August 16, 2013
(A couple of days ago I posted a reflection on Jean Elshtain, but I then clumsily deleted it and have been unable to recover it through any easy means (Typepad Help has proven itself not to be an easy means). So here is a new post: same themes, different wording, a bit shorter, and with an added comment at the end.) We have lost a great public philosopher in Jean. I had the fortune to get to know her personally through a couple of projects; in every setting where I heard her speak, public discussion and private conversation, her words were always incisive, humane, and full of common sense. Jean was a leader--often by standing contrary to the dominant trends in the academy--in so many areas central to this blog's project. Before I mention a couple, I should add personally that for many years, Jean, a Lutheran most of her life, was a model to me of how a Protestant could be deeply drawn to and influenced by Catholic thought. (She probably didn't stop playing that specific role until she joined the Catholic Church in 2011.) Jean's model was one important factor in why I came to participate in this blog and why I've been heavily involved for more than a decade in building a law school at the University of St. Thomas seriously grounded in the Catholic tradition. I know she similarly influenced many other non-Catholics by trenchantly articulating ideas central to Catholic thought on human persons and society.
In 2003 Jean kicked off the inaugural symposium of the Law Journal at St. Thomas, which was on themes in the thought of John Noonan. Her keynote speech and article, "The Equality of Persons and the Culture of Rights," hit so many themes central to our current discussions. About the nature and importance of religious freedom, she said (among other things), citing Dignitatis Humanae: "Because we have a right, and therefore a responsibility, to seek the truth, the right that speaks most profoundly to the search for truth is primary among our rights." She also spoke at some length about the problems of an individualistic society and the contribution of the Catholic vision of persons as inherently social but in no way submerged into collectives.
To speak of an anthropology is to be open to cultural and historic specificity and the role of contingency in human affairs. But the grounding-- the conviction that every human being possesses a God-given dignity--is not dependent on any particular cultural configuration. One asks: What sort of person is this human being? Catholic Social Thought answers: an intrinsically, not contingently, social being--one born to relationality. The dignity of the self cannot be dehistoricized and severed from the experiences of human beings as creatures essentially, not contingently, related to others. The modern social encyclicals speak of human rights in a way that avoids two extremes: either positing a primordially free, sovereign self that is a possessor of rights against others, or, contrastingly, positing a self so thoroughly defined by, and absorbed within, an overweening social entity that no one possesses rights against--only rights within. Catholic Social Thought steers a course that avoids either self-sovereignty or the oversocialized self. The dignity of the human person conjures up a richer, more relational image than does the sovereign “individual” favored by libertarianisms of both the Left and the Right. In speaking of the person, one preserves a notion of individuality without sliding into individualism, and one speaks of the self-in-society without endorsing social determinism. . . .
As I already noted, the person nowadays is often defined by choices understood as preferences. Because this way of thinking is so pervasive, we have lost sight of just how inadequate it is. For is there not something not only inadequate, but extreme, in the view that we are most ourselves when we are all alone with our preferences? This position also makes it difficult for us to assess the negative, cumulative effect of thousands upon thousands of individual “choices,” let us say those leading directly to certain forms of environmental degradation. Because we cannot criticize any single individual choice (if it is “right” for him or her), our capacity to critically evaluate the overall direction of our political economy or our popular culture or anything else is denuded. The great gift and responsibility of moral autonomy atrophies if we reduce human freedom to a vast array of consumer choices in a world in which individual goods triumph and any possibility of a common good is lost.
As time passed Jean increasingly was labeled in political rhetoric as a "conservative" because of her dissent from much of cultural liberalism and her initial support for the Iraq War. And as Robbie George mentions, she was a kind of conservative and certainly had no fear of that label: nothing like that, even if aimed at marginalizing her, would come close to getting her to change her voice. But I'm struck how the above passages call both the Left and the Right to account: the sovereign self has become a key assumption of both sides, part of the political and intellectual "air we breathe" as Jean put it. We may have different senses of the urgent problems in our society that must be addressed: "environmental degradation," or family breakdown, or (better yet) both, and many others. Jean told both Left and Right that we can never develop the capital, the resources and energy, to counter any of these problems, and their costs to persons in suffering and indignity, without a renewed willingness to prioritize--and a renewed vocabulary to describe--the common good.
In order for a Law School to be grounded in The Catholic Tradition, it must begin with affirming the truth about the personal and relational Dignity of the human person, who, from the moment of conception, exists in relationship as a son or daughter, not as an object of sexual desire.
Posted by: Nancy | Aug 17, 2013 11:36:58 AM
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