Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
They Said It:
All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss. In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor. “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.” There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.” Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association. What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1953.
POPE FRANCIS AND THE WEST’S “OBSESSIONS.”
As you may or may not have heard, last month the new-ish Catholic prelate, Pope Francis, gave a long, curious, wide-ranging, and far-reaching interview to a fellow Jesuit priest named Father Antonio Spadaro. The discussion, which was just over 12,000 words, was published simultaneously this past Thursday in several Jesuit magazines, including America, which is based in New York. Most American media outlets concentrated their coverage almost entirely on the Pope’s allegation that his fellow Catholics – and fellow Catholic clergy in particular –had grown “obsessed” with the issues of abortion and gay marriage. The New York Times giddily declared that Pope Francis had “sent shockwaves through the Catholic church.” And even Michael Potemra, the literary editor for National Review, called it “The Interview That Shook the Catholic World.”
Now, we are not entirely sure what to make of this. In part, we agree with many conservative commentators that the gay marriage and abortion business was overplayed by the American press, which is always looking for a good dog-bites-man story, on the condition that the man in question is a right-winger of some sort.
We also agree in part with the folks at National Review – the aforementioned Potemra and the editor of National Review Online, Katherine Jean Lopez – who argued that there is something more substantive in the Pope’s comments and that those who immediately screamed “media malpractice!” missed the thoughtful, staid, and intentionally provocative ideas of a pontiff who knows exactly what he is doing and is doing it quite brilliantly. As Potemra put it:
Chris Hayes on MSNBC, who says he grew up Catholic but doesn’t practice, said the pope was “awesome” and “the best pope ever” – while at the same time saying he holds out little hope that the doctrines he disagrees with will be changed any time soon. Similarly, check out this panel discussion on the Huffington Post, featuring Elizabeth Scalia: In it, an openly gay Catholic guy acclaims the pope’s new emphasis, while recognizing that it’s perfectly OK for the church not to give gays a sacramental marriage in addition to the legal civil one.
Let that sink in: MSNBC hosts and openly gay Catholic men love a pope who’s opposed to gay marriage and is vocally pro-life. This is a pope who’s reaching people in a pretty remarkable way.
At the same time, we can’t help feeling that there is something more radical and relevant going on here than the conservatives will admit. We don’t think that we’d go quite as far as the folks at the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream press who state that conservative Catholics had better get ready to have their worlds turned upside down by the new Pope. But we do think that this interview – and the man who gave it – says something fascinating, deeply disturbing, and yet hopeful about both the state of the Catholic Church and, more to the point, the civilization that spawned it, accommodates it, and yet tries desperately to destroy it.
Let us explain.
Unlike many of the Pope’s conservative apologists, we actually believe that Francis meant what he said about abortion and homosexuality and that his statement is relevant to the broader civilizational debate. Yes, of course, his comments are best understood in their full context and are even better understood as an effort by the exceptionally compassionate and honorable pontiff to extract himself and his Church from the narrow, shallow, and unsettling political arguments of the day. Indeed, we think that Pope Francis is more than reasonable in telling Catholics, and the clergy especially, not to treat religion and politics as the same thing. As Kathryn Lopez put it, “Not everything in the world is about sex and politics.”
Still, the nature of the conflict between Western political culture and religion is not quite as simple as either the Pope appears to believe or as the political Left claims it to be. Both seem to contend that the confrontation between the state and religion would recede considerably if only the religious folks would quit sticking their noses in where they don’t belong, which is to say into matters of public policy. That is, if the Christians would simply follow Christ’s own guidance and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, everything would be just great.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. For almost four hundred years now, the “enlightened” intellectuals of the West have sought desperately to eradicate the influence of the Church in their civilization. It is easy to think of the 1960s as a major inflection point in Western culture, and so it was. But much to the Lefty Baby Boomers’ chagrin, the ‘60s rebellion was a weak echo of the previous rebellions dating back at least to Spinoza, who made his mark in the 1660’s. Since that time, Western religious traditions and moral truths have been under a vicious and relentless attack in one form or another.
In the mid-19th century, this assault took on a new and more sinister tone. Karl Marx led the charge in 1843 with the following assertion in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
He expanded upon this idea in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, stating that “the ‘dangerous class’, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society” has been stripped “of every trace of national character. Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
Needless to say, we don’t have the time or the space to provide an entire accounting of the Left’s war against religion and civil society, although we do have a book, still desperately seeking a publisher, which does just that. For our purposes, it should suffice to say that the feminist mantra from the 1960s – “the personal is political” – neatly encapsulates the Left’s ongoing obsession with religion as the principal civic institution that deprives the state of total control.
The fact of the matter, then, is that which the Pope singles out as his clergy’s “obsession” with certain subjects is, in truth, merely the rearguard action of his flock against the Left’s own fixations. Why do the American bishops make such a big deal about abortion? Why are they constantly talking about it? Why do they make the fight against abortion and contraception and gay marriage such a central part of their message? Because these are the fronts on which the enemies of Christianity have chosen to engage.
Consider, for example, the case of the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate on birth control. As you may recall, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops actually supported the Obama administration’s push to provide more people with access to health insurance, i.e. the Affordable Care Act. And in return for their help, after the law was passed, Barack Obama’s health care goons decided to repay the good deed by forcing Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for birth control and abortifacient drugs.
Think about that for a second: One day, Catholic institutions were minding their own business, and the next they were expected to pay for services that violate not only the consciences of their owners/directors but the precepts of their Church as well.
Is it “obsessive” to bristle under such an attack? Is it obsessive to push back? Does the Church’s unwillingness to cede further ground to the state constitute a problem on the Church’s part? Or does it seem more likely that the Pope has the causation in this “obsessive” relationship backward?
As we noted in a March 27, 2012 piece titled “Religion and the Left,” the reality is that the American bishops have, on a whole host of issues, been more than accommodating to the state. Indeed, they’ve been downright solicitous, encouraging the state to take on more and more responsibilities and greater and greater shares of those responsibilities that it has already assumed. The notion that the American bishops are “right-wingers” – to use the Pope’s term – is absurd. Many may well be to the left of the Jesuit Pope himself. They have simply drawn the line – and a faint line at that – at the acceptance of a state-coerced provision of medical benefits that violate Church teachings.
Consider as well the question of gay marriage. Does anyone, anywhere actually believe that the bishops went out looking for this fight? The whole idea is preposterous. As with abortion, this was a fight brought to the clergy. Unlike abortion, though, this fight threatens the very nature of the Church.
If – and that’s a big if – gay marriage were to be limited to civil ceremonies and/or to legal status under the law, then we suspect that most Catholic clergy wouldn’t care much about the issue at all. But again, that’s not how things work. Once gay marriage becomes the state-sanctioned standard, then anyone who dissents from the state-approved view becomes a problem in the state’s eyes. Last spring, Ben Domenech summed it up nicely:
The problem with gay marriage is not about gay people getting married – they’ve already been doing that, or living that way. The problem with gay marriage is not that it will redefine marriage into a less valuable social institution in the eyes of the populace – that is already happening, has been for decades, and will continue regardless of whether gays are added to it or not. And the problem with gay marriage is not about the slippery slope of what comes next . . .
No, the real problem with gay marriage is that the nature of the marriage union is inherently entwined in the future of the first line of the Bill of Rights: our right to religious liberty. Orthodox believers of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths were slow to understand this. I’m talking about something much bigger here than the discrimination lawsuits brought across the country against bakers and photographers: I’m talking about whether churches will be able to function as public entities in an era where their views on sin, particularly sexual sin, are in direct conflict with not just opinion but the law – and proselytizing those views from the pulpit or in the public square will be viewed as using the protection of religious expression to protect hateful speech.
We saw this problem already in Illinois’ marriage law, where churches that do not allow same sex unions would essentially have to close their doors to full participation in civil society. We see it as a constant issue regarding Canada’s hate speech laws, where courts must discern whether quoting Bible verses amounts to “harming the public discourse.” We will see it more here. That obvious oncoming clash strikes me as the most troublesome aspect of this, and the one that has received the least attention in the rush to legalize. The argument has been more about benefits and social outcomes and “won’t somebody think of the children”, ignoring the core problem, which raises challenges to the freedom of speech and expression the likes of which led to the pilgrims crossing the sea in the first place.
The conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty is unlikely to be one the religious will win . . .
Gay marriage is, quite simply, not a case in which religion is encroaching on the state. As any baker in Oregon or gallery owner in Iowa can tell you, there are consequences associated with making the decision not to allow your facility to be used for the purposes of same-sex marriage. If the cultural agitators pushing the gay marriage agenda could be relied upon to stop their pursuit of “equality” upon achieving the sanction of the state, then there would be no real reason for private institutions – namely churches – to be especially leery of the issue.
But again, that’s not how it works. Unfortunately, in the case of gay marriage, only a handful of those seeking state sanction are actually seeking it for the purposes of personal equality, which in and of itself is largely unobjectionable. As the Pope himself said, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” The majority of the political Left, by contrast, seeks something more substantive and much more objectionable, namely the subordination of religion to the state. A year-and-a-half ago, in a piece on the HHS mandate, we wrote the following, which, we think, applies equally in the case of gay marriage:
This entire mess is about none of those things, in a broad, universal sense. Sure, it appears to be about those things because this particular case addresses those particular issues. But this is just the first of dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of such cases. And all of these cases will follow the same pattern: the omnipotent state doing its damnedest to become even greater and even more powerful by eliminating, or at least crippling, any and all competitors to its authority over the lives of men.
The liberal state cannot and therefore will not tolerate any sources of authority other than itself. It cannot and therefore will not tolerate anything that serves as a legitimate buffer between itself and its subjects – and “subjects,” in this case, is indeed the proper word. The liberal state has, over the course of the last century, been slowly but surely killing the civic institutions that once provided both an alternative authority to itself and said buffer.
Is Pope Francis, then, a complete sap? Does the political landscape of Western civilization so confuse and befuddle him as to render him useless – or worse – as the Bishop of Rome? Who knows? But personally, we doubt it. The Pope may be naïve about the ambitions and vigor of the state, but he is hardly a fool. Or, to borrow again from Michael Potemra, “Don’t kid yourselves; this pope knows exactly what he’s doing.”
And what he is doing, we’d guess, is trying to steer his flock away from issues that are currently divisive but which will matter very little in the long run. If that sounds a little counterintuitive – or maybe a LOT counterintuitive – then bear with us just a minute.
Back in April, as the Supreme Court was pondering its role in the future of gay marriage, we penned the following, arguing explicitly that gay marriage would be the end of the Left’s current iteration of the war on traditional morality and traditionalism more generally.
In many ways, the push for gay marriage is the zenith of the sexual revolution. But as any schoolboy knows, once the zenith is reached, the only way to go is down.
Think, just for a minute, about what the revolutionaries are seeking when they demand that gay couples be allowed to marry. They no longer want to destroy the status quo and to disrupt civil society. Indeed, they want their erstwhile wild and transgressive supporters to become the status quo, to move quietly, peacefully, and responsibly into civil society. Or as Mark Steyn put it over the weekend:
Gays will now be as drearily suburban as the rest of us. A couple of years back, I saw a picture in the paper of two chubby old queens tying the knot at City Hall in Vancouver, and the thought occurred that Western liberalism had finally succeeded in boring all the fun out of homosexuality.
The brilliant Megan McCardle expanded on this same theme and added a little bit of historical context in her weekend column. To wit:
Once gays can marry, they’ll be expected to marry. And to buy sensible, boring cars that are good for car seats. I believe we’re witnessing the high water mark for “People should be able to do whatever they want, and it’s none of my business.” You thought the fifties were conformist? Wait until all those fabulous “confirmed bachelors” and maiden schoolteachers are expected to ditch their cute little one-bedrooms and join the rest of America in whining about crab grass, HOA restrictions, and the outrageous fees that schools want to charge for overnight soccer trips.
I know, it feels like we’re riding an exciting wave away from the moral dark ages and into the bright, judgement free future. But moral history is not a long road down which we’re all marching; it’s more like a track. Maybe you change lanes a bit, but you generally end up back where you started. Sometimes you’re on the licentious, “anything goes” portion near the bleachers, and sometimes you’re on the straight-and-narrow prudish bit in front of the press box. Most of the time you’re in between. But you’re still going in circles. Victorian morality was an overreaction to the rather freewheeling period which proceeded it, which was itself an overreaction to Oliver Cromwell’s puritanism. (Cromwell actually did declare a War on Christmas, which he deemed to be sensuous paganism.)
We’ve been moving away from the Victorian view of marriage for a long time, which means that we’re probably due to circle back around the prudish front that drove Charles Dickens to lie when he left his wife for another woman . . .
The sexual revolution has been a disaster, for men, women, children, society at large, and most especially sex. And whether the Leftist revolutionaries know it or not, the push for gay marriage is an explicit acknowledgement of this. Sure, perhaps some of the impetus behind the gay marriage campaign is the desire to destroy what is left of the traditionalist conception of family and union. But at least another part of the push – and we’d guess a significant part – is the desire to tell this country’s social and sexual revolutionaries to settle down already.
We imagine that this latter desire is going to grow even stronger over the next several years, as the impact of sexual licentiousness grows more and more obvious.
Gay marriage is, in many ways, a tough issue for the Church. As we noted above, it is quite likely that the momentum of the movement will propel the issue beyond the boundaries of the state, thereby forcing a state-church confrontation. But beyond that . . . the issue will likely die. The activists pushing the issue – as opposed to the men and women who long simply for equal treatment – will eventually tire of the fight. And even if they win – even if they compel otherwise resistant churches to perform same-sex marriages – the victory will be hollow. The overwhelming majority of people in this country have made their peace with open homosexuality. The joy of sticking it to a bunch of people who are hardly violently opposed to the sticking strikes us as minimal at best. And the cultural implications strike us as even less.
As for abortion, it too appears to be a cultural issue that has run its course – or will in the near future. We have long believed that the contradictions inherent in the current Western abortion regime – i.e. abortion on demand as a staple of women’s “rights” – will eventually bring that regime to an end. And it is quite possible that “eventually” will be a great deal sooner than any of us expected.
Last week, a woman called Ann Furedi, who is the Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Britain’s largest abortion “charity,” declared that women have the legal AND moral right to choose an abortion for whatever reason, even sex selection. This, of course, is a bold statement, since most normal people think that abortion based on sex is odious. Nevertheless, Mrs. Furedi made her pitch – one that should surprise no one, given her background. As London’s Daily Mail reports:
ANN Furedi is a former magazine journalist who has become an outspoken leader of the abortion industry. In a decade running BPAS, she has repeatedly challenged the widely-held assumption that abortion is a last resort for desperate women who stand to suffer deeply if they go ahead with their pregnancies.
Instead, critics say Mrs Furedi, 52, has effectively championed the view of abortion as another form of contraception. She welcomed news that half of all pregnancies among girls under 18 end in abortion as ‘a positive sign’ . . . She was BPAS spokesman in 2000 when she declared that ‘it may be time to understand that, for women, abortion is an essential method of family planning and accept it as such.’ She has run BPAS since 2003 and earns £125,000. In 2009, as Labour’s ‘teenage pregnancy strategy’ to reduce pregnancies with more contraception and sex education collapsed, she saw an increase in abortion as the bright side . . .
She is married to Frank Furedi, 66, with whom she has an 18-year-old son. The former student radical and founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent University . . .
Now, understand something: when the Brit’s report that BPAS is an abortion “charity” what they mean is that it is an abortion provider that takes donations, mostly from the government. Again, as the Mail noted:
Nearly 200,000 abortions in England and Wales are now carried out each year, and abortion ends more than one in five of all pregnancies.
Some 55,000 terminations are performed by BPAS – formerly the British Pregnancy Advisory Service – each year in its clinics, which also provide advice and counselling to pregnant women.
The charity received more than £26million in abortion fees last year, much of it paid by the taxpayer through the NHS.
One in five pregnancies in England and Wales ends in abortion. That’s 20%, for those of you keeping score at home. And the provider of the plurality of those abortions feels no shame whatsoever about declaring that the sex of the prospective child should absolutely be considered a justifiable reason to terminate/kill the baby.
Better yet, Furedi has more than her fair share of defenders, even those in the media who are more than willing to agree with her unpleasant and startling declarations. Sarah Ditum, writing in London’s Guardian, provided just one example of those willing to come to the BPAS director’s defense and declare abortion an absolute right:
As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter why any woman wants to end her pregnancy. As the conscious and legally competent entity in the conception set-up, it’s the woman’s say that counts, and even the most terrible reason for having an abortion holds more sway than the best imaginable reason for compelling a woman to carry to term.
Interestingly, also last week, the British magazine The Economist published a short piece on the very same subject, one with chilling implications:
THE practice of aborting female foetuses is found mostly in China and other Asian countries. But it is prevalent in the Caucasus, too. Two new studies look at why—and suggest the practice may spread.
If nature takes its course, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Boys are more vulnerable to childhood diseases, so a slight preponderance of them at birth ensures equal numbers at puberty. But in Armenia and Azerbaijan more than 115 boys are born for every 100 girls and in Georgia the ratio is 120. These are bigger distortions than in India. In all three the figure has risen sharply since 1991 (see chart). In 2010, reckons Marc Michael of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, the number of girls born was 10% lower than it would have been had the ratio been normal. The gap is second only to China’s . . .
A study by John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a New York think-tank, uses surveys in 61 countries to calculate the sex ratios that would result if parents had the number of sons and daughters they wanted. It turns out that in half the countries, the desired ratio is more than 110 (higher than India’s, which is 108). Armenia and Azerbaijan are among those with the highest rates, but all over the world (especially Africa) parents say they want more sons. As Mr Bongaarts says, “there is a large pent-up demand for sex selection”.
We’d like to say that this is shocking. But it’s not. Indeed, we and countless others have noted this trend before. The majority of the world’s peoples prefer male babies to female babies. And now that they have the technology to make that the guaranteed outcome, they’re going to use it. The inimitable Walter Russell Mead, commenting on the Economist piece, writes that “Sex-selective abortion is a nearly intractable problem for American liberalism, because it brings two of its key values into conflict: the right to unrestricted abortion and female liberation and advancement.” He is, we think, rather delicate in his description.
Sex-selective abortion is more than an intractable problem. It is, rather, the natural and inevitable end point of the cognitive dissonance that forms the foundation of the current abortion regime. “Abortion is about women’s health and women’s freedom. And therefore, in the pursuit of health and freedom, women must be allowed to kill women simply because they are – or will be – women. It’s only fair.”
Mead suggests that this will lead to an “intellectual crisis” for liberalism. Again, this is too kind. It will, we think, lead to a complete collapse of the abortion lobby. As things stand today, 90% of all fetuses diagnosed in utero with Downs Syndrome are aborted. As technology advances, and as it becomes easier and easier to recognized fetal defects, more and more conditions will be aborted out of existence. And then, one day, those who insist that homosexuality is a genetic predisposition, that gay men and women are “born that way,” will be confronted by the reality of their assertions, namely that gay (or gay-prone) babies may be aborted out of existence. In the end, it will become clear: the logic that undergirds the abortion “rights” argument can be used to treat any human characteristic as an “unwanted” defect and thus grounds for termination, up to and including the very sex of the baby. “Feminism,” then, will have been responsible for the characterization of femininity as a defect.
At that point, one might still argue in favor of abortion as a means of birth control or as a means of population control, but the already dubious morality of the pro-abortion crowd will be completely and totally indefensible. And the currently united Left will inexorably fracture on the matter.
What does all of this mean? Where does this leave us? And what does this say about Pope Francis and his recent call for Catholics not to “obsess?”
We can’t say for sure, obviously, but it suggests to us that the “culture wars” as we have come to know them over the last half-century are about to end and end abruptly. The Pope, we think, understands this and is therefore trying to prepare his Church for the post-culture war-era, for the age in which the Catholic Church will have been, more or less, victorious in its battles against the tradition-loathing, post-rational Left. We suspect – based on his recent interview and his approach to the papacy – that Pope Francis would very much like to use this opportunity to focus on the “new evangelization” that he and his two predecessors have preached.
Unfortunately, we doubt very much that he’ll get that chance. For in addition to being particularly prescient, this Pope is also showing himself to be particularly naïve, especially about the nature of the obsession that has consumed the Left for the better part of four centuries now. The end of the culture wars as we know them does not mean the end of the culture wars in toto. It means merely that they will begin anew, on different battlefields. What those battlefields will be, we can hardly guess. But the fact that the Pope, the undisputed commander-in-chief of the forces of traditionalism, is also unable to guess and indeed feels it unnecessary even to contemplate, strikes us as worrisome, to put it mildly.
This we know for sure. The Left is locked in an undying struggle against the traditional moral system because it believes that that system is the only thing that stands in the way of its goal of obtaining total control over the masses. The current battlegrounds are both outgrowths of the sexual revolution and are both representative of the only liberty the Left feels comfortable granting the masses, namely sexual liberty. The concession of this liberty has not produced the results the Left had hoped. But that’s not to say it will give up the fight. The fight will continue.
And in the meantime, we can only hope that in addition to prescient and naïve, Pope Francis is also nimble and flexible. He’s going to need to be. And more to the point, Western civilization is going to need him to be.