Thursday, January 12, 2017
In this recent post, over at Distinctly Catholic, Michael Sean Winters -- who, like me, supports school vouchers and, like me, thinks the case for school choice is not merely a libertarian one -- contends that Donald Trump's nominee to serve as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, should worry Catholics:
The worry about DeVos is twofold. First, surely with Pope Francis' frequent, and powerful, reiterations of the Catholic church's support for organized labor, it would be better if bishops reached out to unions and tried to lower the temperature around the issue of vouchers for Catholic schools, maybe look for ways for Catholic and public schools to collaborate on summer arts programs and the like, and enter into debate about vouchers with an acknowledgement of the good faith concerns of both sides. I do not anticipate anything DeVos does will make a more workable long-term solution likely. I suspect she will poison that well thoroughly.
Secondly, there are few things as immoral as the right thing done for the wrong reason. Most Catholic children attend public schools, a fact that is not likely to change anytime soon. Bishops and other Catholic leaders should be concerned about making public schools a success too. It is a tall order and I will grant that the teachers' unions are not always helpful. But, an argument based on "choice" should alert Catholics who are worried about the consumer mentality of the culture, and how that mentality leads to other pernicious results, before embracing DeVos' advocacy for "school choice."
A few quick thoughts in response (I'll refrain from re-hashing here my view that it is a mistake to conflate or equate, for Catholic Social Teaching purposes, workers' right to associate, coordinate, strike, etc. with public-sector unionism, especially in the K-12 context, as it is practiced in the United States today). First, I think it is as clear as anything that Catholics who embrace and apply the Church's social teachings should support school choice (by which I mean "public support, on an equal basis to that provided to children who attend state-operated public schools or charter schools, for children who attend qualified religious schools), and not for reasons having to do with a "consumer mentality" but instead because a decent and just political community ought not to, in effect, financially penalize parents for exercising what the Church teaches is their human right. Next, it would indeed be a good thing if bishops were able to get teacher unions to dial back their (self-interested, common-good-undermining) hostility to vouchers, but -- as someone who has been in and around this fight for almost 25 years - the high temperature around the issue is certainly not the fault of school-choice supporters or the bishops and I don't see collaboration on summer arts programs as very likely to provide the meaningful support that Catholic schools and the parents who choose them are in justice entitled to. (It's 25 years old, but still spot on: John Coons's essay, "School Choice as Simple Justice.")
As Albert Shanker, a longtime teacher-union leader, once candidly put it, "When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Too often, the financial and other interests of public-school teachers and administrators align very poorly with the needs of children, families, communities, and taxpayers. My hope is that DeVos will do what she can to put the Department of Education's emphasis on the latter.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
"Sobering Thoughts" and Catholic universities: A short reply to Mary Leary, Rob Vischer, and Timothy Snyder
In her recent post ("Sobering Thoughts for 2017"), Mary writes that "America appears to be facing such a test starting in 2017. The scene is set for the masses to excuse the normalization of the objectification of other human beings by those in power." And, she links to a piece by Timothy Snyder called "What You Can Do to Save America from Tyranny," which lists a number of "lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today," that the author hopes will help Americans "learn from [Europeans'] experience" and so not "yield to fascism, Nazism or communism." Building on some of Mary's thoughts, Rob Vischer posted here about the role and responsibilities of "Catholic universities in the Trump Era."
It's not news that that I did not support the candidacy of Donald Trump and I think I've been clear-eyed about what I take to be the facts that he is unsuited for, unprepared for, and unworthy of the Presidency. Many of the proposals he endorsed, proposed, or flirted with are immoral and/or foolish; they should be opposed and I hope they will be rejected.
As I see it, the "normalization of the objectification of other human beings by those in power" -- which Mary strongly and correctly reminds us must be resisted -- and also what Mary rightly calls "harmful efforts to silence debate on important issues" were underway before the election and during the Obama administration, and were supported by Mrs. Clinton and many of her supporters. There's a case to be made, in fact, that support for this "normalization" and "objectification", and a commitment to silencing debate on certain questions, have become non-negotiable, bedrock positions -- positions more important than, say, constraining the use of military force through law, responding to material and social poverty, or protecting the human rights of vulnerable populations in other lands -- for the base and funders of her party. The demonization and "othering" by Trump and some of his supporters of, say, immigrants or Muslims is wrong and inexcusable, but so was and is the no-small-amount of "othering" in the smug dismissals by activists and comedian-commentators of religious conservatives and Rust Belt-dwelling so-called "downscale voters." This is not a "tu quoque" or equivalence point; it is intended only as a suggestion that 2017 might not so much be bringing new challenges for Catholic citizens as re-presenting ongoing challenges in different forms.
In addition, in my view, much of the advice shared by Snyder (e.g., "Be Kind to Our Language", "Defend an Institution", etc.) has been appropriate for the last eight years -- a time in which celebrity culture, the academy, and the press were strikingly complacent regarding undemocratic and overreaching exercises of executive and administrative power -- and would have been valuable and important had Mrs. Clinton been elected. (His identification of the Southern Poverty Law Center -- which regularly identifies mainstream religious beliefs and traditional moral positions as "hateful" and "bigoted" -- as a "good cause" to which we should donate seems like bad advice, regardless of the election's outcome.) I tend to think that -- notwithstanding the enthusiasm for Trump among the repulsive "alt-right" -- it is unhelpful and inaccurate to equate the election of Trump with (quoting Snyder) 20th century Europeans' "yield[ing] to fascism, Nazism or communism," but, in any event, "making eye contact" and "believing in truth" seem like valuable suggestions at any time.
Rob asked about the role of Catholic universities in "the Trump era." I think it remains to be seen whether we have entered an "era" of Trump or have instead been confronted, temporarily, with the result of some deeply flawed campaign tactics, in a few counties in a few states, by a deeply flawed candidate. In any event, my sense, like Rob's is that "the potential good of collaboration outweighs the danger of normalization unless and until President Trump acts to implement some of the more noxious policy proposals that he floated on the campaign trail." Not having supported Trump, I intend to have no reservations about criticizing him and his proposals when it is called for (and I'm sure it will be). However, I expect that (for example) his appointees to the federal bench and to important positions in the Departments of Education, HHS, and Justice will be (by my lights and for issues like education reform, religious freedom, and abortion) better than Mrs. Clinton's would have been and I don't think his (to put it mildly) many flaws and failings require me (or anyone else) to reject whatever benefits can be had from his having won.
Finally: I think that Mary is exactly right that, too often, those who "raise questions about those in power . . . have been met with ridicule and attacks" and that "[s]uch attacks are designed to silence." St. Stephen the Martyr, pray for us.
Friday, January 6, 2017
Here is a very nice tribute to an outstanding federal judge, Hon. Diarmuid O'Scannlain, who is taking senior status this week on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. For three decades, Judge O'Scannlain has been a clear, strong voice for a principled judicial conservatism. For an example of his writing, see his lecture from a few years ago on "The Natural Law in the American Tradition." Thanks, and congratulations, to Judge O'Scannlain!
Friday, December 30, 2016
This interview with Michael Wear (a former staffer for President Obama), over at The Atlantic, has been getting a lot of attention -- in particular, this anecdote:
Some of his colleagues also didn’t understand his work, he writes. He once drafted a faith-outreach fact sheet describing Obama’s views on poverty, titling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These,” a reference to a famous teaching from Jesus in the Bible. Another staffer repeatedly deleted “the least of these,” commenting, “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?”
This observation, by Wear, strikes me as accurate:
[T]here’s a religious illiteracy problem in the Democratic Party. It’s tied to the demographics of the country: More 20- and 30-year-olds are taking positions of power in the Democratic Party. They grew up in parts of the country where navigating religion was not important socially and not important to their political careers. This is very different from, like, James Carville in Louisiana in the ’80s. James Carville is not the most religious guy, but he gets religious people—if you didn’t get religious people running Democratic campaigns in the South in the ’80s, you wouldn’t win.
Another reason why they haven’t reached out to evangelicals in 2016 is that, no matter Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together,” we have a politics right now that is based on making enemies, and making people afraid. I think we’re seeing this with the Betsy DeVos nomination: It’s much easier to make people scared of evangelicals, and to make evangelicals the enemy, than trying to make an appeal to them. . . .
Thursday, December 29, 2016
In a recent opinion piece, Michael Gerson noted:
[C]onservatives believe that a just society depends on the moral striving of finite and fallen creatures who treat each other with a respect and decency that laws can encourage but not enforce. Such virtues, often rooted in faith, are what turn families and communities into the nurseries of citizenship. These institutions not only shape good people, they inculcate the belief that humans have a dignity that, while often dishonored, can never be effaced. In the midst of all our justified skepticism, we can never be skeptical of this: that the reason for politics is to honor the equal value of every life, beginning with the weakest and most vulnerable. No bad goal — say, racial purity or communist ideology — outweighs this commitment. And no good goal — the efficiency of markets or the pursuit of greater equality — does either.
I'm reposting a nice entry from Michael Moreland, from two years ago:
Today is the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, murdered on this date in 1170. I've reposted below a post from 2012 with an excerpt from John Guy's fine biography of Becket.
And for those looking to learn more about medieval English law and its legacy, I commend the exhibit on Magna Carta now on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, including a rare viewing of the Lincoln Cathedral original of Magna Carta. It was Henry II's feckless youngest son John, of course, who was forced to issue Magna Carta in 1215. And the (likely) principal author of Magna Carta was Becket's successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who, like Becket, was forced into exile in France by the King but returned to England to lead the struggle against an overweening monarch. Recall that the first clause of Magna Carta is: "That We have granted to God, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired." ("In primis concessisse Deo et hac presenti carta nostra confirmasse, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum quod Anglicana ecclesia libera sit, et habeat jura sua integra, et libertates suas illesas.")
From December 29, 2012:
A blog devoted to Catholic legal theory can hardly let pass today's Feast of St. Thomas Becket (c.1181-1170). Peter Glenville's 1964 film with Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry II is a classic. More recently, the eminent Tudor historian John Guy (author of a number of fine books on Thomas More) has written a splendid biography of Becket--a taste here:
For his attack on the church's claim of immunity from secular jurisdiction, Anglo-American lawyers and constitutional historians in the nineteenth century would put on rose-colored spectacles and reinvent Henry as a legal reformer avant la lettre, a pioneer of fair trials and equality before the law who paved the way for some of the most important clauses later incorporated into Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. In reality, however, his actions showed that the rights of the accused could always be overridden by political considerations and the king's will. Far from remodeling the legal system and the courts in the interests of justice and the common good, Henry sought to strengthen his own power. And far from being a pioneer of "equitable" or "impartial" justice, he happily presided over his own court in the Battle Abbey case and at Becket's trial for embezzlement and false accounting at Northampton, acting simultaneously as chief counsel for the prosecution, judge, and jury. In response, Thomas would prove that a middle-class Londoner could transcend his social origins and challenge a ruler who he believed was degenerating into a tyrant, but it would cost him his life. Thomas More would take a similar path in Henry VIII's reign, and it may be no coincidence that More's working library contained many of the same books as Becket's.
John Guy, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (Random House, 2012), p. 338.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
I don't agree with everything in this piece by Victor Tan Chen, but I think it makes a number of good, challenging claims -- echoing, in places, things that Rusty Reno has been saying at First Things or that Murray, Putnam, and Vance have highlighted in their recent books (and that our own Paul Horwitz has blogged about). It is particularly worth a read, maybe -- as we're grading law-school exams, writing recommendation letters, etc. -- by those of us who are privileged/blessed to work in institutions that play such a large role in driving the competitive, exhausting meritocracy and in providing the credentials, merit-badges, and networks that are increasingly required for access to the upward mobility, social status, and the cognitive and other elites. Here's just a bit:
One possible answer . . . is the notion of grace—a stance that puts forward values that go beyond the “negatives” of the narrow secular creed and connect with individuals of diverse political viewpoints, including those hungry for more in the way of meaning than the meritocratic race affords. . . .
The concept of grace comes from the Christian teaching that everyone, not just the deserving, is saved by God’s grace. Grace in the broader sense that I (an agnostic) am using, however, can be both secular and religious. In the simplest terms, it is about refusing to divide the world into camps of deserving and undeserving, as those on both the right and left are wont to do. It rejects an obsession with excusing nothing, with measuring and judging the worth of people based on everything from a spotty résumé to an offensive comment.
. . . At the same time, grace reminds the well-educated and well-off to be less self-righteous and less hostile toward other people’s values. Without a doubt, opposing racism and other forms of bigotry is imperative. There are different ways to go about it, though, and ignorance shouldn’t be considered an irremediable sin. Yet many of the liberal, affluent, and college-educated too often reduce the beliefs of a significant segment of the population to a mash of evil and delusion. . . .
Really, though, the people who could learn from grace are the prosperous and college-educated, who often find it hard to empathize with those—both white and nonwhite—who live outside their sunny, well-ordered worlds. When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins—cultural and economic—they can deal more kindly with one another. Grace is a forgiving god.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Prof. Stephen Schneck passed on to me a notice about an upcoming conference ("Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work") at Catholic University of America that might be of interest to MOJ readers. Michael Sean Winters blogs about the event here.
The event is co-sponsored, it appears, by the AFL-CIO and that union's President, Richard Trumka, is one of the speakers. (I'm afraid I was not invited to explain that and why the Church's social teachings regarding the dignity of work and the freedom of association do not, contrary to the suggestions of some, provide support for public-employee unionism as it exists and is practiced in the United States. Maybe next time.)
I continue to suspect that the anti-libertarianism campaign of some Catholics who are political progressives often sets up straw men (i.e., attacks as "libertarian" or "Randian" positions that do not depend on or reflect the unsound anthropological premises of philosophical libertarianism). Here's a post I did a little while ago (on the occasion of an earlier CUA conference in this series), that tries to develop this concern.