Friday, June 12, 2009
The Catholic Legal Thought Conference rolled into Washington, D.C. this week, and our nation’s capitol will undoubtedly never be the same. The conference’s growing and rollicking cacophony of personalities, friendships, and booming ideas brings to mind a larger-than-life 1970s rock band, and given this week’s extended, late-night run at one of the best Irish pubs around, I think the rock band image might be the best vehicle for explaining what went on during this year’s installment. Just as the best 1970s albums were inspired by a single concept (e.g., “The Wall"), we centered our discussions on the work of Pope Benedict, specifically Deus Caritas Est and Spes Salvi.
Patrick Brennan, playing the part of Jimmy Page, can always jump-start the arena with a tour de force display of natural law theorizing. He noted the strange notion of American lawyers, for whom the law has a tenuous (at best) connection with “the good,” looking to the pope for jurisprudential guidance, since for the Church, the law is all about the good. He also noted the ambiguity in Benedict’s discussion of the natural law. Sometimes Benedict refers to the natural law as reflecting the order in nature or the order that can come to be in the human mind, and sometimes (but not always) he refers to its reflection of the order in the divine mind. This latter understanding is important, in
Page's Brennan's view, in order to remind the human legislator that they operate under divine authority.
Greg Kalscheur, playing the part of Greg Allman as a technically proficient musician who brings an added dimension of soul to his performances, explored Benedict’s concept of “healthy secularity” and how it differs from “unhealthy secularism.” Part of healthy secularity entails making Christian insights perceptible and plausible to the citizenry in order to help form the good state, regardless of how those insights are ultimately labeled.
One session was devoted to the concept of hope. Amy Uelmen, the anti-Yoko Ono who is always working to keep the band together, addressed the relationship between eschatology and spirituality. John Breen, the Paul McCartney who wants the band to stay true to its musical heritage and not start venturing into disco, distinguished the theological virtue of hope from today’s materialist forms of hope, but noted that some non-theological forms of hope can facilitate a self-transcendence that can ultimately bring one closer to the theological. Ed Gaffney, the keyboardist whose powerful, moving, and nearly psychedelic keyboard solos transfix the audience, told stories of hope, God’s absence, and the law’s absence in a range of human dramas.
In my session, we talked about love and justice, working with Deus Caritas Est. CUA philosophy prof Brad Lewis, playing the part of the Edge (yes, U2 started in the 70s) with his understated yet hauntingly beautiful guitar work, asked several penetrating questions: What significance should we draw from the difference between John Paul II’s “civilization of love” and Benedict’s “church as a community of love?” Does Deus Caritas Est seem to be primarily addressed to bishops, and how should that affect our reading of it? Why is Benedict repeatedly raising and criticizing Marxism, when very few people are still taking Marxism seriously? Is it accurate to say that charity happens within the political order, but not through the political order, as justice does?
I then stepped up in the role of both Captain and Tenille during their “Muskrat Love” days. (The audience knows it’s wrong, but it is still somehow endearing.) I asked why the state should care about the practice of Christian charity. First I suggested that we need to specify what sort of love we are talking about, because if agape love is simply, as Anders Nygren suggests, a disinterested, unmotivated form of love that creates value, rather than recognizes value, Christian love looks a lot like the state’s “love.” If, instead, agape love is active, interested, motivated, and personal, as Pieper suggests, then Christians are not just passive conduits for love; they are subjects who love as acts of will, and their love is aspirational – directed toward human flourishing, not just the facilitation of autonomy. Christian charities should embody dynamic relationships of love with aspirations of substance, not just provide goods and services to facilitate an open-ended and substance-less autonomy. The latter might look like justice, but it’s not love. Because the state does not have the moral resources needed to build in these substantive and aspirational commitments, they also lack the resources to rule what those commitments should (or shouldn’t) be, but they should care that the needy are being loved in this way.
In any event, it was a wonderful, enriching time. We didn’t trash any hotel rooms or scare small children. Next year, the band rolls into Chicago. See you there.
(For a more refined reflection on the conference, read Susan's post.)