Monday, April 22, 2013

Public Intellectuals and Religion

I have written extensively on the “Public Intellectual”, a term often self-applied as a term of adulation. But this becomes ever so more an issue when that person also assumes the mantle of religious spokesperson, at least for their point of view.

The University of Notre Dame, that football school out in the mid-west, is hosting a conference on this which is described as[1]:

This international conference, hosted by the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, will focus on the roles played by public intellectuals—persons who exert a large influence in the contemporary society of their countries by virtue of their thought, writing, or speaking—in various countries around the world and in their different professional roles. Leading experts from multiple disciplines will come together to approach this elusive topic of public intellectualism from different perspectives.

The agenda includes such topics as[2]:

1.     The Religious Leader as Public Intellectual
2.     Islam and the Public Intellectual
3.     The Blogger as Public Intellectual
4.     The Economist as Public Intellectual
5.     The Former Diplomat as Public Intellectual
6.     The Philosopher as Public Intellectual

Now what do these who fill these roles have to say, is it if any value, and if not who are the putative true Public Intellectuals in their areas who have such statements to make. We examine these issues somewhat herein. Moreover there is the compelling question of communitarianism versus individualism. Namely as one looks at the Religious issue, examining the now current issue of Social Justice, are we individually responsible or responsible as a community?

If one examines the recent Treatise from the Vatican[3] one would gather that the Church has almost eliminated individual responsibility for communitarian approaches, in fact the very call of Social Justice is Justice emanating from Society as a whole and not from the individual to others. In fact Social Justice demands that the individual is sublimated to the community, society, and that there is some magic group of all perfect society managers who make the “right” decisions for all.The Treatise specifically states (p 145, from Vatican II):

"If economic activity is to have a moral character it must be directed to all men and to all peoples. Everyone has the right to participate in economic life and the duty to contribute, each according to his own capacity, to the progress of his own country and to that of the entire human family. If, to some degree, everyone is responsible for everyone else, then each person also has the duty to commit himself to the economic development of all."

Now economic activity is neither moral nor amoral in and of itself. It is akin to farming, to hunting, to breathing, to perhaps even reproducing. The act has a moral element when and only when it causes an immoral act; that is it causes a robbery or murder. Now to view in economic terms the statement "each according to his own capacity..." is as Marxian as "to each according to his means and to each according to their needs..."  The statement is full of communitarian elements and devoid of individualistic responsibilities. This is a prototypical statement from Vatican II, and in ways it is as we shall discuss the basis of the conflict resulting therefrom as described by Wills.

The concept of their being a Social Doctrine of the Church is in many ways a total denial of individual responsibility. Yet the very essence of the teachings in the New Testament is directed towards the Individual. Thus in a way the progression of the Church’s doctrine has been in response to the Liberalism and Enlightenment doctrines and rather than emphasizing the Individual duties the response was to create a parallel universe which “agrees” with these “pagans” but uses words more akin to what the Vatican would be comfortable with.

From an interview with one of the speakers, the erstwhile Religious one defines Justice as follows[4]:

For me it is a commitment to justice, to making the good of others, the good of the world community the ground on which I make choices. Justice is more than niceness or random acts of kindness. Justice is a principle of life. For example, from a religious perspective in this day and age, I believe justice requires me to have as much respect for Islam, as I do for Catholicism. We do Islam a great disservice if we judge the entire tradition on the basis of a few radicals. My spirituality directs me to recognize the spiritual foundation, the truth and vision in every religion.

John Ryan, a Catholic priest in the late 19th through mid-20th century wrote a great deal on the concept of Justice, and Distributive Justice as her termed it. His view was that it was necessary to take from the rich to support the poor and he was a severe critic of capitalism. Moreover his views were that “society” owed the poor and he saw the individual qua individual as irrelevant.

As Ryan states[5]:

“The Christian conception of the intensive limitations of private ownership is well exemplified in the action of Pope Clement IV, who permitted strangers to occupy the third part of any estate which the proprietor refused to cultivate himself. Ownership understood as the right to do what one pleases with one’s possessions is due partly to the Roman law, partly to the Code Napoleon, but chiefly to the modern theories of individualism.”

What Ryan says is that no individual or person has the true and clear right to their property. In fact the Clement argument is one of using the fallow land. Farmers left one third of their land fallow so as to allow it to recover. Clement then believe that fallow land should be put to use, albeit destroying the value in the future. No one has ever claimed Pope’s were infallible in science and agriculture.

Ryan then quoted Herbert Spencer:

“Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims of superior cunning, these are the sources to which these titles may be traced. The original deeds were written with the sword rather than the pen; not lawyers but soldiers were the conveyances; blows were the current coin given in payment; and foe seals blood was used in preference to wax.”

Strange as this may be as a quote, it does allow him to draw in Spencer, the strong promoter of 19th Century individualism to justify his claims; a claim that simply states that no property has any “legal” and read that as “moral” basis. In fact Ryan’s belief is that not only should the one third be shared but that there should be no private property at all.

The problem here is a serious one. In the Gospels there was always an acceptance of several important issues:

(1) What was the State was the State’s and what was God’s was God’s. For example you had to obey God’s law but if that violated the State’s law so be it and you thus suffered the consequences. Thus the martyrs. God’s law was imposed on the individual, not the group, martyrs died individually.

(2) The duty to obey God’s law was incumbent upon the individual. This was to a degree a break with the Old Testament Law as applied to the Israelites, who were viewed as a group. Jews as a group, and to a degree as individuals in the Group, had the duty. But since the Christians were polyglot and disparate, the group identity was abandoned in terms of their religious duty, and thus the burden was on the individual. What did “you” do, not what does the group do.
Now who are putatively true Public Intellectuals in the area of religion? I would argue that Gary Wills fits the profile quite well. He is a true intellectual, as evidenced by his wealth of experience and understanding, and he addresses key issues worth the discussion, and he does so with a level of expertise worth of an intellectual. Finally he communicates in a manner which is readily available to a wide audience, albeit educated, yet he does not write for the specialist.

I am reminded of my first Wills book, “Bare Ruined Choirs” published in 1972 and reflecting on Vatican II and the change in the Catholic Church. He was no an apologist, far from it, he demonstrated a breath of understanding the exceeded the classic religious writer. One may not agree with Wills on everything, and I am one who has many point of disagreement, but his writings are always worth reading. He is not a Hans Kung, namely he does not personalize and internalize his invective, and in fact one finds no vitriol in his words.

Thus who are the true Public Intellectuals? Posner[6] has taken a cut at that a few years ago, and I wrote a brief work examining that plus the issue of individualism[7]. The Posner discussions attempt to demonstrate the decline in the Public Intellectual. One can readily argue that the decline may in many ways have been a collapse after the interdiction of the Internet.

Let us examine two of the speakers at this conference; strangely bot are somewhat obese in my opinion, which may in itself reflect an attitude. The religious public intellectual purports to be both a contemplative and yet a rather outspoken public figure. Her writing is nowhere near that of Wills, and in fact can be somnolence creating. She appears to be confrontational with the Vatican and has developed a clan of believers who may be almost cultist in nature. She lacks the true intellectual base and her issues are ephemeral rather that of substance.

The economics representative is acerbic and critical to an extreme of those with whom he differs. If one examines his blog one see a flow of almost venom like comments against those who show even the slightest level of disagreement. Both however believe apparently in the anti-individualism of the left.

Finally, I return to Wills and a possible cause of all this mess. I would argue that it was the strength of the arguments of Augustine, as demonstrated in the brief book by Wills[8] that set the path to this point of view. Strange as it may be, for on the one hand it was Augustine that introduced individual salvation via Grace but on the other hand institutionalized Original Sin, a communitarian artifact. Wills argues that there are hidden expressions of Augustin in such works as his Confessions, and I would argue that they are indeed.

Augustine became a believer of the evil of sex, and that in many ways was a result of his own lurid and self-centered life. He fathered a child and then abandoned the child, who eventually died at a young age. He abandoned his “wife” and took up the Faith, even though his “wife” was a Christian before him. As they say the worst prohibitors of habits are those who have forsaken them; thus former smokers are adamant anti-smokers, and converts are more true believers that those born into the faith. Much of what we trouble about in today’s Catholic Faith may emanate from Augustine, the Reformation and Luther were a direct result therefrom. Perhaps Pelagius was right, as were the Donatists.

[3] See Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, US Conference of Bishops, 2004.
[5] See Ryan, Distributive Justice, Macmillan, 1916, p. 23.
[6] See Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Harvard U Press, 2003.
[8] Wills, G., Augustine, Viking, 1999.