Seeking justice in this world

December 18, 2023 in Uncategorized

DERMOT ROANTREE :: When William F. Buckley Jr galvanised the new conservative movement in 1950s and 60s America, especially around the influential magazine National Review and the Young Americans for Freedom organization, he popularised the most unlikely of political slogans. You can still find it on lapel badges and bumper stickers: ‘Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton’. The ‘them’ here were Marxists, communists, utopian liberals and socialists – all those who acted out of a belief that final perfection, the eschaton, could be brought about immanently, that is in human history rather than exclusively in the hereafter. Those, in other words, who sought to create heaven here on earth.

Turning such an esoteric and cryptic phrase into a conservative call to arms showed the smarter-than-thou attitude that marked the movement in those years – understandable, perhaps, as conservatives were at pains then to show that they were drawing on just as intellectual a tradition of enquiry as the liberals who disparaged them. Buckley derived his catchphrase from Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, a dense but influential critique of modernity. Voegelin’s argument went as follows. The Christianisation of the Roman Empire, owing especially to the influence of St Augustine, entailed articulating society into two distinct orders, the spiritual and the temporal, and rejecting all world views that looked for finality or fulfilment, the eschaton, within history. That was a perfection only to be found in the supernatural realm. Christianity thus was responsible for the ‘de-divinization of the temporal sphere of power’, and to that extent the creation of the secular. Yet Voegelin detected recurrent instances, especially in modernity, of ‘re-divinisation’, of seeking once again the final perfection of human existence within history itself – Enlightenment humanism, Hegel’s dialectic, Comte’s positivism, Marx’s historical materialism, and even National Socialist millennialism. These in his view were reversions to a gnostic vision of certainty, clarity, and redemption. They were what you get when humankind comes to see itself as God. What it leads to is the loss of individual freedom and, eventually, totalitarianism.

Voegelin certainly belongs to the cohort of illustrious influences on American conservatism, but his thought was more weighty and nuanced than his politicised devotees would leave you thinking. The sense which Buckley, for example, gave to the slogan he adapted from Voegelin tended to be trite. He used it mostly to express libertarian individualism, anti-communism, and a call for small government, free-market economics, and the end of social relief and reform programmes like those introduced in Roosevelt’s New Deal. In his eyes these offended against the values of individual liberty, tradition, gradual reform, and the preservation of established institutions – conservative values which he had imbibed from such sources as Russell Kirk’s exposition of Edmund Burke’s writings in The Conservative Mind (1953).
What seems clear is that this new conservative movement prepared the way for an alignment of faith and ideology in influential sectors of US Catholicism. A strikingly large number of the leading editors, writers and activists in the movement were either ‘born Catholics’ or converts, and in their view their conservatism followed naturally and necessarily from their Catholicism. Even the non-Catholics among them thought along the same lines. They shared what one of them, the Jewish sociologist Will Herberg, called ‘high reverence for the Papacy and the Church as a great conservative force and a mighty bulwark against the totalitarian subversion of Western freedom and culture’. No surprise then that many US Catholics at the time came to see this brand of Cold War conservatism as applied Catholicism plain and simple.

The signs of this alignment are still apparent in the US Church – arguably more apparent than ever. Many of the most prominent critics of Pope Francis are senior ecclesiastics, academics, and media leaders in the United States, and they receive at least quiet support from a considerable number of other bishops and lay Catholics. When he was asked recently about this overt criticism of his leadership in the US, the Pope noted the presence of ‘a very strong reactionary attitude’ there, and averred that it caused them to lose ‘the true tradition’ and to replace faith with ideology. Is this fair? Well, the application of the term ‘ideology’ is notoriously culture-variant and context-sensitive, but there are good grounds for thinking the Pope’s judgement holds more than a little truth. How his conservative critics – not just in the US, of course – understand such terms as tradition, continuity, freedom, and reform often betrays a Burkean perspective rather than a meaningful engagement with the longer and more complex Catholic theological tradition. And those further to the right, especially the traditionalists who have been most vocal in their opposition to Francis, tend to hold to notions of authority, sovereignty, governance, social hierarchy, and the role of religion in society that owe much to the Catholic Counter-Enlightenment tradition of Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, Juan Donoso Cortés, and their successors. There is a great deal of historically embedded ideology – mostly unacknowledged, and maybe unrecognised – in all of this.

The trouble, of course, is not that there are Burkean conservatives in the Church, nor indeed that there are theological conservatives in the Church. The trouble is that there are many people – left as well as right – who bring ideological presuppositions to bear on their understanding of Catholic faith and insist that their view of things is Catholicism plain and simple. It may be impossible for any Catholic to extirpate completely the traces of ideological thinking from their understanding, but the effort must be made. Ideology, as Pope Francis has insisted repeatedly, only functions as a set of ideas. It cannot be ‘incarnated’, as doctrine must be. It cannot be rooted in the life of a people, in their experience, their reflection, and their attentiveness to the concrete reality of Christian life – all brought into dialogue with the revelation of the Word in scripture and the theological culture of the Church.

For the Pope’s conservative critics, of course, it is he who is the ideologue, and nowhere do they see it more than in his commitment to social justice. By giving unprecedented attention to climate change, migration, the death penalty, economic inequality, and other aspects of social justice he has shown himself, they think, to be a leftist, a Peronist, a Marxist, a Leninist – certainly a secularist whose only concern is with the bettering of life on earth. Many conservative Catholic media outlets have accused him of horizontal worldliness, of preaching the kingdom of God on earth – precisely of seeking to immanentise the eschaton. One of these outlets savaged his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, on fraternity and social friendship, under the headline ‘Glory to man in the highest’. And for Archbishop Viganò, that encyclical was merely an ‘ideological manifesto’ that envisions an earthly paradise. So where do they think the Pope goes wrong? Bishop Athanasius Schneider, one of Francis’s severest and most visible critics, thinks that progressive Catholics like the Pope ignore the reality that ‘social justice is not the first task of the Church’. ‘There were a lot of social problems, injustices, in the time of Jesus and the apostles,’ Bishop Schneider said; ‘but it was not the first concern of the mission of the Church. The first concern was to guide the souls to heaven’.

But it is precisely separating things out in this way that Francis opposes, and the magisterium of recent decades is with him on that. Vatican II affirms that ‘a sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man’ (Dignitatis Humanae, 1), and it asserts unequivocally that that dignity is predicated on the scriptural doctrine that every person ‘was created to the image of God’ (Gaudium et Spes, 12). And the Church since the Council has become increasingly sensitive to the consequences of this intimacy between God and God’s creation. There is no love of God without love of neighbour. The human person – the real, concrete person – is at the centre of the Gospel, at the centre of faith. ‘For the Church,’ Pope St John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical (Redemptor Hominis, 14), ‘all roads lead to man’. The human, he adds, in their concrete being, ‘is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption’. And fifteen years later he returned to the theme in Evangelium Vitae: ‘The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.’(EV, 2)

It was this same post-conciliar insight that led the Jesuits at General Congregation 32 (1974-5), at the instigation of their 25th Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, to commit to ‘a faith that does justice’. Justice specifies faith; it doesn’t follow after it. ‘The mission of the Society of Jesus today,’ one of the Congregation’s decrees read, ‘is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another’. Faith, then, is a lived reality; to believe and to act on the belief are the one thing. As Johann Baptist Metz put it, ‘The Christian idea of God is in itself a practical idea. God simply cannot be thought without this idea irritating and disrupting the immediate interests of the one who is trying to think it’. In this sense, then, Christian praxis does not follow Christian theory or knowledge; rather it belongs ‘to the fundamental way theology itself operates’. Or, as Pope Francis likes to say, ‘reality is superior to ideas’.

It is not ideology that has brought the Church to this realisation. It comes from reading reflectively into scripture and into the tradition of its reception in the Church. Contrary to what Bishop Schneider implies, both Old and New Testament are replete with affirmations that there can be no love of God without love of neighbour. You cannot tilt your head upwards and set your eyes on heaven – perhaps like the pharisee in Christ’s parable – while below you, out of sight, a neighbour lies wounded and in pain. Isaiah cries out in his vision:

What do I care about your unceasing sacrifices? says the Lord… When you stretch out your hands, I will turn away my eyes from you. Even if you pray endlessly, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood… Cease to do evil and learn to do good. Pursue justice and rescue the oppressed; listen to the plea of the orphan and defend the widow.

God’s word in the prophets, as well as the gospel message of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, insists that other than by pursuing justice there is no road to God. Nor even knowledge of God. ‘Did not your father have enough to eat and drink?’, the Lord asks in the Book of Jeremiah; ‘But because he did what was right and just, all went well with him. Because he dispensed justice to the poor and needy things continued to go well for him. Is this not what it means to know me?’

It is ideology, not religious insight or theology, that judges that seeking justice in this world is not central to a life of Christian faith. This idea has roots, perhaps, in the Aristotelean prioritising of theoria over praxis, which contributed to the privileging of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa in Christianity for so long, and arguably it owes much to classical liberalism and to post-Enlightenment traditionalism, but it does not have support in scripture or in the teachings of the Church in our time. And by limiting Christian hope to the individualistic expectation of a righting of wrongs in the next life, it eviscerates a significant portion of the Gospel message.

In God Matters, Herbert McCabe, the brilliant Dominican Thomist and unrepentant leftist, offered a different take on the effect of what Voegelin called Christianity’s ‘de-divinization of the temporal sphere of power’ in the Roman Empire. The Christian God, he wrote,

is the liberator fundamentally because he is not a god, because there are no gods, or at least no gods to be worshiped. This leaves history in human hands under the judgement of God. Human misery can no longer be attributed to the gods and accepted with resignation or evaded with sacrifices. The long slow process can begin of identifying the human roots of oppression and exploitation, just as the way now lies open for the scientific understanding and control of the forces of nature.

It is not a question of seeking the eschaton in the here and now. Rather, it is about embracing an eschatologically oriented pursuit of this-worldly justice.

Photo: risingthermals (Flickr: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)