Saturday, January 06, 2018

Vermeule's mistake about human traditions

Adrian Vermeule (an academic lawyer and professor at Harvard) has written a very interesting and in some ways helpful article in the Catholic Herald about the the nostalgia felt by a number of conservative/ traditionalist-leaning Catholic writers for the apparent live-and-let-live harmony between the Church and the 'liberal' state in the USA and elsewhere in the past, recent or not quite so recent. (I'll come to my disagreement with him in a minute.)

His argument is simply that liberalism is an ideology inherently hostile to the Faith with which no long-term, stable compromise is possible. He is absolutely right. As he writes:

Put differently, as I have argued elsewhere, the main “tradition” of liberalism is in fact a liturgy, centred on a sacramental celebration of the progressive overcoming of the darkness of bigotry and unreason. To participate in that tradition, that liturgy, is necessarily and inescapably to commune with and be caught up into a particular substantive view of time, history, world and the sacred – the liberal view.

The same point can be expressed in a slightly different way, from a historical perspective, which was made clear to me by reading Edward Norman's Secularisation. Norman points out that the brief golden age in the UK with neither religious intolerance from the dominant religion, or secularist intolerance from a liberal state, was simply a momentary equilibrium of forces in the long decline of the influence of the formerly dominant religion (Anglicanism) and the long rise in the power and self-confidence of the liberal state. This golden age - more like a golden milli-second - has inspired absurd amounts of political theorising, but was simply a moment when Anglicanism was too weak to assert itself against others but still too strong to be pushed around.

Vermeule goes on to say that we should seek eternal habitations and not place our trust in princes, though he doesn't express it quite like that. Again, this is correct. But he draws a rather surprising conclusion from this. He writes:

The typical mistake is to conflate the traditions of the Church with the traditions of the broader society. These are very different things; the Church is an ark afloat on a dangerous sea, which preserves its own internal traditions in part with walls that prevent it from being deluged by secular practices and mores. 1 Peter thus connects Catholic rootlessness and homelessness with a rejection of human political traditions, enjoining Catholics to “live out the time of your exile here in reverent awe, for you know that the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood …” Catholicism is not Burkeanism. Because Catholics are exiled in the world, they can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions.

I like the point that the Church has to protect itself from bad influences, but Vermeule makes a critical mistake in (apparently) not considering the possibility that the political order be Christianised. Is this a possibility, he might ask? Well, Vatican II, in accordance with the whole tradition, demands that we at least try,

'to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the GospelApostolicam actuositatem 5

And it would be rather strange if a society made up almost exclusively of believing Catholics should not, over several centuries, make some progress in this direction. Such societies have, of course, existed, and a glance at their political institutions and human culture in general confirms that, yes, with all the imperfections inevitable to fallen nature, they had made at least some progress. When considering the traditions of such societies, and the continuance in politics and general culture of these traditions in other societies which are not blessed with the same ideal conditions, does one really want to say that a Burkean respect for tradition has no value? Does one really want to say that no human traditions should be preferred to any other?

Even if there had never been any truly Catholic societies, even if one were presented with a choice between human traditions formed by pagan or secular societies, does one really want to say that we should not bother to respect and uphold the better, and oppose the worse? Do we really not care if polygamy and human sacrifice become the settled cultural expressions of the society in which we find ourselves, when we could work to preserve those cultural aspects of, say, Roman paganism, or modern liberalism, such as contain at least a fumbling and imperfect respect for the family and for human life, and which genuinely intersect with the Natural Law?

Vermeule's mistake is to extrapolate from a rightly pessimistic view of fallen nature, which is found throughout the Catholic tradition, to an implicit rejection of the possibility that nature can be redeemed. For the story with human culture parallels the story of human nature itself, since culture is the result of many humans living together. Fallen human nature is dominated by sinful desires, but it is not wholly evil: it is still capable of perceiving the moral law to some extent. Among pagans we find pity, honour, an appreciation of beauty, artistic and intellectual achievements, and sincere religious aspirations. These good aspects of pagan societies are manifested in their traditions - as well as bad things.

Humans can, moreover, be redeemed, and this redemption has the effect of beginning a process of freeing them from error and confusion, allowing them to live better, if not perfect, lives, consistently, allowing them to think more clearly, allowing them to undertake art and politics and everything else in ways less in slavery to sin. This has consequences for human traditions, for politics. The disappearance of redeemed humanity from the political and cultural scene has the contrary consequences. Listen to the popes:

…where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost… 
Pius IX Quanta Cura §4


Therefore the law of Christ ought to prevail in human society and be the guide and teacher of public as well as of private life. Since this is so by divine decree, and no man may with impunity contravene it, it is an evil thing for any state where Christianity does not hold the place that belongs to it. When Jesus Christ is absent, human reason fails, being bereft of its chief protection and light, and the very end is lost sight of, for which, under God's providence, human society has been built up. This end is the obtaining by the members of society of natural good through the aid of civil unity, though always in harmony with the perfect and eternal good which is above nature. But when men's minds are clouded, both rulers and ruled go astray, for they have no safe line to follow nor end to aim at. 

Leo XIII Tametsi Futura §8

Should we feel more at home in a society still visibly shaped by Christianity, with saints' names and religious holidays, with respect for property and some grasp of natural justice, than we would be under Nazism or Soviet Communism? Should we, finding ourselves in one of the latter societies, look back with nostalgia on the Christian past, and use the memories and traditions of that past, which still have resonance and force with our unbelieving compatriots, as part of a programme of resistance to evil and of restoration?

You bet we should.

By all means be pessimistic about the direction society is going in as Christ is rejected more and more completely. But don't repudiate your civic obligations, and don't repudiate those traditions and that past which are among our most effective means of evangelising those with whom we share, like it or not, a public culture. Neither of those repudiations are things we can 'afford', Prof. Vermeule.

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1 comment:

  1. I think the views expressed by Vermeule may also come from how he views tradition. If one identifies "tradition" as merely passing down arbitrary customs that Catholics constructed overtime, then it would seem like they too are just some product of worldliness. In this view, Catholic traditions are merely Catholics trying to construct their own set of customs to identify themselves as "Catholics".

    But in actuality, traditions in even a non-Catholic society originate from the desire to safeguard and remind people of what that society holds as true. If one abandons tradition, then the expected result is that the society will eventually forget the important truths as well. The young will especially be vulnerable to forgetting these truths.

    So just as traditions are important for spreading the faith as you mentioned, I think it is also important for safeguarding it as well.