Sunday, December 29, 2019
For today's Feast of St. Thomas Becket, below is a passage from the conclusion of historian Anne Duggan's very fine 2004 biography (previous posts on Becket's legacy drawing upon Tudor historian John Guy and GK Chesterton are here and here). 2020 will mark 850 years since Becket's martyrdom on December 29, 1170 and 800 years since the translation of his remains from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral to a shrine on July 7, 1220. See here for information about a series of Becket2020 events and here for an exhibition on Becket at the British Museum opening October 15.
If one picture is worth a thousand words, the depiction of Becket’s murder—with the armour-clad knights brandishing their swords above the unprotected head of the priest—created an unforgettable image, which expressed the tension between religious and secular forces. No commentary was required to interpret the dramatic scene transmitted across Europe in manuscripts or on the reliquaries manufactured in Limoges. Detached from the specifics of the dispute with Henry II, that image became a powerful symbol of ecclesiastical steadfastness in the face of secular excess. In a sense, the image was the message; and the meaning of the message was not lost on Henry VIII, who destroyed the shrine and caused the hated name to be erased from the service books of the English Church; nor was it lost on the controversialists of the post-Reformation era, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, who responded to the message with praise or censure according to its application to their own outlook.
Many secular heroes are made by single events: Richard I at Acre, Henry V at Agincourt, Nelson at Trafalgar, Wellington at Waterloo, Montgomery at El Alamein. For martyrs, it is the fact of their death in defence of their beliefs that justifies their claim. In Becket’s case, the cause for which he died was ultimately bypassed by history; but it had numerous analogues that could be recognized in very different historical settings. Even in this generation, the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador in , or of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko in Poland, called up the image of St Thomas of Canterbury, murdered for opposition to a powerful king. Becket’s example, of resistance to an aggressive “public power” and courage in the face of extreme violence, could be appreciated by men and women across the ages.
Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket (2004), 268-69.
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
For interested readers in the Philadelphia area, the distinguished historian of Christianity Robert Louis Wilken will be speaking at Villanova this Thursday (September 5) at 4:00pm about his recent book Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (Yale, 2019). Details here.
Monday, April 1, 2019
For readers in the Philadelphia area: the McCullen Center at Villanova will host its annual symposium on Catholic social thought and law on Tuesday, April 2 at 3:00pm. This year's symposium will focus on my colleague Mary Hirschfeld's exciting new book, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy (Harvard University Press, 2018). Respondents will be Jonathan Klick (Penn Law), Russ Roberts (Hoover Institution and host of "EconTalk"), and Thomas Smith (Villanova). Details here.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
For readers in the Philadelphia area: the McCullen Center at Villanova Law will host Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for a lecture on "Constitutional Originalism and Continuity" next Monday, February 25 at 3:00pm. Details and registration available at this link.
Monday, January 28, 2019
For this Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I am reposting a bit from a homily delivered for this occasion at Blackfriars (Oxford) by my late friend Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P.:
St. Thomas’s life was spent in asking questions (nearly all his major works are divided up explicitly into questions), and this meant seeking to answer them. A man is a saint, though, not by what he does and achieves, but by his acceptance of failure. A saint is one who conforms to Christ, and what Jesus is about was not shown in his successes, his cures and miracles and brilliant parables and preaching, but in his failure, his defeat on the cross when he died deserted by his followers with all his life’s work in ruins.
Now whatever his many other virtues, the central sanctity of St. Thomas was a sanctity of mind, and it is shown not in the many questions he marvelously, excitingly answered, but in the one where he failed, the question he did not and could not answer and refused to pretend to answer. As Jesus saw that to refuse the defeat of the cross would be to betray his whole mission, all that he was sent for, so Thomas knew that to refuse to accept defeat about this one question would be to betray all that he had to do, his mission. And this question was the very one he started with, the one he asked as a child: What is God?
“What is God?” It was the intellectual sanctity of Thomas that he here accepted defeat. Unlike so many theologians before and since, he could in no way answer this most important of questions. Right through his life he accepted this crucifixion of the mind; his whole life was devoted to talking about God, to theology, and yet he was intensely conscious that he knew nothing, that God is the ultimate mystery, that we are peering into the dark. In Christ, he says, we are joined to God as to the utterly unknown. The most we can do is peer in the right direction; and all theology is about doing that. But we can never answer our basic question with any use of language, by any thought. We will understand what is God only when we have been taken even beyond language and thinking, and God brings us to share in his own self-understanding. Thomas was not making a new discovery when, at the end of his life, he said that all his writings seemed like straw. He had lived with this knowledge all the time he was writing.
This, then, is the heritage Thomas has left to his [Dominican] brethren and to the Church: first, that it is our job to ask questions, to immerse ourselves so far as we can in all the human possibilities of both truth and error; then we must be passionately concerned to get the answers right, our theology must be as true as it can be; and finally we must realize that theology is not God, as faith is not God, as hope is not God: God is love. We must recognize that the greatest and most perceptive theology is straw before the unfathomable mystery of God’s love for us which will finally gather us completely by the Holy Spirit into Christ, the Word God speaks of himself to himself. Then, only then, is our first question answered.
God Matters (1987), pp. 236-37.
Saturday, December 29, 2018
Reposting from 2015:
A reflection for today's Feast of Saint Thomas Becket:
Becket was a type of those historic times in which it is really very practical to be impracticable. The quarrel which tore him from his friend's side cannot be appreciated in the light of those legal and constitutional debates which the misfortunes of the seventeenth century have made so much of in more recent history. To convict St. Thomas of illegality and clerical intrigue, when he set the law of the Church against that of the State, is about as adequate as to convict St. Francis of bad heraldry when he said he was the brother of the sun and moon. There may have been heralds stupid enough to say so even in that much more logical age, but it is no sufficient way of dealing with visions or with revolutions. St. Thomas of Canterbury was a great visionary and a great revolutionist, but so far as England was concerned his revolution failed and his vision was not fulfilled. We are therefore told in the text-books little more than that he wrangled with the King about certain regulations; the most crucial being whether "criminous clerks" should be punished by the State or the Church. And this was indeed the chief text of the dispute; but to realise it we must reiterate what is hardest for modern England to understand—the nature of the Catholic Church when it was itself a government, and the permanent sense in which it was itself a revolution.
It is always the first fact that escapes notice; and the first fact about the Church was that it created a machinery of pardon, where the State could only work with a machinery of punishment. It claimed to be a divine detective who helped the criminal to escape by a plea of guilty. It was, therefore, in the very nature of the institution, that when it did punish materially it punished more lightly. If any modern man were put back in the Becket quarrel, his sympathies would certainly be torn in two; for if the King's scheme was the more rational, the Archbishop's was the more humane. And despite the horrors that darkened religious disputes long afterwards, this character was certainly in the bulk the historic character of Church government. It is admitted, for instance, that things like eviction, or the harsh treatment of tenants, was practically unknown wherever the Church was landlord. The principle lingered into more evil days in the form by which the Church authorities handed over culprits to the secular arm to be killed, even for religious offences. In modern romances this is treated as a mere hypocrisy; but the man who treats every human inconsistency as a hypocrisy is himself a hypocrite about his own inconsistencies.
Our world, then, cannot understand St. Thomas, any more than St. Francis, without accepting very simply a flaming and even fantastic charity, by which the great Archbishop undoubtedly stands for the victims of this world, where the wheel of fortune grinds the faces of the poor. He may well have been too idealistic; he wished to protect the Church as a sort of earthly paradise, of which the rules might seem to him as paternal as those of heaven, but might well seem to the King as capricious as those of fairyland. But if the priest was too idealistic, the King was really too practical; it is intrinsically true to say he was too practical to succeed in practice. There re-enters here, and runs, I think, through all English history, the rather indescribable truth I have suggested about the Conqueror; that perhaps he was hardly impersonal enough for a pure despot. The real moral of our mediæval story is, I think, subtly contrary to Carlyle's vision of a stormy strong man to hammer and weld the state like a smith. Our strong men were too strong for us, and too strong for themselves. They were too strong for their own aim of a just and equal monarchy. The smith broke upon the anvil the sword of state that he was hammering for himself. Whether or no this will serve as a key to the very complicated story of our kings and barons, it is the exact posture of Henry II to his rival. He became lawless out of sheer love of law. He also stood, though in a colder and more remote manner, for the whole people against feudal oppression; and if his policy had succeeded in its purity, it would at least have made impossible the privilege and capitalism of later times. But that bodily restlessness which stamped and spurned the furniture was a symbol of him; it was some such thing that prevented him and his heirs from sitting as quietly on their throne as the heirs of St. Louis. He thrust again and again at the tough intangibility of the priests' Utopianism like a man fighting a ghost; he answered transcendental defiances with baser material persecutions; and at last, on a dark and, I think, decisive day in English history, his word sent four feudal murderers into the cloisters of Canterbury, who went there to destroy a traitor and who created a saint.
G.K. Chesterton, A Short History of England (1917), 76-79.
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
The McCullen Center at Villanova (which I direct) will host two lectures this fall, in addition to other events. Next Tuesday, August 28 (the Feast of St. Augustine, as it happens), we will inaugurate an occasional lecture series on Law and the Augustinian Tradition with a visit from John Witte of Emory University speaking on "From Gospel to Law: Martin Luther's Reformation of Law, Politics, and Society." Details here (including CLE credit for lawyers). And looking ahead, on October 30 at 3:00pm Nicole Stelle Garnett of Notre Dame Law School will deliver the 42nd annual Giannella Lecture (details to come).
Monday, August 6, 2018
Pope John Paul II's mighty encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor was released on this date in 1993, and while it is probably best known in moral theology for its rejection of proportionalism (at ¶¶ 79-83: "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act 'subjectively' good or defensible as a choice") there are a host of other vital aspects to the document. Here is a rich paragraph from an article by Alasdair MacIntyre, "How Can We Learn What Veritatis Splendor Has to Teach?," 58 The Thomist 171 (1994):
Yet as Catholics we have to listen first to what a very different set of voices have to say to us, those inspired and authoritative voices which declare the Word of God concerning those same moral matters about which our own culture speaks to us so vociferously and about which we have arrived at our own philosophical conclusions. Part of what we have to learn, or rather to relearn, from Veritatis Splendor is that, at least so far as the fundamental and central precepts of the moral law are concerned, the truths about those precepts declared to us by God through Moses and the prophets, in the revelation by Jesus Christ of the New Law and in the teaching of the Catholic Church, culminating in this very encyclical, are no other than the truths to which we have already assented as rational persons, or rather to which we would have assented, if we had not been frustrated in so doing by our own cultural, intellectual, and moral errors and deformations. Yet the encyclical also teaches us that what we encounter in Jesus Christ is immeasurably more than this. We also have to learn of our forgiveness and our redemption and of the transformation made possible in our acknowledgment of law when we come to understand it in the light afforded by Jesus Christ. Nonetheless the law declared to us by God in revelation is the same law as that which we recognize in the moral requirements imposed by our own human practical understanding and reasoning, when they are in good order. So that when we become able to hear and to respond to what Jesus Christ has to say to us, we do not have to leave behind or discard anything that we had genuinely learned concerning the moral law through reasoning. Grace often corrects, as well as completes, what we have so far taken to be conclusions of reason, but, when grace does so correct us, it is always because we have in some way failed as reasoners. And therefore Veritatis Splendor, just because it is true to this biblical teaching, will be grotesquely misunderstood if it is understood as an act of coercive imposition by an external authority, rather than an invitation to become more thoughtful and more perceptive. It does indeed speak in the name of an authority external to us, God, but that to which it invites us--that to which He invites us--is in part an act of moral and rational self-recognition. And Veritatis Splendor as a work of philosophy does itself exhibit just that moral and rational awareness to which as an encyclical it invites its readers.
Friday, August 3, 2018
A shortcoming of the Catholic debate (the past couple of days certainly included) over the death penalty is a frequent lack of attention to distinctly theological questions and how they might inform the debate. The best alternative to that theological sterility, I think, is the Anglican theologian Oliver O'Donovan, who has written perceptively (and ambivalently) about the death penalty for many years. Here is a bit from the conclusion of his essay responding to John Paul II's discussion of the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae:
I return in closing to the theological issue raised at the start: the failure of the encyclical to achieve a clear focus on the resurrection and its tendency to put the cross in its place, central to the salvation history of life but unrelated to the phenomenology of death. Now I can suggest a reason for this. John Paul’s failure, on the side of civil justice, to identify the link between judgment and mortality is reflected in a failure, on the side of death, to link mortality and judgment. Politically we have justice without death, anthropologically death without judgment….
The symbolic links of judgment and execution stand at the heart of what we understand about Christ’s reconciling death. We may be rid of ordinary uses of the death penalty in most Western states; I am glad to live in one where we are. We may one day be rid of it elsewhere, in Third World countries, Muslim societies, and so on. If we can achieve that responsibly, it will be a fine achievement – though we must be on our guard against irresponsible, crusading attitudes which fail to take the context (legal, economic, social, and moral) seriously. But we cannot be rid of the symbolic role that the death penalty plays in relating death to judgment. There will always be a death penalty in the mind – if, that is, we are all to learn to “die with Christ,” understanding our own deaths as a kind of capital punishment.
Oliver O'Donovan, "The Death Penalty in Evangelium Vitae," in Ecumenical Ventures in Ethics: Protestants Engage Pope John Paul II’s Moral Encyclicals, eds. Reinhard Hütter and Theodor Dieter (Eerdmans, 1998), 213–36 .
Thursday, August 2, 2018
Not much attention has been paid to the text of the letter from the CDF, which warrants a close reading. At Paragraphs 8 and 10 of Cardinal Ladaria’s letter, he states:
8. All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.
10. The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.
Much of the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere seems to be over whether the Pope is “changing” Catholic teaching, breaking with a long tradition in favor of the permissibility of the death penalty, and opening the door to all manner of mischief under the guise of doctrinal development. I think a better way of framing the question and to have a reasonable debate in light of the Church’s moral tradition is to note that the permissibility of the death penalty was understood (by Aquinas, for example) as an *exception* to an otherwise absolute norm against intentional killing, based on an understanding of the dignity of all human life. Summa Theologiae, II-II.64.7 (“As it is unlawful to take a man's life, except for the public authority acting for the common good…it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good.”).
And so the question becomes whether Aquinas (or anyone else in the Catholic moral tradition right up to today) can carry off a justification for such an exception—are there ends (pertaining to the common good, public order, and safety) that justify the use of what would otherwise be a forbidden means (intentional killing)? On that question, the prudential weight of doctrinal authority (over the past several pontificates) has swung from in favor (as in Aquinas) to against such justifications, and that is (merely?) what the CDF’s letter and the revision to the Catechism reflects. In at least this respect, then, the revision to the Catechism reflects and deepens the moral principle that one may not do evil that good may come. See John Finnis, Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory at p. 282 (“Aquinas therefore fails to reply convincingly to the argument that capital punishment, since it involves the intent to kill as a means, is “doing evil that good may come,” i.e. the pursuit of a good end (the restoration of the order of justice) by inherently immoral means.”).
A final brief note: it is a separate (but timely!) question how, say, a federal judge who is Catholic and accepts that the Catechism is a “sure and authentic reference” (John Paul II, Fidei Depositum IV) regarding Catholic doctrine should understand his or her responsibilities in death penalty cases. A reasonable answer to that question, it seems to me, is that the Constitution (absent an implausible reading of the Eighth Amendment to prohibit capital punishment) leaves the resolution of the death penalty’s permissibility to the political branches and that the judicial role requires an impartial application of what the positive law provides as to criminal punishment.
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