Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Natural Law and Culture: Recognizing Modernity

RECOGNIZING THE ROLE THAT CULTURE, especially modern culture, plays in the formation of persons is important.  There has been a tendency to view modernity as a separate superstructure with its own philosophical assumptions which, often, are in opposition to the natural moral law and the Faith.  Charles Taylor, one scholar of modernity, its history, and its development, has defined culture as a "specific understanding of 'personhood, social relations, states of mind, and virtues and vices' or 'constellation of understandings of person, nature, society and the good.'"  It includes, within this "constellation of understandings," the "relationship of the human person to 'God, the cosmos and other humans."  (Rowland, 12)  In short, it is a sort of an enfleshed or socially-institutionalized Weltanschaung.

Unfortunately, modern culture is not like a monastic habit.  One cannot look at a society and call it "modern" or "Christian" or "Muslim" like one could call a friar a Dominican if he wears a white habit with black scapula and a Franciscan if he wears a brown one.  Cultures blend, and, more often than not, especially in times of transition, one will have to struggle to determine what is what.  For this reason, the concept of "modernity" as a culture is not simply contemporaneous culture.  Contemporaneous culture in the West is the culture of modernity mixed in with the past culture of Christendom.

Modernity did not come upon us as a culture in one fell swoop.  Rather, the dismantling of Christianity culture came through a process of change, addition, subtraction, reconstruction during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.  While the Popes of this time attacked individual phenomena, one cannot say that they ever constructed an exhaustive or plenary critique of modernity.  Rather, their attacks on the modernity as it evolved was more or less on an ad hoc basis.

Even during the Second Vatican Council, a council supposedly dedicated to the issue of the Church in modernity, seems to have failed to engage in a "theological examination of this culture phenomenon called 'modernity' or the 'modern world.'"  (Rowland, 13)  Its almost as if the Church fathers looked at the phenomenon of modernity as a social accident--sort of like a hurricane that causes damage--and not as a social substantive--like a plague that gets progressively worse without some sort of sustained effort at diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.  As Rowland in her book Culture and the Thomist Tradition puts it:

There was no consideration, at least not at a philosophical and/or theological level, of the question of what is, in essence, the culture of modernity, and how such a culture affects the spiritual and intellectual formation of persons and thier opportunites for evangelisation.
Rowland, 13.  There seems to be a time when the Gospel is preached without purse, shoes, or bag, but also a time when it needs a purse, and indeed, a sword.  (Luke 22:35-36).  In confronting modernity in the Second Vatican Council, the Church seems to have gone the former route, and so Catholics were rather vaguely enjoined to be "authentic," and "relevant," and "open" to "modernity" with joy and hope.

In the view of John O'Malley in Tradition and Transition: Historical Perspectives on Vatican II, this sort of je ne sais quoi attitude with respect to modernity contained an "explosive problematic" attached to it.  It was like sending lambs to wolves, mice to serpents.

The Church was ill-prepared to address the issue of modernity, especially in its cultural aspects.  As Rowland observes:
[T]he notion of "modernity" as a "cultural formation" had not yet arrived within the theological frameworks of the Conciliar fathers in 1962. In this context Hervé Carrier has observed that "prior to the Council, the capacity for cultural analysis was almost whooly ignored in the theological formation provided at the time"--the word "culture" did not even appear as an entry in the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique.

Rowland, 14.  It was sort of like believing one had to take care of a simple wart, when one was in reality confronting something as complex, as serious, as dangerous, and as alive as a cancerous tumor.

Not informed by a clear sense of modern culture, the Church--then guided by Pope John XXIII--seemed (certainly in retrospect) altogether naïve about what it confronted.  In his opening address to the council fathers, Pope John XXIII spoke of modernity as something provided by God's Providence, something even that fulfilled "God's superior and inscrutable designs," something that was bound to lead "to the good of the Church."  In short, there was a "belief in the latently Christian orientation of the social trends."  (Rowland, 14).

This attitude was already seen in John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris.  In that encyclical, John XXIII naïvely assumed, without any analysis, that the "mutual acknowledgement of rights and duties in society" presented the Church with a "kind of preparatio evangelii" because it made humans open to values such as "truth, justice, charity, and freedom."

However, as Rowland sees it, this supposed link between modern "rights and duties" and an openness to the Gospel was simply presumed.  Hobbesian rights, Beccarian justice, Rawlsian duties may not be the same as rights, justice, and duties from the perspective of the Gospel.  There may be an entire closure to transcendent values.

"[W]hat is missing from Pacem in Terris and John XXIII's optimistic judgements about the directions of social values in the 1950s is precisely what Taylor calls a cultural analysis--an understanding of the clusters of values fit together into constellations that become embodied in the practices and beliefs of individuals and the institutions in which they work."  (Rowland, 15).  This incorrigible optimism, founded largely upon a failure to undertake a cultural analysis adequate to the task, was continued by John XXIII's successor Paul VI.

If culture has a role in thought, in other words, if culture has a role in influencing conceptions of justice, of rationality, and of virtue (as is argued by Alasdair MacIntyre and those of the Geneological tradition) then to ignore its role is a huge error. What are "universal values" to a Liberal may not be "universal values" to one of the children of Abraham.


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