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Catholic Instead of What? By Alasdair MacIntyre

Transcript of a public lecture by Alasdair MacIntyre, delivered November 9, 2012 at the University of Notre Dame.

Let me begin with an expression of gratitude and an apology. The expression of gratitude is for being given the opportunity to develop two lines of thought in this paper which I am still working on, one about what it is to be committed to Catholic positions in secular culture, and the other which is what this means specifically about justice. But of course the apology comes here: I am taking on themes that are much too large for a single paper, and not just one, but two, so you're going to have a lot to complain about.

Video of the lecture, "Catholic Instead of What?" By Alasdair MacIntyre

Catholic Christians believe that God exists, that the Word was made flesh, that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become Christ's body and blood, that the pope and the bishops teach with apostolic authority. But Catholic Christians also disbelieve, and in each particular time and place, they deny just those secular doctrines, theories, and attitudes that then and there are taken to provide grounds for rejecting the truths of the Catholic faith. To be a reflective Catholic is always to be a Catholic rather than something else. So, Augustine was a Catholic rather than a Manichean or a Neoplatonist; Pascal was a Catholic rather than a skeptic or a Cartesian; Maritain was a Catholic rather than a materialist or a Bergsonian. In what they affirm scripturally, in the creeds, and liturgically, there is that which is the same for Catholics of every generation. But the denials that are the counterparts to those affirmations vary with time, place, and culture. So how is it with us here now?

To be a Catholic here and now is to reject, among other things, the claims of any version of scientific naturalism: the claims that all truths are either truths of the natural sciences or non-scientific truths that are what they are only because the truths disclosed by the natural sciences are what they are. Scientific naturalists are therefore atheists, since no finding of physics, chemistry, or biology provides them with anything like a good reason for asserting that God exists. About this latter thesis, they are of course right, and Catholics can happily agree that to study nature as physicists, chemists, and biologists study it is already to have excluded God from the possible objects of enquiry. But on a Catholic view, there is nonetheless that about nature which cries out for explanation. Nature is the actualization of one particular set of possibilities among indefinitely many. And a very remarkable set it is that has been actualized. The history of nature is a story of how where, once there were only particles and fields of force, there came to be cabbages, spiders, and scientific naturalists. Given nature's starting point and the range of alternative possibilities that might have developed from it, it is an astonishing set of possibilities that have in fact been actualized.

Suppose now that some Catholic or Jewish or Islamic follower of Aristotle were to be convinced that no set of possibilities can be actualized except by some actual agent not a member of that set. And suppose further that such a one could not then resist the inference that nature could be what it astonishingly has been, is, and will be only because of the act of such an agent prior to and independent of nature, whose powers are not limited as powers of natural agents are limited; that is, God. Catholics and many other theists should find it difficult to treat this argument as unsound, since it is a restatement of our belief that, if God didn't exist, neither would nature exist. Yet to scientific naturalists, it turns out to be a wholly unpersuasive argument since it presupposes a concept of explanation that they take to be illegitimate. It's not so much that they reject the theists' answer as that they exclude the possibility of asking the theists' question. So reflective Catholics find themselves compelled to identify their own philosophical commitments, commitments that turn out to include a conception of human beings as essentially questioning and self-questioning beings as by their nature posing questions about themselves and their place in nature that, if scientific naturalism is true, are illegitimate. By so doing, they find themselves participants in a range of philosophical controversies in which there appears to be no prospect of resolving disagreement through rational argument. So how should they respond to this situation?

Newman, reflecting on the debates in which he had been involved, advanced an argument about arguments. Only in mathematics and logic, he contended, are there arguments with compelling force just by themselves as arguments. Elsewhere, what compelling force a particular argument has depends upon background beliefs and attitudes that individuals bring with them to the evaluation of that argument. It's these—what Newman called “that large outfit of existing thoughts, principles, likings, desires, and hopes, which make me what I am.”

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See Cardinal Newmans' Grammar of Assent.

that determine what weight a particular individual gives to this or that type of consideration. It's differences in these that underlie radical philosophical disagreements. So we may ask, what then are the underlying attitudes and beliefs that distinguish someone whose understanding of human agents is compatible with the truth of the Catholic faith and someone for whom this is not so?

The answer that I propose is this: that the key differences arise from the ways in which each understands the narrative of her or his life. Consider how someone may ask, prospectively or retrospectively, if that life is going well or badly—if so far it has gone well or not badly—in what part she or he has played in making it go well or badly. There would be no story to tell if it were not the case that at crucial points it has been, is, and will be up to the agent to determine how things go. And the questions of how things have gone with one so far, and of how one must act if they are to go well in the future, are among those that human agents can't avoid putting to themselves. But notice now that they are among the questions that consistent scientific naturalists have to judge illegitimate, for even to ask them presupposes the possibility that human goodness and human evil make a significant difference to how the world goes; that human choices effect changes in nature, changes that can't be explained by the interaction of fundamental particles.

To be a Catholic, then, is to be among those who understand both their own lives and those of others in terms of narratives whose structures can be epic, tragic, comic, or farcical, irrespective of the relations between us—the subjects of those narratives—and the goods that we pursue or fail to pursue. One prerequisite for achieving goods rather than evils is ruthless truthfulness in recounting the story so far. Why is such truthfulness so difficult? It is because if our stories are told truthfully, they are stories of our fallenness, and it is part of our fallenness to be unwilling to acknowledge our fallenness. So to be a Catholic is to share Newman's thought that if we view this world as it is, we are bound to conclude “that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence.”

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See Cardinal Newmans' Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

And the stories that we tell about ourselves are truthful only if they present not only the human world in general but also our particular lives as the lives of fallen beings.

Yet now we have to note that understanding human life in these terms is not peculiar to Catholics, that it finds extraordinary dramatic expression in the portrayal of human beings for whom God is wholly absent that we owe to Samuel Beckett, the great tragic voice of the twentieth century. “What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed?” asks the narrator of Beckett's The Unnamable. “By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless.”

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See Beckett's The Unnameable.

So Beckett's characters live out their truthful hopelessness in a kind of narrative atheism that puts the Catholic faith to the question, both intellectually and imaginatively. And reflective Catholics have to acknowledge that they are Catholics rather than those for whom Beckett's dramatic vision of the human condition has the last word. The stories that Catholics tell about their own lives, and about those of others, are stories of fallenness but not of hopelessness, and this because those stories presuppose the truth of the biblical narrative—are intelligible only in terms of the biblical narrative.

The two examples that I've given so far of contemporary Catholic unbelief—our rejection of the seductions both of scientific naturalism and of Samuel Beckett's temptingly tragic view of the world—are perhaps sufficient, even if barely so, to illustrate two more general theses. The first is that these rejections and denials add significant content to our Catholic beliefs. To believe in God nowadays is in part to deny the truth of scientific naturalism. To believe in our redemption is in part to deny that in Samuel Beckett's vision which makes hope an illusion.

A second thesis is that it was out of our particular quarrels with those works of the intellect and the imagination that the Catholic culture of the last century came to be. The philosophy that emerges from our quarrel with scientific naturalism; the poetic storytelling that emerges from our quarrel with the literature of despair; the philosophy, say, of a Robert Sokolowski, or of a Maritain, or of a Gabriel Marcel; the storytelling, say, of a Flannery O'Connor, or of a Claudel, or of a Graham Greene. As I already suggested, the alternative and rival forms of belief with which Catholics need to engage vary from age to age, and so therefore do the quarrels which Catholics have with such beliefs. It follows that the beliefs of reflective Catholics also vary, and that the Catholic culture that emerges from the quarrel with one such set of alternative and rival forms of belief may be very different from that which emerges in other contexts. There have been, and are, Catholic cultures, not Catholic culture.

But there is a force on unchanging Catholic faith, that which is, has been, and will be one and the same in doctrine and in worship. And since it is because of their relationship to what is one and the same in that faith—that Catholic cultures in all their variety are called Catholic—more needs to be said about how faith informs our cultural projects. Begin from what I said about fallenness as understood by Newman and by Beckett. Beckett's imaginative world is not open to the possibility of hope; Newman's is. And it is so because the narrative of his life, as he recounts it in the Apologia, presupposes both the truth of the biblical narrative and that the history of the Catholic church is continuous with—is the same history as—the history of our redemption as it is narrated in scripture.

Reconsider in this light the relationship of our quarrels with scientific naturalism to those with Beckett's tragic vision. It shouldn't surprise us that a rational commitment to the metaphysics of theism and an ability to understand one's life in terms of the narrative of scripture should be closely related, since someone lacking either of these would be bound to have a defective conception of the principal actors in that narrative: on the one hand, of God; on the other, ourselves. If we are to think of God as he is, then we have to think of him as both Creator and first cause, omnipresent and providential sustainer of the natural order, and as one who intervenes here and not there; who addresses Moses but not Socrates; who spoke his definitive words to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not in Irish or German; who both ordains laws of nature and works miracles. If we are to think of ourselves as we are, then we have to understand ourselves not only as estranged from God by our rebellious wills but also as incompletely and inadequately human, until we are reconciled to him through the redemptive work of God incarnate in Jesus. Our narratives are incomplete and indeed not fully intelligible until we bring them into relationship with the gospel narrative—the narrative of scripture.

Because this is so, we find ourselves at yet another point in conflict with the contemporary secularizing mind, this time in the arenas of historical enquiry and debate. For us, much is at stake in the scholarly arguments about biblical texts and history. Consider the remarkable contrasts between the Jesus of whom we can know very little, of Wrede and his twentieth-century followers; the Jewish Jesus of Géza Vermes; the egalitarian, peasant Jesus of J. D. Crossan; the scatological Jesus of Schweitzer; and the Jesus who emerges from N. T. Wright's magisterial trilogy. In which Jesus are we to believe? Among these contenders, only the last is recognizable as the Jesus of whom the Catholic church speaks, or rather, the Jesus who speaks to us through the Catholic church. If that Jesus is the object of our faith, it can't be only because of our judgment concerning the superiority of Wright's historical scholarship—crucially important as that is—but must be also, and primarily, because we take God himself to have authorized the apostles, and the Catholic bishops as their successors, to teach the truth concerning his self-revelation in Jesus and his saving work. Here then as elsewhere, the commitments that are part of a reflective Catholic culture—whether philosophical, imaginative, or as in this case, historical—are different from but also inseparable from the sacramental commitments of faith. How then are these related?

They are related in and through the activity of prayer, both the prayer that brings our praise, our gratitude, and our sense of our needs before God, and the prayer in which we learn to attend silently to him, listening rather than speaking. For the only expression of both sets of commitments, cultural and theological, is prayer. So prayer is integral to the activities that constitute any Catholic culture. How we pray is how we are.

Three aspects of prayer are peculiarly relevant. The first finds expression in John Chrysostom's gloss on Paul's injunction to pray constantly: “It's possible to offer fervent prayer even while walking in public, or strolling along, or seated in your shop while buying or selling, or even while cooking.” Indeed, our everyday activities can be a form of prayer, something that Benedict teaches us with respect to manual labor, and Dominic with respect to study. Secondly, prayer—conversation with God—doesn't always take the forms of conventional piety. Abraham engaged in dialectical argument with God designed to convince him that he was in danger of acting unjustly. Job cursed God, upsetting those proto-theologians, Job's comforters, not upsetting God in the slightest. Teresa of Avila, on a particularly bad day, remarked to God that if this was how he treated his friends, it was small wonder that he had so few. Finally, we learn from both John of the Cross and Dorothy Day that progress in the discipline of prayer is evidenced not by the vagaries of mystical experience but by growth in charity, a charity that is more, but never less, than justice. A would-be Catholic culture fails in Catholicity if it doesn't take this thought seriously.

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So this, as it were, lays the ground for asking what it is to think as a Catholic about secular topics. What I do now is to give an example, an example from the past.

Let me illustrate these thoughts by turning to an instructive example of a Catholic mind at work in the world of culture, in another time and place: that of Charles Péguy in France, between the years of 1908, when he returned to the faith of his Catholic childhood, and 1914, when he died on the battlefield. Born at Orléans in 1873, Péguy found himself in adult life, like his contemporaries of the Third Republic, morally, politically, and religiously defined by a single line of division between a right-wing establishment—a Catholic, clerical, and conservative upper-class bourgeoisie, defenders of the economic order of capitalism—and a secularizing, anti-clerical, radical or socialist left-wing establishment, each of the two with its own partisan version of French history. Péguy as an atheist and socialist identified with the latter, seeing in the right-wing establishment the enemies of the harmonious city that he aspired to restore. But when he became a Catholic, although he had by then learned to distrust the factionalism and bureaucracy of the Socialist Party, he remained as much at odds with the right as before, for he now defined himself as Catholic rather than someone definable by the antithesis between Catholic, conservative, and secular socialist. And he gave expression to this self-definition both through metaphysics, through poetic narrative; through a retelling of the French Catholic story as at once Catholic and monarchical and socialist and republican.

His metaphysics he took from Bergson. Bergson, had he believed, had identified the errors of the French materialism of the late nineteenth century, that earlier version of scientific naturalism, by showing that there is that in human beings which can only be understood in moral and religious terms. But he also valued in Bergson's critique of analytical reason his capacity to disquiet those too much in love with their own beliefs, whatever they happen to be. “A great philosophy,” he wrote, “is not that which passes final judgments […]; it is that which introduces uneasiness.” The French of his age, whether Catholic conservatives or secularizing socialists, needed to be disquieted and disturbed. What France had come to lack was, on Péguy's view, a shared sense of the mystery of things, a sense formerly communicated through the traditions of the common people, a sense that had been displaced by a politics of conflicting slogans and programs. It's not that a politics of programs was not needed—modern societies have inflicted deprivation and destitution on the poor, and from these the poor have to be rescued by a politics of justice rooted in charity—but they, and others too, have to be rescued from impoverished notions of what it is to be French and Catholic, of what it is that errs both of Jeanne d'Arc and of the Revolution of 1789.

So Péguy took on a task at once political and historical and poetic, one that would allow the French to understand that by failing to live as Christians, they had failed to be French, and that God was now calling them through the French-speaking voices that speak in Péguy's poetry, the voices of Jeanne d'Arc, and of Our Lady, and of God himself: to become once again Christian and once again French. Even the thought that God may be French is as likely to be as disconcerting to contemporary Americans as the thought that God is Jewish is to Catholic anti-semites of Péguy's day. What is likely to be disconcerting to all of us here and now—just as there and then—is Péguy's thought that a necessary prelude to an adequate politics may be on the one hand metaphysics, on the other a poetry that is a form of prayer, poetry and prayer well-designed as an antidote to the corruption of political speech. This was a thought that found extraordinary creative expression not only in Péguy's poetry but also in the Catholic culture that it helped to generate: the culture of Marcel and Claudel, of Bernanos and Mauriac, of Mounier and Maritain, of Poulenc, and strikingly, of de Gaulle. Is it perhaps a thought for us too? And what would it be for us to find application for this thought in contemporary terms?

We, like Péguy, inhabit a politically polarized culture, albeit one very different from his. Ours is one in which the idioms of a vulgarized liberalism and a vulgarized conservatism, idioms that are the offspring of an alliance between public intellectuals and advertising agencies, have combined to create political speech and corrupt political action. It's perhaps an unexpected thought that a Catholic response to this political condition has to begin from reflection not on politics itself—at least as we commonly understand it—but on metaphysics, on narrative, on poetry, and on prayer. Yet it may be that this is a thought that we here now should be taking very seriously. So what would it be to entertain this thought?

Begin with the metaphysics. To whom do we owe justice? Catholics rightly affirm that we owe it to the unborn child, asserting an identity of that child with a child after birth. The child grows up. But if so, we owe it to the child throughout its life, the child with an animal and more than animal identity. We are then committed to a strong metaphysical conception of human identity, of what this child is and has it in her or him by reason of her or his nature to become. What we owe to each child in justice are the resources that will enable this child to become what she or he has it in her or him to become. The agents who primarily owe this child justice are its parents and later its teachers. What justice requires of the rest of us is that we make it possible for them to acquire the resources that will allow parents to construct and sustain a flourishing family life and teachers to construct and sustain flourishing schools. So one of the first things that we know about a just economy is that it must provide employment for parents and teachers that is sufficiently well paid for them to be able to achieve genuine excellence as parents and as teachers.

But at this point someone will rightly complain that I'm moving through the arguments much too fast. Just what then are these metaphysical commitments concerning identity of which I am speaking? And just why and how are they bound up with radical commitments to justice? They are, first of all—all of them—controversial commitments. The conception of human identity from which we begin is at odds with a number of currently influential philosophical accounts: with Derek Parfit's view; with liberal accounts of human personhood whereby the newborn infant, let alone the fetus, is not yet a person; with conceptions of human identity as no more than animal identity. So we have to take a distinctive stance in a range of contemporary philosophical debates, drawing upon the resources provided by the Thomistic philosophy of the human agent but addressing questions that Aquinas never had occasion to address. Here is a programme of philosophical work, most of which is yet to be done. But we don't need to have carried that work forward very far to recognize that our metaphysical commitments involve moral and political commitments—indeed that our metaphysical enquiries will themselves go astray if we don't take into account some of the moral and political dimensions of human individuals and their relationships.

To be a human individual is to have the potentialities of a rational animal. The history of any particular individual can be told as the story of how her or his potentialities were or were not actualized. But since those potentialities are for the most part actualized in and through that individual's relationships with others—family members, teachers, friends, antagonists, members of the same theater company, fellow citizens—those potentialities in that history have to be understood in social terms. Consider for example one distinctively human characteristic, accountability to others. Good parents and teachers call us to account early on for what we do and what we say. And characteristically and generally, it is by learning that they are accountable, and by becoming accountable, that children first become aware of the ineliminable part that conceptions of justice and fairness are going to play in their lives. But what we are all of us accountable for is, in key part, acting justly and fairly: in the school and in the playground, in quarrels as in friendships, in our closest relationships as in our relationships to the wider community.

What we're grasping here are, on a Catholic view, the requirements of the natural law. And it is insofar as they grasp these requirements that Catholics and non-Catholics alike understand what adults owe to children, all the children for whom they are accountable as members of the same political society. The primary responsibility, as I noticed a moment ago, belongs to parents. But I also noticed that parents can give their children what they owe to them only if they have economic means that enable them to house, clothe, and feed those children; have the time and energy to play with those children and to tell them stories. Children deprived of such homes find it often difficult and sometimes impossible to learn from their teachers in school, no matter how good those teachers. The children who don't learn are unable to become educated citizens, and a society with a significant portion of badly educated or uneducated citizens is always a defective society, one in which it becomes difficult or even impossible to arrive at rational agreement about common goods and, therefore, about the requirements of justice and how they are to be achieved.

So we arrive at something close to a paradox. In order to carry forward those public debates and enquiries through which alone we can justly determine what it would be for our society to be justly ordered, especially with regard to the educational needs of children, we need the politics of a widely-educated public. But to have this kind of public and this kind of politics, we need already not only to have determined what justice requires with respect to the distribution of educational opportunity but to some large degree to have satisfied those requirements. And in this the United States as a political society has clearly failed in recent decades, and this in two ways.

First, the United States has in these decades become a society not of diminishing but of sharply increasing inequality. The inequalities most often remarked on are those of income and wealth, but quite as important are the inequalities in education. Consider just one remarkable fact, one rough-and-ready true generalization: that in any large urban area, the districts in which the children are most in need are those where expenditures per school student are likely to be the lowest, and vice versa. Add to that that when economic pressures on federal, state, and local governments require cuts in budgets, those cuts extend to those whose educational needs are already unmet. I'm not one of those who believe that educational problems can be solved by—you've probably heard this foolish phrase quite often—“throwing money at them.” What I do know is that only massive changes in the distribution of our financial and other resources could remedy this particular injustice.

So why is the need for such a massive redistribution something so rarely if even hinted at in political debates? It is, I want to suggest, in part because of our weakened and still weakening sense of political community, a weakened sense in successive generations of what it is to be an American, with responsibilities to other Americans, of what it is to be informed by and share in the common history of the particular political society that is the United States. This loss of historical memory has three aspects.

First, Americans used to be much more aware than they are nowadays of the pasts of their own families, an awareness that resulted from the passing on from parents to children and more importantly from grandparents to grandchildren of stories, stories that often related the past that made them what they were to the past that had made their country what it was. This changes, of course, only one consequence in the decline of family conversation as a folk art.

Secondly, contemporary Americans are much less apt to remember what they owe to the dead and to remember by celebrating that debt: whether it is to those who died at Valley Forge; to the black Americans of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment who died in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863; to the Japanese Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who died in Italy and the Ardennes in 1943 to 1944; or to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, killed by their fellow Americans in Mississippi, martyred for the cause of civil rights in 1964. The history of these dead Americans is central to that larger history of which each family history is a part. It is central, too, to the history of American struggles for justice.

Thirdly, Americans by and large no longer have the habit of poetry. When I speak of poetry, I mean memorable, or if you like, memorizable, speech. When I speak of the habit of poetry, I mean a disposition to express shared memory and shared sentiment in such speech. When, in 1876, Emerson wanted to celebrate the dead and the living of 1776, he wrote a poem. “Nothing surprising about that,” you may say; “just one of Emerson's works.” But what matters is that generation after generation of American school children learned that poem by heart and expected their children to learn it, too, as they did. But at a certain point in time, they stopped learning it, and not only it. Or take the case of Walt Whitman. I grew up in another country, taught by my schoolmasters that to be an American was to read Whitman. When I immigrated forty-two years ago, I tested their claim by asking students in my classes—classes often of a hundred or more students—how many of them had read Whitman in high school. For the first fifteen years or so, the answer was always way above eighty percent, and then it began to decline until from 2007 onwards it was zero. Of what is this change a symptom?

Whitman is so importantly American first because he is the poet of many voices, all speaking, some shouting, some singing through him, but most of them in fact not his; voices from the dead and from the future; voices that contend for a hearing; voices that invite countervoices; voices that don't silence much quieter and more disturbing American voices, such as Emily Dickinson's. To become American from the late nineteenth century onwards was to have to find one's own voice in and through the multiplicity of voices, while valuing the multiplicity, the discordance, the variety as much as, or sometimes even more than, one's own songs and speeches and rants. America was an extraordinary experiment in poetic disagreement, in agreement to value poetic disagreement, but alas an experiment that has failed for some decades. What disturbingly large numbers of Americans now most want is for other people, beginning with other Americans, to agree with them, and to agree with them speaking in the same tones of voice, in self-righteously condemning those who don't agree with them. The so-called “culture wars” were the beginning of the symptoms of the loss of a culture.

There is, of course, a political story to be told about the United States in these same decades, a story which in part concerns the politics of a period of economic and financial expansion, that was also a story of irresponsible risk taking, of that grotesque and growing inequality to which I have already referred, of blatant expansion of credit and infliction of debt followed by economic and financial partial collapse. That political story is also a story of wars undertaken without any adequate calculation of either the financial cost or the human cost. It is a story in which the rhetoric of politics has become increasingly inadequate to represent the realities with which it ostensibly deals. In politics, as in their shared culture more generally, Americans have to rediscover how to speak to each other.

How, then, should American Catholics respond to this situation in which urgent issues of charity and justice confront them? How can they tell this story so that it doesn't have a tragic ending? How can they bring their metaphysics and their narrative to bear on the issues that confront them? I can pose this question to you, but I can't answer it, and not just because I happen to know of no good answer to it; for even if I did, I couldn't answer it because I'm not an American, and only Americans can rethink and poetically imagine what it is to be an American and what it would be to have an adequate politics.

About American Catholics who will be able to do this, I can, however, say three things. The first is that they will be Catholics rather than those who define themselves as liberal rather than conservative or conservative rather than liberal. They will have learned from Péguy. They will reject not just the tired slogans of those antitheses but the ingrained habits of thought that they express. They will confront the particularities of local problems with deep suspicions of both the market and the state.

A second characteristic of such present and future American Catholics derives from that in the life of the contemporary American church, which is its chief glory: the extent to which so many Catholics have, in attempting to meet the full range of human needs in all their variety and particularity, already taken the measure of those needs with charity and justice: the needs of the hungry and the homeless; the needs of single mothers; the needs of migrant farmworkers; the needs of refugees and illegal immigrants; the needs for good high schools for deprived children; the needs of the physically and the mentally ill; the needs of those in prison and of ex-prisoners—the catalogue could go on and on. And so could the catalogue of Catholic groups and institutions devoted to meeting those needs, sometimes in cooperation with non-Catholics, sometimes alone: Catholic Worker houses; Dismas Houses and other organizations that aid ex-prisoners; the St. Vincent de Paul Society; the groups of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual bishops set to work for immigrants and refugees; the teachers in Catholic schools; and the students who, through the Alliance for Catholic Education, become such teachers; the priests and parishoners who have been and are hospitable to those in need. We generally and rightly don't think of their activities as political, but it is their activities—and the needs that they identify—that provide the starting point for any adequate politics. How so?

What they provide is a measure of the variety and depth of human need, and more especially of the needs of children: children who are hungry or homeless; children of prisoners; children whose schools fail them; children whose parents don't have the means of caring for them. So the first political question to be addressed, both to intellect and imagination, is what would it mean to live in a society where it was widely felt to be intolerable that those needs should not be met in the ordinary course of life? And the second political question to be similarly addressed is: how would life be organized in a society where those needs were met in the ordinary course of life?

I leave you with questions and tasks. And as I said earlier, to think well about these questions, you would do well to begin not with thinking about politics but with thinking about issues that confront us in metaphysics, in poetry, in narrative, and particularly in that metaphysics which is our own, in that mode of speech which is our own, in that narrative which is our own. What I do want to suggest is that it is of some importance now to be Catholic rather than someone for whom these are not inescapable questions.

[Here Sean Kelsey gives a response, then MacIntyre receives questions.]

Question: So I thank you both for very provocative and insightful comments. My question is for Professor MacIntyre. I'm very sympathetic to what you say about the need to take the needs of children into account, and the need to have more just allocation of educational resources. But I was surprised that, in talking about the ways in which our culture does not take those needs into account and the ways in which children suffer from an unjust allocation of resources, you didn't mention the sort of deeper injustices or the deeper sources of educational imbalance, which is the fact that children are not receiving the sorts of education that they need in early life from their parents because of the decline of a marriage culture. So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about what justice and charity require for us as Catholics in this culture, with the needs of children very much in mind, in terms of strengthening that marriage culture.

Answer: It's very important here that to recognize the depth of a problem doesn't mean you've taken a single step towards solving it. One of the small remarks that I made was about how the loss of a sense of past among Americans—and this is something that I noticed very much in my own students, not only here but in other universities over the past forty years—this loss of a sense of past is bound up with the loss of the art of family conversation, with the extent to which children are brought up talking to parents and grandparents and learning not to be bored what seemed to them often long and boring stories by their elders. And the family, when it flourishes, is like that.

Now, let's immediately note one source of failure that nobody can do very much about and that has got nothing much to do with morality, namely, the mobility of American life. If you want to look at one reason why families aren't what they used to be, it is that people do not live in the same place as their parents: that the extended family has, in many ways, ceased to exist. I have very often been heard to say—people find this familiar—that people nowadays don't understand how important aunts are. I very often ask my students, "What are duties of an aunt?" And people would find this a very odd question. But I noticed—it's not only the case for me—but I noticed among many of my contemporaries—Seamus Heaney, in a memoir—talking about the crucial role that aunts played in our upbringing, and that if it hadn't been for aunts and cousins, our relationships to our parents would not have been what they were; that parents alone—it's very difficult for them to discharge their familial duties.

What I'm just pointing towards are the dimensions of a crucial problem. And, of course, you cannot restore children to well-being without restoring the family to well-being, and then we see all these difficulties in the way of restoring the family to well-being. And you then realize how irrelevant much conventional political discussion is because it doesn't focus on these problems at all. And so how do you begin?

Well, you begin in ways that are much further away from immediate politics than one might suppose. I think you look at totally different things. One is you look at those areas in which families still do flourish, and ask why; that you don't only attend to the breakdown, but you look at places where they are sustained. The second thing you do is you look at the history of those remarkable institutions, some of them in Chicago, where—if you use the generic name orphanage, it's very misleading—but places where children whose parents had deserted them, whose parents had died, whose parents are unable to bring them up, were given an upbringing which turns out to have been in many cases a very remarkable and positive thing. And again, you want to look at the cases where people succeed, and ask what was it that supplied in this? Because here there were people in situations, very desperate, providing what was needed, and they didn't begin with theories, though they often began with strange other things.

The priest in Chicago, who founded a home for boys which is still flourishing and which has a very remarkable history—the cardinal archbishop of the day sent for him and told him that he was going to be given this job, and he said, “I will only do it if you send me to business school for a year,” which the cardinal was very surprised by. But he did send him to business school for a year. And it turned out this was the right preparation—exactly the right preparation—for what he then was able to go ahead and do, because he learned how to hire the right kind of people. And that thinking about how you hire the right kind of people wasn't the first thing that had come in to the cardinal's head; was, interestingly, the thing that he learned.

Now, there's nothing like a recipe here. I'm not saying that if you want to solve the problems of children, find the right priests and send them to business school. There is no recipe about this at all. What there is is a great deal of reflection and of practical immersion that has to be undertaken. Again, what Sean said is tremendously important. No good talking about this here—people like us talking about it to people like you—that is absolutely useless. What matters is whether there is real immersion activity that takes place, and those transformations can happen. These rambling remarks are intended to suggest that making rambling remarks might be an intellectual method, might be a method of going to unexpected places to get answers.

Question: Jeff Bishop, Saint Louis University. I guess this is a question for both of you. At the risk of romanticizing pre-Enlightenment culture, the church was the ground and the root out of which—and the practices of the church, prayer, charity, et cetera—were the root and the ground out of which the practices of politics and education grew. And something happens along about the time of the Enlightenment—maybe with the founding of the university, I don't know—where the practices of the church—prayer, liturgy, almsgiving—begin to come under the rubric of the state. So the state, or the polity, begins to inform how the church is supposed to live out its life and how education is supposed to be done. And so it's not to be too mean if we take the French church now, today, as an example: it's dead. European Christianity is dying left and right; it's falling apart. We see within the American Catholic church the same political struggles that we see in American polity. And so what we've got is this sort of—everything is turned upside-down, it seems—that the politics have become the ground and root out of which—the house within which—the church is supposed to play and within which the education systems are supposed to carry out their business. Speak to that, and how do we ever get away from that?

Answer: Let me get a little bit away from where the question was asked, to talk about something that is in a way important. We're all of us today very concerned with how marriage is to be understood, with what an adequate conception of marriage is. It's also very important not only how we should understand marriage but who is to have the authority to define it, who is to have the authority to say what marriage is. And it is the case in modern societies that this authority has been assumed by the state, and that therefore discussions about what marriage is are discussions about how the state should define it.

And let me look at the debates that are now going on in the United Kingdom as an example of this, where the bishops of the Church of England who have a voice in this necessarily, at least those of whom are members of the House of Lords, have taken a quite unequivocal stand about marriage, saying it's not that they're against gay marriage: there is no such thing. And it seems to me about this they are completely right, and it's very interesting how at this point they are taking a stand which begins to reverse two hundred years of history, because how did government ever get into the business of defining marriage? And the answer is it got into it in a very good way, in a way that was, in a way, admirable.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, members of the House of Commons became extremely concerned about the fate of young women who were either promised marriage and then seduced under cover of that promise and then the promise was broken, or who were taken through ceremonies that they thought was a marriage—in fact, it was entirely a fake marriage—and that the seduction and corruption of helpless young women, mainly servants in various large houses—the question was how you should protect them. And the answer was by making sure that it was unambiguous what was, and what was not, a marriage ceremony; that the marriage ceremony had to be public, and notice that one was to take place had to be given in public. And so the Marriage Act of 1753 lays it down that, no matter what your religion, no matter who is going to perform the marriage ceremony, the banns must be called; that is, notice must be given in the local parish church, the Church of England, three times in the preceding weeks. And various other measures are introduced. This is when it becomes possible for a young woman who has been promised marriage and then denied it to sue the man for damages in the courts, and to do so successfully. A whole set of rules are introduced, and institutions are introduced, for the protection of young women. And at this point the government has done from entirely Christian motives what the church had been unable to do. This is very important.

Now, it is very important we were talking about the transition from the church being the source of all sorts of things, to government and the state being so. But characteristically, government assumed responsibilities which the state, under the conditions of emerging modernity, was not discharging. But it doesn't mean that the church was failing scandalously. It was that the church simply didn't know how to function in a way to meet those needs. And the question for us now has to be, therefore, not so much how do we win the political battles over the definition of marriage, but how do we bring home that the state has no business at all in defining marriage? The state is now intervening in a sphere where it really has no place. And it certainly wasn't the case that the British House of Commons in the eighteenth century intended anything like this. They set on foot a process that then took root elsewhere, which quite inadvertently produced this effect. We now take it for granted that certain questions are questions for state and politics which should not belong in the political sphere at all. So that's a short answer to part of what you were saying.

Question: Hello, thank you both for being here. My name is Caitlin Deering. I am a sophomore in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics minor here at the University of Notre Dame. Professor MacIntyre, you discuss the modern trend of a weakening of political community. Students who study their history like I did gain a sense of pride in what their country has done and what it stands for. The recent election involved a certain debate regarding the concept of American exceptionalism and what prominence this concept should have in our national character. How would you distinguish this concept of American exceptionalism from your concept of political community? That is, is the former more exclusionist, or too aggressive? Thank you.

Answer: We non-Americans are very happy that Americans should think of themselves as exceptional. We wouldn't want them to think of themselves in any other way. We hope desperately it's true. But in fact we have this dark suspicion that it's not. And let's go back in the history—just one or two small things one talks about, about the great things that have happened in American history—that's perfectly alright. But then remember that the United States as a nation is the nation that emerged from the Civil War. And the Civil War was the most destructive war up to that date in human history. This wasn't, as it were, the result of any moral fault or change; it was the result of the introduction of the repeating rifle and of technology. And the question then—very interesting question—is how do you recover as a nation after you have been through that? How do you in fact remember the past accurately and at the same time carry it forward?

I'm not going to answer that question. It's a question that for me has great force, because I come from the north of Ireland, and it is only fifteen years or so since we ended a civil war—a civil war of a very different kind, but Northern Irish politics today is a question of how people work together constructively who are in fact quite literally trying to kill each other very recently. So the question of how political bonds emerged from conflicts—conflicts both within a community and conflicts between that society and other societies—this then becomes a real question.

Now, I think there is one particular American example which is important here. I take it that, when the Vietnam War ended, and it was ended in the only way that it could have been ended—I very much endorsed prudence involved in the way in which the war was ended—Americans were unable to talk to each other about what had happened. The Vietnam War Memorial is a remarkable memorial, but what the Vietnam War Memorial symbolizes is a kind of silence about the events that led up to it, and a silence about what those dead died for. And I think that one of the things that has to happen in American debate is to reopen the question of what it was that happened in the Vietnam War, and what it was that went unresolved and continued to go unresolved because of the inability of people to come to terms with that particular bit of the past.

So one way of thinking about political societies is: how good are they at coming to terms with their own pasts? This is why Péguy is such an interesting person, because he made the French—he made French Catholics—come to terms with their past, and come to terms with their present, in all sorts of ways. And this wasn't just sort of a large question debated by intellectuals. One of the really interesting things about Charles de Gaulle is that de Gaulle grew up in a household whose parents started out as very conventional conservative Catholics, with very conventional right-wing views, who were moved by reflection and by moral judgment, by all sorts of ways, so that they found themselves opening up questions that nobody around them in their circles had wanted to ask. And the way in which not only Péguy but other people generated among French Catholics a kind of self-questioning, that led to a questioning about what France is—this is very impressive. This is why I think we have a lot to learn from Péguy.

Question: My name is Angela Miceli. I'm a Ph.D. student from Louisiana State University, and my question is for Professor MacIntyre. Towards the end of your talk, when you were sort of giving suggestions about what American Catholics can do, one of the last things you said was you're turning to the church and looking at these institutions that take care of the needy and the hungry, the single mothers, and you listed some of these groups. And the thought that came to me was we have currently certain public policies, such as the HHS mandate, that seems to make that work very difficult, and I was wondering what your thoughts were about what we as American Catholics can do, given that constraint. Thank you.

Answer: Well, let me say two things. The first is, simply, that it is my own view that the bishops are absolutely right to challenge the mandate in the health care law, and that the case for doing this is a case for religious freedom. And I think that our colleague Carter Snead has stated this case on several occasions in very compelling form, so that I have no doubt about this. But it's very important to recognize that if you remain—that you have to fight various political battles as they come along; there is no way of avoiding that. But it's very important not to make your politics simply a set of responses of this kind, because that will be very misleading. I emphasize now what I've emphasized throughout: if we are going to think well about politics as Catholics in the United States now, there are a lot of things other than politics that we have to begin by thinking about.

One just footnote to this: when I gave the catalogue of all the good things that happen in American Catholic life, I mentioned as just one item among others the Alliance for Catholic Education, and the work that Father Scully and others have done for that. I think this was a very remarkable recognition of how need can be met in a way that benefits not only those whose needs are met but actually benefits the people who meet the need, and that surprisingly often you will find that when you start thinking about problems in a wider way, you discover that there are dimensions to them that haven't been adequately thought about. I think Father Scully was an example to us all in what he not only thought but imagined for this. And I take this to be the thinking, in wider terms than we've been used to thinking about them, is what we have to learn to do. And so immediate political issues mustn't be allowed to focus our attention too exclusively.

Thank you.

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