This will be the last formal Monday entry on Morality for about a month, as I am taking a break to collect my thoughts, see some new landscape, work at my clinic, and—a last minute’s insertion in the calendar—hopefully get a good look at the total eclipse of the sun on August 21 from a vantage point with special memories. During my college years at Catholic University I was assigned to help during summers at the Franciscan parish in Anderson, South Carolina, down the road from Clemson University. I worked in Anderson in 1970 and 1971, during a very uneasy time of integration. During my second summer, there was a resurgence of the Klan, and several FBI agents would visit our church from time to time, as we served the black Catholic community. The Catholic churches in Anderson were still de facto segregated in 1970. St. Mary’s Church is alive and thriving today, and the dead center of the eclipse runs through the city, so what better excuse to see what has developed over the nearly half-century since I last played basketball with the neighborhood kids. (Clemson’s champion football coach, Dabo Swinney, was one-year old when I arrived in SC in 1970—doesn’t that make one feel old?)
The Monday Morality stream has grown into a troublesome two-year old, and when I get back to weekly Monday posting, I am not certain how to progress in an orderly fashion. There is so much about Catholic morality posted daily on both Catholic and secular media steams that I never saw much point in the Catechist Café becoming just one more echo. Moreover, although the Café itself has morphed into a general public platform, the original intent remains education. Rather than take positions or comment on matters such as national health care, my goal has always been to get to the underlying principles in Catholic thought. Probably nowhere is this harder to do than in the field of Catholic morality. Consequently, I have thought long and hard about what our future “outline” would look like.
I considered using the Catechism itself, in the way that I use Sacrosanctum Concilium from Vatican II in discussing the sacraments on Saturday. But SC is a shorter and more workable document that reflects a real if imperfect attempt by the Church to address God’s pilgrim people in a true historical sense—tempered by culture and the philosophy of the times. By contrast, the Catechism’s treatment of morality appears written outside of human experience, for a world that only a mathematician could love. In fairness, the Catechism is a vast improvement over its predecessors in its inclusion of the New Testament and the virtues in its discussion of morality. Alas, the corpus of its moral teaching falls to the perennial weaknesses of all such attempts: (1) a claim of timelessness and immutability for matters that do change; (2) failure to acknowledge the basic principle of law that no legislator can anticipate every human circumstance; and (3) lack of communication with human philosophy, culture, science, and the arts.
The quest for the heart of the moral mind dates back at least as far as Socrates, but moral instinct is evident in older Greek tragedies and in the heroic poetry of Homer, to cite two examples. And here I am focusing only upon the world of Western Europe; the richness of Eastern moral thought long predates Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics of the fourth century B.C. Aristotle, for his part, was a profound influence upon Catholic thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas.
The fact that Aquinas and other medievalists spent so much energy upon ethics, virtue, and the human mind is good evidence that Catholic moral teachings—even those enshrined in timelessness in the Catechism and the moral manuals of the last five centuries—were never as clear and complete as we would like to believe. Aquinas’s teaching upon the principle of ensoulment—when does an embryo receive a soul and become a human—is patterned after Aristotle’s belief that the embryo passed into human-hood in forty days if a boy, and eighty days as a girl. The Church’s teaching today—that humanization and ensoulment occurs at the time of the fertilization of the egg—would never have been possible without Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s 1676 discovery of micro-organisms with the newly minted microscope. Catholic Morality’s partnership with the development of human knowledge is rarely acknowledged in catechetics, perhaps because “change” connotes a loss of power in the teaching (and the teacher.)
The Christian tradition, of course, looks to Jesus Christ as the model for what philosophers of every age refer to as the “good life.” But the Church has labored for centuries to understand the translation of Jesus’ virtue into the “existential” of the here-and-now. The story of the rich young man underscores the quest. When an idealistic follower of Jesus asks what he must do, Jesus at first prompts him to obey the commandments, as they were taught and understood in Jesus’ time. But the man replies, “I have followed the commandments from my youth” and he presses for the next step. Jesus tells him to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor, and then follow him. The Gospel records that he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Is this man a moral failure? I hardly think so. What a fine world this would be if everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments. But the crux of the story is its emphasis that obeying the Law is an entry into something greater; the moral guidance that flows from the tale is the recognition of human weakness and courageous virtue. This is the conundrum of Evangelical biblically based morality—its emphasis upon a selection of texts fails in the same way that manualist Catholic morality fails—fixation on text over the lived reality of striving for a virtue that demands increasingly more.
The making of moral choices (or the failure to do so) animates human life—even the arts, from Oedipus Rex to The Sopranos. Our catechesis of morality deserves that multi-disciplinary exploration that indeed makes up our very identity as humans. God has created us with infinitely more complexity than our textbooks. Thus, I am not going to use the Catechism per se when I return to fulltime moral posting late in August. I don’t have a full blueprint yet, but I’m in this for me as well as for you.
I have a bad habit of reading too many books at once, compounded by the number of Audible.com recorded books I carry around on my phone. I recently swapped out phones, from a 4G storage base to a 64G base, which means that I carry around the library of Congress in my pocket for listening pleasure every time I run to the market for lettuce and tomatoes.
The problem with too many open engagements with books is that the ideas of each tend to spill over into the next—not exactly a recipe for clear thinking. On the other hand, it is curious how the same themes and—to our point here—the same human foibles repeat themselves across time lines and disciplines. The two books presently under closer scrutiny in my scrambled literary world are The Best and the Brightest (1972, 1993) by David Halberstam, and Morte D’Urban (1962) by J.F. Powers. The first is a historical analysis of how the United Stated States got itself into a war that would ultimately kill millions of people and revise the way that America thinks of itself. The second book is a novel about a middle-aged priest in a nondescript religious order in the last years before Vatican II, cursed with the smarts to see himself and his order for what it was but too comfortable to light the fuse of genuine renewal. Literary-speak, a world apart, but upon reflection, maybe not so much.
I listened to the preface of The Best and the Brightest yesterday on my walk; it is a lengthy (four-mile walk) but thought-provoking description by the author of his own four-year odyssey— “like going to school,” he puts it—through the workings of President John F. Kennedy’s [and later Lyndon Johnson’s] cabinet and military advisors through the advent of and expansion of the Viet Nam War. The title comes from a common belief at the time that JFK’s cabinet was a cluster of unusually intelligent and highly educated men for his day: Robert McNamara, President of Ford Motor Company who, among other things, introduced seat belts as an option; McGeorge Bundy, the youngest man ever to attain the position of dean of Harvard University, etc. Halberstam’s favorite quote in the book provides a clue of the book’s destination. Vice President Johnson, after an early cabinet meeting in 1961, bubbled over with enthusiasm at the genius of the cabinet. “You may very well be right,” replied his old colleague Sam Rayburn, “but I’d feel a whole lot better if even one of them had ever been elected a sheriff.”
Halberstam’s narrative is a catalogue of sins that covers about 75% of the Catechism’s. Tops among them is hubris, not surprisingly, but not far behind is intellectual lethargy and fear. BB traces the fear of the dominant party, in this case the Democrats, over its post-WW II reputation as being soft on Communism, particularly in the 1950’s McCarthy witch hunt era. The defense of South Viet Nam and victory over the Communist North was seen as an extension of the Cold War, i.e., the U.S.-led free world versus the expansionist designs of global godless totalitarian Communism. As the war progressed, the disingenuousness of American public policy led to a dangerous disconnect in our own country, leading to the civil unrest for which the 1960’s is famous. No one in government, it seems, gave much thought to a critical reality of the Vietnamese peninsula, that the north-south division of Vietnam was only a recent episode of internal conflict dating back to at least 900 A.D., as I have seen in some histories. Preconceptions of the U.S. government—and an undue attention to the past--blinded it to the limited returns of a long and costly jungle guerilla war, let alone the moral components of decision making.
Morte d’Urban, (the “death of Urban’) by contrast, is a much smaller fictional story of a successful priest in an American religious order of no particular note. Set around 1960, perhaps, Father Urban is a nationally popular retreat master and fundraiser who, despite his vows, enjoys his mobility and good liquor. He has not quite lost his soul, and he able to see that his order, the fictitious Clementines, is bankrupt in every sense of the word, including competent leadership. One such incompetent officer of his order inexplicably assigns Father Urban to a seedy retreat house, a monument of physical neglect that even Chip and Joanna Gaines would despair of. Father Urban’s local superior—attempting rehabilitation on the cheap—puts his retreat master and only true source of revenue to scraping paint and stripping wallpaper.
[I can only say—this sort of mismanagement in the American Church was so common back then, and even later. The most gifted philosopher/seminarian in my classes at Catholic University was being groomed by his dying order to tour the country selling Christmas cards to fund the order’s operations. And this was nearly a decade after the publishing of Morte d’Urban.]
Father Urban slips his bonds by assisting at weekend Masses at a nearby parish, thus becoming a magnet for favors and references from local clergy and even the chancery. He seems to have had one long-time friend/benefactor who was, as the saying goes, “connected,” for our business minded retreat master musters the funds to develop a golf course to attract a new clientele, the Manhattan Avenue businessman looking for more than the 1950 style stock retreat experience. As I was dozing last night, my IPad fell to my lap just as Father Urban and the local bishop were teeing it up for 18; the bishop, it seems, has now begun to covet the entire retreat/golf empire as a seminary, and Father Urban will use the jocularity of the golf range to perhaps change his thinking.
[Again, how so true to life. In the late 1950’s seminarians for the Diocese of Buffalo had three choices for studies: Niagara University, St. Bonaventure University, and St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester. Buffalo’s Bishop Burke wanted another one, close to Buffalo and, I guess, his immediate control and oversight. He set a campaign goal of $2.5 million and raised $4.4 million, which he took as a mandate “to build a palace,” as my disgruntled family would often repeat. As of this writing, three of the four seminaries are long gone; the fourth, the $4.4 million plant, appears to house about 35 seminarians from local dioceses, from what I can tell.]
I will get back to the golf game tonight, but I am struck by a common thread in both books—how individuals and institutions fear the capacity for imagination, or thinking off the reservation. Even Father Urban’s golf course venture is simply a novel accoutrement to old-style fund raising. When I dined with our new deacon a few weeks ago, I admitted to him that, approaching 70, I was profoundly disturbed by the direction of the two institutions that had shaped my entire life, the Catholic Church, and the United States. The Church has never come to grips with the post-Enlightenment era, now in its fifth century—the world of subjective thought, scientific method, transparency, critical history, and basic human rights. The United States, for its part, has grown so partisan that the imaginative cooperation necessary for the betterment of life is impossible to achieve. As a country, we are becoming old and backward, materially, and psychologically.
I have no good punch line for today’s post except to say that good literature, fiction and non-fiction, is frequently our best moral textbook. Good literature takes us to insight and imagination; bad literature confirms our error-ridden status quo. Shop wisely.