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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Culture and Natural Law: Introduction

WE ARE GENERALLY FAMILIAR with the maxim that grace builds upon nature. We might also extend that maxim out a bit and observe that grace may also build upon those aspects of human nature that extend beyond man's mere substance (a rational soul), but into that substance's external constructs: politics, family, history, in short, culture. We might say that grace builds upon nature, and nature builds upon culture, and so ultimately grace also builds upon culture.

When culture was in the main Christian--as in the high Middle ages when St. Thomas Aquinas, in what may have been the height of Christendom, wrote his Summa Theologiae--the importance of culture seemed to have been overlooked somewhat.  As Professor Tracey Rowland put it in her introduction to her book Culture and the Thomist Tradition After Vatican II,* the "given" nature of Christendom all about him resulted in the fact that the "rôle of culture in moral formation was not a problematic requiring his attention."  (p. 2)  Modernly, when our culture is so adverse to Christian morals and the Christian narrative (i.e., the Gospel), the importance of a right culture (like right reason) is increasingly recognized.  In the West, of course, we live in a culture where moral liberalism and moral nihilism reign supreme, where that amorphous and highly malleable "rights talk" entirely unanchored from nature or objective value is the language of the day.

The modern culture is highly anti-Catholic and anti-Christian, and the few remaining remnants of Christendom--which already appear as the ruins of the monasteries, friaries, convents, and priories after the their dissolution by the tyrant King Henry VIII--are still being dismantled.  Like the French Huguenots and Revolutionaries, modern barbarians are unhappy with the little of the Abbey of Cluny that remains in our culture: they want to continue taking the ashlar stones in place and haul them away for their own pet projects, their own homes and mills and stables and barns.  In such hostile cultural environment, neither the natural moral law nor grace flourishes.

To state a truism: since the high middle ages to modernity, the cultural narrative as changed.

The role of culture, both its hindrance to and its support of, a life of human flourishing, is painfully apparent to anyone sensitive to Christendom's demise, "when Christendom is but a historical memory for a significant proportion of the population, and the Christian soul is forged within a complex matrix of institutions founded upon a mixture of theistic, quasi-theistic and anti-theistic traditions."  (Rowland, p. 2)  This is the culture of modernity.  This is the culture we confront.

Additionally, culture has an effect even on reasoning.  Someone steeped in the Thomist tradition reasons differently from someone steeped in Enlightenment-derived Liberal or Romantic Genealogical philosophies, say, Locke, or Hume, or Rousseau,   or Nietzsche, or Marx.  These divided ways of thinking is a reality we also confront.

To some extent, there has been a certain diffidence in approaching the issue of culture and its effect on moral formation and moral flourishing.  The fear is that too much emphasis on culture in moral formation and moral flourishing seems to concede to much to the Genealogical school that, at root, all values are conventional, cultural.  The desire to emphasize that there are objective moral values, that there is a universally applicable natural moral law that is not conventional or culturally grounded, to avoid yielding ground to historicism or relativism, has seemed to contribute to trepidation in engaging the issue.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  Thomists appear to avoid being fools; and their courage has been less than that of angels.  But according to Professor Rowland, this fear is unwarranted, and, in light of current circumstances, indefensible and irresponsible.  She urges the "need for an account of the rôle of culture in moral formation which does not undermine other elements of the tradition."  (Rowland, p. 7)

Professor Tracey Rowland

How does a Christian, in particular a Catholic Christian, approach this world of dismantled Christendom, where there is this admixture of "theistic, quasi-theistic, and anti-theistic traditions," and where, moreover, the reigning spirit seems to be concerned with yet the further minimization of the "theistic" and "quasi-theistic" remnants, and maximization of the "anti-theistic" traditions?

There seems to be somewhat of a division among Catholic thinkers regarding how we should best approach the problem with modernity.  Some believe that the "culture of modernity is neutral in relation to the flourishing of Christian practices, or even a second praeparatio envangelii in the manner of classical culture."  (Rowland, p. 2) We might call these the naive optimists.  This attitude appears to have been institutionalized in a manner in Vatican II's optimistic and perhaps somewhat naive (or perhaps now even dated) pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes.

Other scholars or authorities have the opinion that regards "the culture of modernity as the very solvent of Christian practices."  The scholars that we might put in this group include Catherine Pickstock (who speaks of a "polity of death"), David Schindler (who regards modern culture akin to a grace-resistant machine), and Alasdair MacIntyre (who sees modern culture as "toxic to the flourishing of virtue and the precepts of the natural law," Rowland, p. 2).  Even within the Church, the tocsin has been sounded.  Blessed Pope John Paul II's "culture of death," and Pope Benedict XVI's "tyranny of relativism" appear somewhat less embracing of modernity than Gaudium et spes.  We might call this view the realist view.

It seems that there is a disconnect between Gaudium et spes and reality, and so, to a certain extent, Catholics confront a sort of crisis.  Is it the accommodation of aggiornamento or the challenge of the New Evangelization?

It seems that Catholic leadership has begun to ask the question, "Foundations once destroyed, what can the just man do?" as did the Psalmist.  (Ps. 11:3 [10:4])  Ultimately,  Professor Rowland, whom we categorize with the realists, addresses this question in her book Culture and the Thomist Tradition After Vatican II.    Rowland's treatment is engaging and seems to bring forth out of the subtraditions of classical and analytical Thomism (in particular relying on Alasdair MacIntyre's work, but also on the work of David Schindler and Kenneth Schmitz, a sort of patchwork which she categorizes with the somewhat cumbersome term "postmodern Augustinian Thomism"), the Nouvelle Théologie, and Radical Orthodoxy We will spend our next series of postings on this highly-recommended work.

*Hereinafter in this in subsequent blog postings, identified as "Rowland."

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