Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Truth, Untruth, And the Benedict Option

Rebecca Bratten Weiss has a piece up about truth, error, and how we encounter it. It ties together three loosely connected arguments under this theme, and there are different and interesting problems with each, so I'd like to work through all three.

First up, she tackles the recurring paroxysms surrounding reactionary (I hesitate to use the word 'conservative') speakers encountering violent reactions at university campuses. The most recent example was the student group which sought to have Ann Coulter give a talk as UC Berkeley. Threats of violence or disruption from organized protest groups objecting to the talk were so great that the university went through several iterations of rescheduling and re-locating the planned talk in an effort to assure security. Eventually, Coulter canceled her planned visit, since the attempts at assuring security mostly consisted of putting the talk at a place and time when not many students would be able to attend anyway.

Coulter claimed that the cancellation of her lecture was a dark day for free speech in America, but Bratten Weiss takes a different view:
My own argument is that part of the role of education is to allow us to claim our inheritance of an intellectual tradition that confers on us the right to determine what is or is not of intellectual, aesthetic, or moral value. This is entailed in the rejection of soft relativism, and consistent with the western liberal arts tradition.

To say that Ann Coulter – or Milo, for instance – is not of sufficient intellectual or moral value to merit a university platform is not to suppress their freedom of speech. No one is stopping them from writing inane books or going on Twitter rants. But that doesn’t mean they need to be paid to air their opinions.

It’s not suppression of free speech if I am not invited to speak on how I feel about neuroscience, because my feelings on neuroscience are professionally irrelevant, since I have not been trained in that field or deemed by peers to have a valuable perspective.
I agree fully that one of the purposes of an education is to learn what is and is not a speech that expresses truth. There's no great value in promoting the expression of that which is false -- a thing which the promoters of Banned Book Week fail to realize. I would also agree with her assessment that speakers such as Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos don't actually have much good to say. I think it would show good judgment on the part of a college or student group not to invite people like that to speak. I would indeed consider it a good sign if a group which had invited one of them to speak reconsidered and canceled the invitation after thinking more deeply about the sort of things those speakers actually stand for.

However, what Bratten Weiss seems to gloss over is that this is not what happened in this situation. Coulter's speech was not cancelled because more sensible heads realized that she wasn't actually someone who would say much that was true or wise. Rather, her speech was cancelled because people who didn't like the idea of her talking threatened to riot violently. While I would agree with Bratten Weiss that it is a good thing if people are wise enough not to invite people who are wrong or foolish to give speeches, I would hope that she would agree with me that it is not a good thing when people to threaten to smash things, burn down buildings, or injure or kill people as a result of their displeasure at whom others have invited to give a speech. If, for instance, the situation was that a left leaning secularist group had invited Peter Singer to give a talk -- I would think it very wrong if Christians who objected to Singer's views successfully got the talk cancelled by threatening to riot. I would think that even though I would consider it a good sign for our society if no one held or expressed Singer's views. The threat to free speech is not that Coulter is not speaking is Berkeley. There is no requirement for a civil and free society that Coulter speak at Berkeley. Rather, the threat to a free and civil society is that it was the threat of violence which stopped her talk, and indeed that a certain portion of citizens of our country are just fine with that. Myself, I would hold it a bad thing if people routinely prevent those they disagree with from speaking via threats of violence.

The second argument has to do with the idea of professors at Catholic universities taking an oath of fidelity to the magisterium. Bratten Weiss writes:
The other conversation was less good. The question prompting it – whether Catholic universities should require all faculty to take the oath of fidelity to the magisterium – was a valid one. My own view is that, beyond the theology department, this is not necessary. And even in the theology department, I believe the inclusion of experts on Jewish or on Orthodox theology would be of great benefit to a rich intellectual program. Ideally, a Catholic university would have a solid identity in fidelity to church tradition, as well as a genuinely small-c “catholic” willingness to engage with many different perspectives and traditions. Here, again, the goal is to balance principles with freedom.

Most of my interlocutors, however, were distressed by my view. “We don’t need to wallow in slime in order to understand it,” one individual wrote. What slime? I asked. Is everything outside the purlieus of Catholic orthodoxy “slime”? How about Homer and Virgil? How about Beowulf? How about Jewish philosophy? If I were a university administrator, I would consider anyone who made such a sweeping – and intellectually vacuous – condemnation of other traditions to be unfit to educate. On Catholic thought, or any thought.

My interlocutor – whose English usage was not of the best, I noticed, like the “elite” that I am – claimed to have been involved in Catholic higher education for over twenty years.

And this is worrying to me.
I have no knowledge of the specific interlocutor whom Bratten Weiss engaged with. There are a great many misguided people in the world, and some of them support the idea of Catholic professors taking oaths of fidelity to the Church, so it may well be that the specific person she was talking to was much off base. However, I am interested in addressing the topic more generally.  I'm familiar with it having graduated from a college whose theology faculty do indeed take the Mandatum (the oath of fidelity to the Church which the USCCB has helped to put together as a way for universities to bring themselves into line with the guidelines for Catholic education put forward by Saint John Paul II in Ex corde Ecclesiae.)

In this general sense, I think that there is some serious misunderstanding of what the oath of fidelity is going on here. Here is the suggested text from the bishop's website linked above:
I hereby declare my role and responsibility as a professor of a Catholic theological discipline within the full communion of the Church.

As a professor of a Catholic theological discipline, therefore, I am committed to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium.
Note that this has to do specifically with the teaching of Catholic theology, not some broader sort of religious studies department. The example Bratten Weiss brings up of having a professor to teach a Jewish or Orthodox perspective is thus not in play here. The oath specifically has to do with not claiming to present Catholic teaching when in fact teaching something contrary to Catholic teaching. Thus, someone who was teaching, "This is what members of the Jewish faith believe" necessarily cannot be violating the oath, because he or she is not claiming to say what the Catholic Church teaches but rather what another faith teaches.

I think it's also important to note that one need not necessarily be something in order to teach about it. This is obviously the case with other disciplines. One of my good friends is a history professor specializing in ethnic cleansing. It goes without saying that he has never himself carried out ethnic cleansing. However even in regards to religion one can study a tradition from the inside or the outside. There are many professors who have made a study of Islam or of Judaism (or of Christianity) without themselves being members of that faith. Indeed, in some ways, an outside scholar may provide a more objective approach. An Islamic scholar (as in, an Ulama) will necessarily be trying to explain Islamic history and practice according to his particular view, just as either a Catholic or a Protestant theologian's view of ecclesiastical history will be heavily weighted by his view as to the nature of the Church, sacraments, etc.

But assuming that a Catholic college did decide it was best to hire a faithful Jew to teach classes about Jewish faith and history, I think we can assume safely that such a professor would not be presenting Judaism and claiming it was the Catholic faith, but rather presenting Judaism as Jewish. Thus, a Jewish professor teaching about Judaism would in no way fall afoul of an oath not to falsely represent the Catholic faith.

Now there are Catholic colleges which have all professors take an oath of fidelity to the Church. For instance, Thomas Aquinas College has all their tutors take the following oath:
I, (Name), in assuming the office of tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, promise that in my words and in my actions I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church.

With great care and fidelity I shall carry out the duties incumbent on me toward the Church, both universal and particular, in which, according to the provisions of the law, I have been called to exercise my service.

In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.

With Christian obedience I shall follow what the Bishops, as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith, declare, or what they, as those who govern the Church, establish. I shall also faithfully assist the diocesan Bishops, so that the apostolic activity, exercised in the name and by mandate of the Church, may be carried out in communion with the Church.

So help me God, and God’s Holy Gospels on which I place my hand.
The idea here, I think, is that if a college sees it as part of its mission to teach truth, and holds that the Catholic faith is true, then it's necessary for those who teach there to be able to follow that mission honestly, that is, to actually hold that the Catholic faith is true. Is this the right mission for a Catholic college to have? Would it be better for a college to actively seek disparate and conflicting voices so that their students can learn both from those who hold the Catholic faith to be false and those who hold it to be true? I think there are probably good arguments to be made on both sides of that question. I can easily imagine someone arguing that there's no need for mathematics or engineering to be taught by a Catholic at a Catholic university. On the other hand, I can also imagine an argument that from a standpoint of modeling the Catholic intellectual and vocational life in its fullest, there is in fact a value in Catholic students seeing Catholic professors pursuing all manner of subjects to their fullest.

But what I don't think is a good argument is the one that Bratten Weiss makes, that it's necessary for the theology department to include non-Catholics in order to have experts on the thought and history of other religions.

In the third section of the post, Bratten Weiss lashes out against the "Benedict Option". She says:
TThere’s a lot of talk right now about the “illiberal liberals” who seek safe spaces and shun free speech. But this is by no means only a problem on the left. I would put it to my audience that it is a greater problem on the Right, and that this problem is exemplified in the so-called “Benedict option” – a studied and deliberate disengagement not only from ideas perceived as threatening but from, well, everything.
This leads me to my other big issue with the so-called Benedict Option. It leads to sloppy thought, poor philosophy, and bad art. If students are being proselytized and shielded from any alternative views, they will not acquire the ability to make their own moral judgments, but will continue to operate within a condition of heteronomy, simply repeating what they have been told – as long as it seems to work. The moment their mantras fail, so will their faith, because it was never grounded in anything solid. Refusal to engage with any new or innovative philosophical ideas does not mean protecting the tradition. It means, trying to stifle it. And when one is afraid, constantly, of what any outside influence will do to the imagination, one will turn away from any art that doesn’t just lull one into complacency. Pop propaganda, and aesthetic kitsch, are the result of this.
Honestly, in these circles, I doubt any of the Great Catholic Writers we like to bemoan the loss of would be very welcome. Graham Greene would definitely be disinvited. Once, Greene was regarded as scandalous; now that he’s received the mark of approval those who otherwise would disinvite him accept him. But this is not to their credit. It’s to the credit of those who, utilizing the tools of discernment, engaged, instead of retreating in fear. And, maybe, sometimes there is fear. It’s okay to acknowledge this. It’s okay to recognize that a book can be dangerous: look at the way even certain truly great books have been misread and misused. Look at some of the creepy criticism on Lolita (Nabokov overestimated his audience’s intelligence). And then there are the ideas that are dangerous because they are truly bad. Some ideas are bad, yes. Some speakers need to be disinvited. But we need to have a true discipline in an intellectual tradition in order to be able to articulate why.
And the Ben Op proponents largely lack this. This doesn’t mean that they’re oafish or ill-read. They may have read all the Great Books, and have opinions on them, but only because they are repeating what they were told they were supposed to think. Imagine if they had to confront the Great Books new minted. Think of the scandal of Dante, arguing for separation of church and civil authority, writing in the vernacular. Imagine if Socrates came wandering into one of their communities, grubby and pugnacious, asking impertinent questions, a non-Catholic in weird robes, of dubious sexual preference.
They’d probably want him to drink the hemlock.
I'm not a Dreher fan. His Crunchy Cons book annoyed me, his manner of leaving the Church earned my dislike, and I find some of his posts petty and overly combative. However, the number of clearly unfair attacks on his book are gradually bringing me around to the determination to read Benedict Option. So here I go again:

The Benedict Option does not, to my understanding, involve withdrawing totally into a bubble only of like-minded people. It also doesn't involve silencing all forms of dissenting opinion as the "illiberal liberals" are accused of doing.

Dreher's claim, indeed, is that orthodox Christians in the modern world will inevitably find themselves so completely surrounded by non-Christian and indeed anti-Christian opinion that they should stop trying to shut down non-Christian behavior and expression (abandon the Culture Wars) and instead focus on forming comunities of support who will aid them in living within a hostile world.

He points to examples like observant Jews, but its worth remembering that observant Jews in places like urban New York are not withdrawn from and innocent of the wider gentile culture. They have jobs and businesses within the wider world. They earn a living and raise a family while living in two worlds, the wider world that they are visibly not conforming too, and also the world of those who share their faith. Dreher advocates that people realize they cannot both be faithful Christians and be seen as conforming to the world's standards. The American-Catholic dream which flowered in the Camelot era --  that somehow you could be fully a mainstream American and also fully a faithful Catholic -- is, from the Benedict Option point of view, an illusion. Serious Christians are going to seem different from those who give themselves fully to the mainstream culture, and to persevere despite that they will need the support of their communities of similar believers.

It's interesting that Bratten Weiss specifically singles out authors like Graham Greene as being antithetical to the Benedict Option idea. Now, it's certainly true that in religious circles one can find a fair share of narrow minded people. (You can elsewhere as well, they're just narrow minded about different things.) But in the Anglosphere of Graham Greene's day, Catholics did very much live in a sub-culture. Think of Brideshead Revisited where Sebastian complains to Charles, "I wish I liked Catholics more." Charles asks what he means, saying that Catholics seem to be like anybody else. "My dear Charles, that's precisely what they're not."

At that time and place, mainstream culture was a mixture of Protestantism and secularism, but Catholics (and Jews and others) were very clearly aliens in it. The great Catholic novelists of the '30s through the '50s were very much members of a sub-culture, with their very own particular backgrounds and experiences, participating in the mainstream culture as semi-outsiders. I suppose in that sense, one could draw a parallel to the huge crop of Jewish novelists in America in the early post-war years. During the last era when being Jewish at all (as opposed to being an Orthodox Jew) clearly set one apart from the mainstream culture, with members of that sub-culture participating in the mainstream one as outsiders, that community produced perhaps its largest and most talented crop of writers.

Now, this certainly does not mean that all people who live in sub-cultures are artistic or have insightful outsider perspectives. Indeed, some of the outsider perspective of writers of the Catholic revival came from the fact that they felt doubly outsiders, estranged from the narrowness of the sub-culture and from the mundanity of the mainstream culture. But while being estranged from the mainstream culture is not guarantee of artistic merit and understanding, it most clearly also does not preclude it.


Shannon Federoff said...

I WAS part of the conversation she refers to (Rebecca and I have many Steubenville friends in common) and she was not listening to what was said... here is one of the responses she got (no one on the thread defended her position) "Things that contradict Catholic doctrine might as well be slime. Since you've glossed over my point - let me restate. Having a complete education sometimes requires learning things that contradict our faith. It does not mean that the instructors of these things must go beyond the information. These professors go way beyond - they represent, campaign, enforce, and require belief in these things. That's the point of an oath."

also... "Is there really free inquiry at a state university where the moral and philosophical claims of Judeo-Christianity are dismissed out of hand?" (never got an answer on that one...)

and here was the last comment on the thread (again, no response from Rebecca, who wanted to focus on "slime" and wether, then, we thought Jews go to hell)... "From John Paul II:

Since the objective of a Catholic University is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture(16), every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:

"1. a Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;

2. a continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;

3. fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;

4. an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life"(17).S"

Darwin said...

Thanks, Shannon.

That's some interesting (and given the tone of RBW's post not very surprising) background. I thought that her approach to the question of whether a broad education could be offered by a university composed of Catholics did not show very clear thought.

When were you at Stuebenville? I graduated in 2001.

mrsdarwin said...

To be fair, I think that anyone wanting to be taken seriously in a discussion about Catholic higher education ought to be rigorous enough to avoid calling anything "slime". (It reminds me of middle-school youth group talks about how watching a movie with any hint of profanity or sexuality is like eating brownies made with a teaspoon of dog poop.) And indeed, if one wants a person to engage with their ideas rather than giving them a talking point to run with, that kind of silly characterization is best avoided in favor of a more clearly laid out definition of one's terms. People using terms like "slime" to describe anything that contradicts Catholic doctrine do reveal a great deal about themselves in the process.

That said, I don't think that the post in response to the conversation was as intellectually rigorous or consistent as it ought to have been either, nor (as Darwin mentioned in the post) did it have much to do with the actual content and obligations of the Mandatum.