Month: December 2009

Obama’s Peace Prize Speech, Neihbur’s "Moral Realism" and the Catholic Just War Tradition

Diverse reactions to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Price Speech (full text):

  • Fr. James V. Schall praised it:

    As far as I can tell, nothing in President Obama’s background or politics prepared us for the remarkably sane address that he delivered in Oslo. He previously went around the world apologizing for everything the Americans ever did, only to turn around and say it was absolutely necessary.

  • George Weigel believes “Obama’s Oslo speech presumes too much about a centuries-old intellectual tradition”:

    In November, the president of the United States ordered a surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan and called on other countries to do their duty in bringing that war to a successful conclusion. A few weeks later, the same president traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The notion that the juxtaposition of these two events involves a “contradiction” (as the Washington Post subhead put it, and as the president’s speech tacitly acknowledged) is, in fact, a neat illustration of just how badly the just-war way of thinking has deteriorated in our culture, and just how attenuated the idea of the pursuit of peace has become.

  • Responding to Weigel, Kenneth Anderson (Volokh Conspiracy) The tradition most at work in the speech is ‘Niebuhrian realism'”:

    .. .It is a form of moral realism that has elements of just war ethics but also a much stronger sense of traditional realism — the “world as it is” of the speech — and which run against just war ethics as functional pacifism. There are tensions between this moderate moral realism and stricter versions of just war ethics, however, depending on the elements of each that one might emphasize.

    However, perhaps more important is that although to American ears, the just war tradition and its requirements seem, today, quite ordinary and natural, it is both a relatively new way of speaking about war in the American political tradition; also one that to European intellectuals and its international elites strange if not disturbing in the age of the UN Charter; and finally one that is not embraced directly by the Vatican. …

    I am not a Catholic or Catholic theologian, but in following Vatican statements concerning the use of force, I have long been struck that the Vatican does not follow just war ethics as even the formal apparatus of analysis. Summarizing roughly, it seems to follow more closely the European line about the primacy of international law, or anyway a certain, thoroughly unrealistic, but literal, reading of the Charter. I have sometimes wondered if the Vatican’s refusal even to speak the formal language of just war ethics — the five or seven standard criteria — was not intended as a very long term message that, although Americans associate just war ethics with Catholicism, it is not the law of the Church, but only one tradition within it concerning the use of force. I believe Weigel would concur in the observation that the Vatican has abstained from signing onto just war ethics as the formal apparatus for analyzing resort to war.

    (Very true!)

  • Lastly, the editors of the Jesuit weekly America on Obama’s use of the language of his “favorite philosopher” may work against him:

    In a campaign interview last year with the columnist David Brooks, Barack Obama identified Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher. Following the president’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 15, many commentators noted that the speech reflected Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, a political theology that stressed the inescapable power of group egoism, especially in nation states, and the need of countervailing power to check injustice in the world. Niebuhr’s major works, Moral Man And Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics and The Nature and Destiny of Man, were sustained arguments for realism in politics and international affairs. But he equally insisted that nations were given to self-deception about their role in the world and employed myths and rationalizations to justify their self-interest.

    Indeed, another Niebuhr book, The Irony of American History, offered criticism of the self-deceptions, moral confusions and rationalizations of American foreign policy. … [more]


Putting Things Into Perspective

“A childish orthodoxy…has also managed to draw decisive attention to the fact that Christ at his birth was wrapped in rags and laid in a manger–in short, on the humiliation of his coming in the humble form of a servant, and believes that this is the paradox in contrast to coming in glory. Confusion. The paradox is primarily that God, the eternal, has entered into time as an individual human being. Whether this individual human being is a servant or an emperor makes no difference. It is not more adequate for God to be a king than to be a beggar; it is not more humiliating for God to become a beggar than to become an emperor.” – Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

(HT: Rod Dreher | Kyle Roberts)

"God conquers our hearts not by force, but by love"

In these last days before Christmas, the Church invites us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Birth and to experience the joy and hope which the newborn Saviour brings into our world. Gazing on the Christ Child lying in the manger, we contemplate the love of a God who humbly asks us to welcome him into our hearts and into our world. By coming among us as a helpless Child, God conquers our hearts not by force, but by love, and thus teaches us the way to authentic freedom, peace and fulfilment. This Christmas, may the Lord grant us simplicity of heart, so that we may recognize his presence and love in the lowly Babe of Bethlehem, and, like the shepherds, return to our homes filled with ineffable joy and gladness.

Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, December 23, 2009.

Towards a proper appreciation of “liberation theology” – Some resources from Pope John Paul II

In a recent post to Vox Nova, Michael Iafrate (aka. “The Catholic Anarchist”) offers a welcome reminder concerning Pope Benedict’s admonishment to the Brazilian bishops of “more or less visible consequences, of rebellion, division, dissent, offense, anarchy are still being felt, creating amidst your diocesan communities great pain and a grave loss of living strength”, stemming from “he non-critical import, made by some theologians, of theses and methodologies originating from Marxism.” To which Michael replies:

No where in this document, nor in either of the Vatican’s other two documents on liberation theology, does the Church condemn liberation theology as a whole. Nor does the Church even condemn all of the ideas of Marxism. John Paul II in fact used Marx very clearly in his encyclical Laborem Exercens. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Marxian themes can see Marx’s influence on John Paul II. Paul VI affirmed the compatibility of some forms of socialism with Catholicism and used Marxian terminology in his encyclical Populorum Progressio. In fact, by warning against “a-critical” uses of Marxism, the Church implies that critical use of Marxism is in fact acceptable, and this is what most liberation theologians in fact do. Indeed this is what official Catholic social teaching has done since the Second Vatican Council.

Once again, this is not a condemnation of liberation theology. It is merely a warning against certain tendencies. The only way one would know this, though, is to know the history of the disputes and to know the Vatican’s two previous texts on liberation theology neither of which condemn liberation theology in toto.

Finally, it is important to consider not only this message to the Brazilian bishops, but a message to the same bishops delivered by the Venerable John Paul II who insisted that liberation theology is “both useful and necessary.”

Michael is certainly right that the Church has never condemned liberation theology in toto. (Nor has it condemned capitalism or capital punishment or sexual relations in toto, howbeit that is the impression one often receives reading the rantings of the fringe left and/or right, or even many presentations within the mainstream press which abandon, for the sake of a catchy headline or a cheap soundbyte, the carefully-nuanced position of the Catholic Church.

At any rate, as Michael wisely suggests, on the matter of “liberation theology” the remedy here would be a close study of the texts. For our readers’ benefit, a compilation of texts by Pope John Paul II himself. (more…)

Robert P. George: "reigning brain of the Christian right"

David D. Kirkpatrick’s profile of Robert P. George — “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker (New York Times Magazine) — is surprisingly fair, managing to detail his natural law philosophy and present it in such a way that even the catty responses from his critics (“Liberals … generally argue that the meaning of marriage is in the partners’ love, not their loins”) cannot elude his reason (“To which George counters that they offer no definition that would exclude polygamy”). As Kirkpatrick notes:

For 20 years, George has operated largely out of public view at the intersection of academia, religion and politics. In the past 12 months, however, he has stepped into a more prominent role. With the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister turned Roman Catholic priest who helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together into a political movement, George has assumed his mantle as the reigning brain of the Christian right. And he is in many ways the public face of the conservative side in the most urgent culture-war battle of the day.

Lots of interesting personal tidbits as well (he teaches a ‘great books’ seminar with Cornel West; his wife, Cindy, is Jewish; and who knew Glenn Beck was a fan?) and then there’s this:

George once won two terms as governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference in high school and even served as an alternate delegate to the 1976 Democratic convention. He moved right in the 1980s, initially over the issue of abortion, which eventually took him back to politics. On the day of the Pennsylvania primary in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bob Casey, then the state’s governor (and the father of the current Senator Casey) surprised George with a phone call to talk about George’s criticisms of Mario Cuomo. Later that year, when Bill Clinton denied Casey a chance to speak about abortion at the 1992 Democratic convention, it was George who had helped to write Casey’s speech.

Some classic articles by George which I’ve referred to in the past:


Ryan T. Anderson (National Review) notes“the Times‘ profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work”:

Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.


While he certainly would not have been installed in one of Princeton’s most celebrated professorial chairs without having produced more than a few important insights and powerful original arguments, his contributions build on the wisdom of those who have gone before — Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu, Coke and Blackstone. They are certainly contributions that justify the Times in calling him “the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.”

Here and There

An eclectic mix of posts and articles that captured my attention recently — perhaps yours as well?
  • “A Somewhat Dispirited Advent Post” Maclin Horton (Light on Dark Water):

    It’s ten days until Christmas, and I believe I’ve thought less about Advent and Christmas this year than in any year of my life past the age of three or so. …

  • Health Care, Politicians and the Catholic Conscience – Carl Anderson reveals the double standard of some Catholic politicians:

    For decades, Americans have been subjected to the arguments of certain Catholic politicians who argued that while “personally opposed” to unjust policies like abortion, they were nonetheless unwilling to “impose” that view on the rest of the country.

    The argument was disingenuous, premised on the fact that somehow a “Catholic” conscience had to be put to the side in the public square.

    Now, the very people who argued that they couldn’t bring their private conscience into a secular public square are poised to use the law to impose a particular view on their fellow Catholics.

    Also on health care reform, see “Health-Care U” by Fr. Thomas D. Williams (National Review Nov. 6, 2009) and “The Catholic case against health care reform by Phil Lawler (Catholic Culture), both addressing the question:

    Just for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that the final legislation includes a solid pro-life amendment. Should Catholics then give their legislation their wholehearted support?

  • George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen, on the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton Sheen (The Catholic Thing December 9, 2009).
  • Paul Zummo (The Cranky Conservative) reviews Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue:

    It’s probably not a good idea generally to buy a book out of spite, but in some ways that is precisely what I did when I picked up Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. We had had a meeting at work, and several of my co-workers were amusing themselves with some anti-Palin jibes. So at lunch time I decided to take a stroll to the local book store and pick up Palin’s book, prompting the “Oh, Sarah Palin” observation from the clerk, who must be wondering why anyone in the middle of enlightened Dupont Circle would be interested in the right-wing Neanderthal. And I have to admit that I also delayed reading the book until after I got home from Thanksgiving vacation so that I could proudly read the book on the Metro. …

  • Eric Cohen (editor of The New Atlantis on “The Moral Realism of Irving Kristol” (National Affairs Winter 2010):

    the differences between More and Kristol are hardly ­trivial. Irving Kristol lived a long, happy, fortunate life, and he was never put to the ultimate test of choosing between betraying his principles and death by execution. Kristol never served in any official capacity in the government of his time, and yet he did not “fail utterly” at all in influencing the politics of his age: He was the “intellectual godfather” of a new ­governing ­conservatism, one that combined sobriety about the limits of politics and man with a reasonable faith in the American future. Yet like More, ­Kristol had no delusions about radically transforming the human condition in general or the imperfect society in which he lived. Like More, he was a man without cynicism, though he possessed (as thoughtful men and women typically do) a deep sense of irony, paradox, and contradiction. And like More, he was a man of noble character whose life and thought instructed the generations that followed him in the nature of intellectual statesmanship. If there is, in the end, a profound difference from More, it is that Kristol was never inclined to write his own Utopia. He focused instead on trying to describe the problems and crises of the modern American age, without giving in to either apocalyptic despair or apocalyptic solutions.

  • Austin Ruse on “the acid reflux of the questioning church” (The Catholic Thing):

    … They are angry that Benedict cut through the failed ecumenical project and simply invited Anglicans to join the Catholic Church, creating a way for them to do it. They are angry that Rome has allowed and encouraged the Mass of Blessed John XXXIII (also known as the Tridentine Mass). They are angry that the Church continues to demand the protection of unborn children as the central human-rights issue of our day. They are angry about Humanae Vitae. They are angry!

  • Despite Ray Bradbury’s Efforts, a California Library Closes:

    “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

  • Ghostwriter Town – Joe Carter (First Things) asks: “Why do we let people who “claim to be intellectual leaders” take credit for words and idea that they didn’t produce themselves?”
  • Why I’ll never go swimming in Australia: a man nearly lost his life to a deadly, peanut-size jellyfish:

    Australia is well known for its myriad deadly creatures, but the Irukandji remains relatively mysterious. It is a distant relative of the more notorious and widely feared box jellyfish, the sting of which can kill an adult within 2 minutes. But the Irukandji is virtually impossible to see and is tiny enough to pass through nets meant to keep jellyfish away from popular swimming spots.

  • The I.R.S. has gone after a single mom making $10 an hour – “”The auditor said, ‘You made eighteen thousand, and our data show a family of three needs at least thirty-six thousand to get by in Seattle.” (Seattle Times December 6, 2009).
  • This’ll cheer you up: That Tap Water Is Legal but May Be Unhealthy , by Charles Duhigg (New York Times December 17, 2009):

    Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases …

  • Lastly, I don’t know what’s scarier — this, John Ashcroft’s “Let the Eagle Soar”, or MC Karl Rove?

The Perils of Twittering

Alan Jacobs (The New Atlantis) on the perils of twittering during a public address:

So when you set up a Twitter stream to project as a speaker is speaking, and invite people to participate in it[!!!], you are simply asking them to fail, miserably, to understand what the speaker is saying. If a speaker makes a point that you find dubious, are you going to wait to see if later stages in the argument clarify that point, or perhaps make it more plausible? You are not. You are going to tweet your immediate reaction and therefore simply miss the next stage in the speaker’s argument. Every tweet you write, and every tweet you read on the big screen, compromises still further your comprehension of the lecture. I bet that after the talk was over there weren’t a dozen people in that audience who could have given even a minimally competent summary of what [the speaker] said.

A perfectly obvious disaster simply waiting to happen. And at an internet-conference, no less.