About Me

My photo
I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Difficult Mix of Religion and Politics, Part II

In Festa Die Omnium Sanctorum

This post is to respond to a comment left on my previous post on this subject by Abu Daoud:

I will say though that IMHO the command for social justice need not and should not be accomplished through governments (the earthly city) but through the City of God and her instrument here--the Church.
When we ask the government to accomplish the duties of the church we harm both.
Mr. Daoud has hit on an excellent point, and given me the opportunity to say what I would have liked to say in my previous post, but which I couldn't fit in anywhere because of the train of thought within it.

My own (idealistic) self-styled political views would come under the heading of "Christian Libertarianism." That is to say, I would propose that we reform our system of government and society along two lines. First, the civil, secular government should be constructed along a strictly libertarian point of view, i.e. it should be extremely limited in its powers and functions to those which are strictly necessary to the civil, secular government, namely, providing for the national defense (a power which is reserved under natural law to the civil, secular government; it is unjust for either the Church or any private citizen to declare a war, the authority for which, under the just war doctrine, is strictly reserved to the lawful body of the government) and for a system of domestic criminal and civil law, with attendant courts; and, I would argue (though there is no ground in natural law for the necessity of such a governmental function per se), the provision of a national, civil infrastructure, e.g. providing for an interstate highway, and the regulation of such industries as air-traffic control and for the public utilities.

The civil, secular government should not engage in the provision of social welfare programs, which would include taking care of the sick, aged, and poor, as well as providing for education and emergency relief (things to which a great portion of our modern governmental bureaucracy tends). Such services should, in my idealistic opinion, be left to social organs other than the state, namely, to the Church.

The reason for this (drastic, some would say) redefinition of the responsibilities of government and society is based on the fundamental fact that any action of a civil government is, by its very nature, coercive. The civil government is supported in its duties and actions by means of taxes, and taxes are obligatory, not voluntary. This is, of course, as it should be; according to the natural law, the civil government has the right to collect taxes in order to carry out its responsibilities. Furthermore, the responsibilities of national defense, domestic security and law, and (I would argue) domestic infrastructure are placed upon the civil government by natural law—and we as citizens are, therefore, obliged by the natural law to support that government, even if we do not want to.

The functions of social welfare are not, however, incumbent upon the civil government because they are actions which spring not from the necessary obligation of natural law but from the gracious act of charity. (N.B. I say that they spring not from the necessary obligations of natural law, but not that they do not follow logically from it; indeed, as must be recognized from history, acts of charity are not limited to Judeo-Christian societies, and must, therefore, arise within societies acting only according to the bounds of natural law; furthermore, any shrewd observer of the natural law will note that acts of charity so become the well-being of a society that they must be at least somehow founded within the natural law—but such an observation does not prove, nor can it, I believe, that they are necessary obligations, but only prudent deductions, of the natural law.) By its very nature, the gracious act of charity cannot be coerced, else it ceases to be an act of charity—this is, of course, at the very heart of the Christian notion of charity (I use here the term "charity" in its root sense coming from the Latin caritas , the equivalent to the Greek αγάπη, which are the words used by Christianity to describe the love of God—see my post from Maundy Thursday of this year, Deus Caritas Est). It is this nature of a gracious act of charity that requires that it originate not in the edict of a civil government but from the hearts of the individuals who make up society. Furthermore, it is not for the civil government to direct these acts; rather, this authority falls to the Church. Acts of charity are most abundantly given and most thoroughly realized as acts of the spirit moved by love, and they fall, therefore, within the providence of the Church. This fact should be no clearer to us than today, the Feast of All Saints, in which the Saints of the Church stand before as most perfect examples of charitable actors.

The Gospel today is of the Beatitudes, and the homily preached by the Bishop of Münster, Dr. Reinhard Lettmann, focused on the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, namely, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned, and bury the dead (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). The point behind the Gospel reading and the Bishop's homily is that, as we celebrate today the saints of the Church, we are called most strenuously to imitate them, to carry out the implied command of the Beatitudes, and to live according the life of charity that characterizes a Servant of God. The Gospel calls on us all to be saints, and it is in the act of charity, that is, the life of love for God and neighbor, that we become the blessed Servants of God.

Furthermore, it is clear from the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy and from the Beatitudes that the social ministry of the Church is the social welfare we enumerated before. The task of caring for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned, the poor and the oppressed: this is the ministry of the Church. There is no organization on Earth better suited to carry out this charism than the Church, and it is because the Church operates not according to the rights and responsibilities of the natural law (though she does no contradict them, either), but according to the graces of the divine law. This is why I have referred to acts for the social welfare as gracious acts of charity, for ultimately, they are enacted not by human ingenuity but by the grace of God working in us.

It should come as no surprise that the socio-political philosophy that I have here laid out reflects my study of the Middle Ages. As a medievalist, I can recognize the benefits of a medieval system in which the responsibilities of social welfare were left in the hands of the Church. No doubt, some of my readers are already reaching for the mouse to post a comment along the lines of, "You would have us return to the Middle Ages?" The answer to this question is both yes and no. I would not have us return to the Middle Ages if by that one means a return to a society in which the vast majority lived lives of painful poverty, whereas a tiny minority, enjoying the labor of those poor, lived a life of enriched pleasure. I would contend, however, that such a characterization of the Middle Ages, while perhaps a fair picture of the social conditions of the time, fails to recognize many features of the Middle Ages; the reality is far more complex. I would argue that a return to the Middle Ages is exactly the kind of thing our world needs, if by it one means a world in which the intellectual tradition recognized not the opposition but both the compatibility and necessary interdependency of faith and reason; a world in which belief in the supernatural power of God was held in esteem rather than derision; above all, a world in which charity was the greatest virtue (cf. I Cor. 13:13), as opposed to the accumulation of capital or the fight for the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

Do I recognize that the relationship between civil government and the Church was not often ideal in the Middle Ages? Do I recognize that for most of the Middle Ages, as indeed for most of human history, the powerful have exploited the weak and trampled over them? Of course I do; any student of history and of the human condition sees that, from the dawn of man even unto today, nothing has been more constant than the injustices that have left the vast majority of humans oppressed by the powers of wealth and opportunity that have exploited them for the benefit not of the poor but of the rich.

It is part of the Christian project to recognize this and to fight against the injustice wherever it is to be found. But, unlike modern political theories like Marxism, and unlike such "politco-theological" systems as liberation theology (which, when it allows politics to trump the Gospel, is an abhorrence to the Church), the Christian is called by the Gospel to fight this injustice not by the means of power recognized by this world, not by violence and strength of arms, nor by playing the political game. No, the Christian is called to shun the powers of this world as the very weaknesses of the flesh, and to put on the true armor of light and love, the true strength of God found in humility and charity. St. Paul calls it the folly of the Cross: this world laughs at the Church, scorns her and holds her in derision, for she preaches the Cross, the ultimate sign in secular eyes of weakness. What strength is there, the world says, in a man, broken and beaten, who dies a most ignominious death? What kind of God is this who suffers a most humiliating and non-heroic death, for Christ died not in glorious battle but as a common criminal?

The answer calls from across two millenia, and the reality of victory is revealed to us in the lives of the saints: the martyrs who suffered as did their Lord; the confessors who were ready to do so; the hermits who rejected the pleasures of this world in order to find true happiness in purest poverty; the religious whose vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are assailed by the world as the ridiculous abjurations of crazy people. And it is in the saints that we discover, finally, the key to putting together our new socio-political system of Christian Libertarianism.

We realize when we gaze upon their example that the way forward is in establishing a society in which every single member understands that he or she is called from womb to grave to be a saint. The way forward is for us to engender a revolution, not in the organs of state but in the very hearts of every individual member of society. It will not be a political revolution, nor even primarily a social one, but rather a spiritual revolution to transform the Zeitgeist from one that worships the almighty dollar and administers to the wealthy and successful to one that worships the Almighty God and administers to the poor and oppressed.

Finally, we must recognize that in this revolution we do not speak in terms of classes of society, nor of this section or that interest group. Rather, in this revolution, we speak of individuals, for we must recognize that far outstripping the importance of society as a blanket organ is the importance of the individual dignity of each human soul. The time has come to stop looking at society from the top down and seeing it is a collection of the masses—no more talk of "the American people", of "the working class", of "the bourgeoisie". No, we talk now of "the individual human being that is Nathaniel Campbell" and "the individual human being that is Abu Daoud", for it is the work of the individual soul that glorifies God. There is but one blanket grouping of humanity that remains important, and that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints into which we each enter when we partake of the Eucharist, for the great common factor to every human being is the love God showed in creating him, which love we are therefore commanded to give to each other: "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." (John 13:24).

1 comment:

Abu Daoud said...

Dear Nathaniel,

Thank you for this very competent response to my remarks. I find myself in agreement with you and though I have not heard this approach called Catholic Libertarianism I think you have formulated quite nicely a vision for the polis that I would subscribe to.

I have posted a section of this essay and a link over at Islam and Christianity (my blog).

I am also wondering if you have read envaglii nuntiandi which its emphasis on the evangelism transforming entire cultures--something I find particularly interesting as one who on many occasions discusses the Gospel with Muslims--certainly a group that has no qualms about combining religious and civil prerogatives into one authority, which was the pattern of the perfect man, Muhammad, according to them.