality. Period. There is no justification — none, nada, keine — to do that.
Average Americans instinctively recognizing there is such a thing as intrinsic evil — now that was an eye-opener! It was an eye-opener because we in the West have been systematically taught for decades to accept the dictatorship of relativism, taught that we cannot a priori designate certain actions evil.
The fact that the average American woke up long enough to say, “I don’t think that’s right when it comes to women and kids,” was an “Aha!” moment. Alas, instead of seizing that moment to speak moral truth to the modern world, the Church was squirreled away in synodal assemblies, engrossed in navel-gazing “conversations in the Spirit.”
Yes, the world needs whole, integral, unadulterated Catholic moral teaching. It needs Catholic leaders to speak that truth to the power of ethical confusion, not to be AWOL or temporizing.
I say this because, in the days immediately after October 7, even some university professors came forward to say something is rotten in the state of academe and we need to fix it. A bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania even penned a New York Times op-ed (Oct. 17) saying we need to require ethics courses and integrate ethical questions centrally across the curriculum as prerequisites to calling college graduates “educated.”
The question this raises, recalling Alasdair MacIntyre, is “Whose ethics?” There are five main ethical competitors to Catholic moral theology: utilitarianism, proceduralism, linguistic analysis, emotivism, and pragmatism. These five approaches to ethics, all dominant in modern philosophy, fight among themselves over which should be taught to students, but none of them is going to produce a package of moral absolutes or prohibitions. Only Catholic moral theology (which, at root, is also philosophically intelligible natural law) gives robust “Thou shalt nots” that provide an unqualified “No!” to Hamas or any other kind of terrorists.
Utilitarianism, engaged in balancing the ethical ledger book of “good” and “bad” outcomes, might give you a “virtual absolute” — a concept as rational as “somewhat pregnant.” Kantianism and proceduralism might give you a prohibition if you carefully construct your “categorical imperative,” but they can just as easily give you wiggle room if your imperative design builds in enough factors to make your preferred terrorist act a unique exception. As MacIntyre observed, Kant only stopped people creatively dumb enough not to write the rule to their advantage.
So, if the modern world momentarily discovered that the “mainstream” ethics on offer, the “mainstream” ethics being taught in colleges and universities, could allow this outcome, it also momentarily wondered whether there might be an ethics that was up to the task of condemning such barbarism. And here, I regret to say, the sound you heard from the Church was largely…crickets.
Yes, Catholic leaders spoke about morality and condemned the attacks and then went on to talk about jus in bello. Yes, Pope Francis repeatedly addressed the humanitarian dimension of the crisis (in contrast, as far as I can see, to his “fraternal” buddy, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, who — correct me if I am wrong — appears only to have criticized Israel). But everybody else is mentioning the humanitarian aspect, too. What the world needs from the Pope is not another note in the global concert but the music sheet that only he can bring: the kind of robust morality that excludes intrinsically evil acts such as murdering innocent women and children and taking hostages. The “root causes” of the conflict between Hamas and Israel are not conflicting historical claims but ideas of morality that either allow or prohibit killing innocent people.
Aware that I might be accused of indietrismo — “backwardness,” seemingly the one intrinsecum malum in Francis’s moral manual — I’ll note that about 40 years ago the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus spoke of a “Catholic moment” in the United States. His hope was that, with the declining influence of the “Protestant mainline” (Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians), Catholics might provide the religious and intellectual spark for a robust public faith. For various reasons (including episcopal inertia), that never happened. Its failure is in part responsible for the absence of a robust, religiously informed ethic to guide contemporary discussions, such as those in response to the Hamas attacks, which only reinforces the echo chamber for the weak ethics listed above or, worse, the reduction of ethics to politics.
By James G. Hanink
James G. Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!
Imagine a protest in which activists chant, “What do we want? Free publicity! When do we want it? Now!” Easy enough, right? Isn’t that already the subtext of many demonstrations? Or imagine a political campaign soliciting money chiefly to solicit more money. Again, easy enough. Isn’t that standard operating procedure?
Doubtless artificial intelligence (AI), even while we sleep, is dutifully cranking out more “click bait” with a view to generating more “buzz,” especially about AI.
Forget, gentle reader, the simpler days of “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Now it’s attention we want, and the more the better. Hey, world, please, oh please, look at me!
But getting attention requires that someone pay attention. And if our attention is worth having, we need an attention span that allows us to attend closely to the people in our lives and, more broadly, to that which is.
The French thinker Simone Weil (1909-1943) was both an activist and a mystic. As an activist, she crossed swords with Leon Trotsky. As a mystic, she won praise from T.S. Elliot. Weil wrote perceptively and enigmatically about attention. What she says deserves, well, yes, our attention.
In Gravity and Grace (1952), Weil urges us not to confuse paying attention with “stiffening our muscles” or “clenching our jaws.” We are to think, instead, of an “inner supplication.” She writes that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Prayer, in her view, opens our minds and hearts. “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love.” A love that attends leads to respect. So it is that “to know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do — that is enough, the rest follows of itself.” Such respect, in turn, leads not to ungrounded activism but to authentic action.
There is, nonetheless, a disconcerting drift in Weil’s account of attention. She remarks that in attention, “all that I call ‘I’ has to be passive.” Why? Because “attention alone — that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears — is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.”
But this deconstruction of the self is a wrong turn. We are not Buddhists. As Christians, we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But absent our very selves, it is impossible for us to love. Yet we are created to love. Indeed, we are to love God even more than we love ourselves. Absent our very selves, that love is impossible.
We are made in God’s image and likeness. God is the fullness of being, Ipsum esse subsistens, in the language of St. Thomas Aquinas. We are to realize and fulfill, not deconstruct and eliminate, the unique selfhood that God has given each of us. In doing so, we come to share in God’s own life.
With this tremendous love, we can build a community strong enough and enduring enough to stand fast against, and even heal, this tortured world. We can turn away from both the exaltation of the ego and the pomp of political posturing. We can work, in solidarity, for a common good that extends even to the least among us. Doing so most certainly calls for the prayer of attention.
For God So Loved the World
By James M. Thunder
James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife, Ann, are currently writing on the relationship between Fr. Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) and laypeople.
We see occasional reports that attempt to quantify the number of species that have become extinct over a period of years, centuries, or millennia. And we see occasional reports that identify various species at risk of extinction. We go to great lengths to save these species. Think of the bald eagle, the buffalo, the panda, the tiger, and many smaller creatures. We restrict hunting and fishing. We preserve habitats. We restrict the use of pesticides. We turn out lights (for turtles). We enable creatures (such as toads) to cross underneath roads.
If these efforts were not working, would someone go all out, even “to the ends of the earth,” to save a species? Here’s a thought experiment: Would you become a toad to save toads?
Toads are, indeed, at risk of extinction. A 2013 study found that “on average, populations of amphibians vanished at a rate of 3.7 percent each year. At that rate these species would disappear from half their current habitats in about 20 years. Amphibians already listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are vanishing from their habitats at an even faster rate of 11.6 percent a year. At that pace the threatened species would disappear from half their current habitat in six years.”
Much has been written about people who have “gone native,” or, in more politically correct language, adopted the norms of a culture other than their own. One early example was Moses. A prince of ancient Egypt, he became a fugitive from justice, married into a family of shepherds, and returned to Egypt as a leader of the Hebrew slaves.
There was Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who became a friend of the Chinese emperor. There was T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), whose British-to-Arab transformation was depicted in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Turning to fiction, the characters in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881) trade lives. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), adapted for film as My Fair Lady (1964), an attempt is made to have a commoner pass for nobility. In the operetta The Vagabond King (1925), the protagonist in 15th-century France becomes “king for a day” and defends France against the forces of the duke of Burgundy.
And then there are people whose professional lives were devoted to large mammals: Dian Fossey (1932-1985) lived with mountain gorillas for 18 years in Rwanda. Jane Goodall (b. 1934) worked for 55 years with chimpanzees in Tanzania. And Birute Galdikas (b. 1946) worked with orangutans for 30 years in Borneo. Surely there are others whose professional lives — indeed, their emotional lives — revolve around toads. Would any of them be willing to become a toad to save toads? Would you?
How badly would you want to work toward the survival of toads to become a toad? How much would you have to…love them?
Before volunteering to become a toad, you would have some questions, I’m sure, such as:
How would you go about saving toads? Maybe by leading them to a safer place or one with a more abundant food source. Maybe by organizing them to fight their enemies. If they are infected with disease, how might you help them?
What would you do to get toads to “listen” to and follow you? How would you goad the toads? Would you “speak” to them with authority? Would you do deeds no toad had done before?
You might wonder how effective you might be. What percentage of toads would you hope to save in order to ensure their survival as a species? How high must the odds of success be to propel you to become a toad?
If you could foresee becoming distracted from your mission to save all toads by trying to save individual stray toads, would you still become a toad?
What risks to your personal safety would you be willing to take? Would you be willing to undergo starvation or attacks by predators — especially if you started out as a tadpole?
The toads might not follow you. They might not do what’s best for them. How would you respond to such rejection?
This brings us to a true-to-life event, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, God Himself, who became “incarnate” as a human being. Admittedly, a human being becoming a toad is not analogous to God becoming man, to the Creator becoming a creature, to Being itself becoming an individual being.
St. Paul wrote that Jesus, although God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the likeness of a slave (cf. Phil. 2:5-7). He did it for the love of humanity and every single human being before and after His Incarnation, to save us not from extinction as a species, not from annihilation, for we will live eternally, but to save us from spending eternity in Hell. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).
For His surpassing love, Christ was attacked by human beings, betrayed by them, tortured by them, crucified by them, and killed by them. And yet, after He was raised from the dead, Jesus did not despise His human nature. He did not shed His human nature. He remains true God and true man to this day and for eternity.
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