Thursday, June 20, 2013

The True Counter-Culture

No evil is removable, no good is attainable, as long as any earthly or merely natural end is held to be, for its own sake, a legitimate object of pursuit. There is and can be good for no one, here or hereafter, save in seeking, exclusively, the end for which Almighty God has intended us, and by the means and in the way he himself has appointed. Now this end is neither in this world nor of this world, neither in nature nor of nature, and therefore can be gained, can be promoted, by no natural effort, by no natural means,  neither by political changes nor by social changes, neither by political democracy nor by social democracy. These things have and can have no necessary connection with it. It is a mistake, then, to regard them, in themselves, as ever in any degree desirable. - Orestes Brownson (emphasis mine), "Socialism and the Church"

Back in January, I wrote a post that elicited a long and thoughtful discussion in the combox, in which Andrew Lomas and I went back and forth a bit over a now obscure 19th Century Frenchman, Felicite Robert de Lammenais, about whom I knew nothing other than how Bl. Dominic Barberi stood firm against him, despite Lammenais' rock star status.  Lamennais' teachings were eventually condemned by the Church and Lammenais himself renounced his Christian faith and died kind of the way most bloggers live - a raving crank.

Lomas, in the combox, was defending Lamennais and pointing out the political failures of the Counter-Reformation Church, which made its worldly and temporal decisions too much in reaction to the Protestant Revolt, erring on the side of monarchy and wealth, and alienating itself from the demos - the poor on the street.  Lammenais was primarily a social reformer, and was advocating things that the Church, in its social encyclicals, eventually affirmed, things that in the early 19th Century was not willing to hear, or so says Andrew Lomas.

However ...

Now that I am reading Orestes Brownson in earnest, I find Brownson likewise very critical of de Lammenais.  Brownson quotes Lammenais at length in the essay I linked to above, "Socialism and the Church".  Lammenais' words are stirring and thrilling, though he has about him the touch of the demagogue.

But the problem with Lammenais (I gather) is that he was a "liberation theologian".

What the Church condemns in liberation theology is not the regard for the poor or the need for the amelioration of their suffering, but the notion that Christian reform is something that takes place in this world and in this world only.  Christ was not the first socialist, nor were his reforms merely or even primarily temporal reforms.

Brownson again ...

Undoubtedly, Christianity requires us to remove all evil, and in seeking to remove evil we follow the Christian principle; but what the Socialists call evil, and the people in revolt are seeking to remove, is not evil. Nothing is evil but that which turns a man away from his end, or interposes a barrier to his advance towards it. Nothing but one's own sin can do that.

Now, dear reader, before you get all smug and angry at Obama and all those other damned socialists, realize that this mistake - this notion that Jesus is utilitarian, that His grace is meant for this world and this world only, that our Faith is useful only in as much as it brings justice and comfort to the oppressed - is a mistake that is rampant in the American Church.


  • How often do we hear homilies that remind us that our goal is the Kingdom of Heaven, and that this goal can only be achieved by the renunciation of the world, the flesh and the devil and by the mortification of attachments to the pleasures of this life?
  • What is the common thread of the consequentialists who argue for Torture and Lying - or for Westian celebration of lust?  In both cases, it's victory in this world, the enjoyment of a benefit here and now, saving our necks or the necks of unborn babies - which, important though self-preservation and defending the innocent is, is hardly the primary or the sole goal of the Christian.
  • Do we really believe that the only thing that can harm us is sin?  That while poverty causes great suffering, that poverty in and of itself is not evil - that in fact poverty can be used as a means of bringing us closer to God?   

I'm sure I'll be misread here.  

I am not saying, and neither was Brownson, and neither is the Church, that temporal suffering and temporal injustice should be ignored.  Corporal works of mercy are one of the fruits of devotion to Christ.  A just Christian society - a Distributist society - is something every Christian should advocate.

But the heresy slips in when we make social reform - or political victory, or even victory over abortion - our one and only end.

For even in Utopia, even in the perfect City of Man, there's still the heart of man - there's still sin and pride and envy and lust and all the things that make us candidates for salvation.  For our end is not here but hereafter, and only if we seek first the Kingdom of God shall the questions "what shall we eat and what shall we wear" be answered for us (Mat. 6:31).

But this is the most counter-cultural message of the Church, and even most Catholics are very unwilling to hear it.  


9 comments:

Anonymous said...

From Andrew Lomas,

Greetings Kevin O'Brien, "so says Andrew Lomas"! I was very interested to read your reference to Orestes Brownson. In my part of the world at least he's not very well known, but years ago I read an interesting account of his work--in Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind", I believe--and tried to look up his books, only to find they were rare, and well beyond my humble means. I will try to watch your video discussion, though those things tend not to work so well in country Australia, and you have to pay for the data!

Perhaps my reference to Kirk's magnum opus, which I greatly admire, will help convince you I am not some kind of radical Marxist liberation theologian. Indeed in conventional terms I am more "right wing" than you, since I reject Distributism, largely on practical grounds--considering it impractical on the basis of my five years attempting to run a small business (unsuccessfully), and fifteen years working in cut-throat capitalist businesses (successfully).

As for our earlier discussion, it was not my intention to criticize the 19th century Church's teachings on faith and morals, and certainly not to say there was too much emphasis on eternal life--can't have too much emphasis on that. My criticism was of socio-political positions on the absolute right to property and the absolute rights of monarchs. Some of the 19th century Church's positions here are not only contrary to the dreaded liberation theologians, but clearly contrary to the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas--who is not generally considered a dangerously unorthodox radical.

As for the question of "natural" and "supernatural" ends, these are very deep waters. We are instructed to pray for our "daily bread", which though not limited to physical bread certainly includes it, and so the prayer includes a natural end. And those who enter the Kingdom are said to do so because "'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink'"(Mtt 25:35). The two great commandments of loving God and neighbor are said to be "like"; we can only know the God of Love here or hereafter by loving (I John 3:8).

But as I noted, these are very deep matters, about which I have no great learning. I am prepared to defer to those with greater knowledge on these questions, and on the political positions of the 19th century Church. If I have implied otherwise in these discussions, I have been culpably presumptious. "So says Andrew Lomas"!

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Andrew. Sorry if I misread you!

I will post on our Grunky internet video network my "Journey Home" appearance as Orestes Brownson and link to it here.

Yes, this world and the next: or more precisely, seek first the Kingdom both here and there, and all these other things will be added unto you.

I am well aware, having run more than my share of both successful and unsuccessful businesses, that sole proprietorship is not for everybody.

Anonymous said...

From Andrew Lomas,
Kevin O'Brien, a footnote.When I referred to the petition for "our daily bread" being a prayer for a natural end, I knew that I had read of this point being made elsewhere, but I couldn't remember where. Yesterday I stumbled on the source. It is Dietrich von Hildebrand's "The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity" (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).Von Hildebrand actually has an excellent discussion of the relation between natural and supernatural goods on pages 117-125, if you have the book, making subtle distinctions between worldly things, earthly things, and natural goods. But the passage I half-remembered is this:

"And we also pray, Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, 'Give us this day our daily bread'.
"The Church does not pray exclusively for man's eternal welfare. The possession of authentic earthly goods is included as well as being spared great evils: A fame, peste et bello, libera nos Domine, 'From famine, plague and war deliver us, O Lord'. Man would be a mere mask...if his heart did not give responses to all real goods--responses of gratitude, of longing, of hope, of love.
"...We need only think of the words of our Lord in Gethsemane, Pater mi, si possible est, transeat a me calix iste, 'Father, if it is possible, remove this chalice from me'" (p.117)

I thought this might be of some interest to you. By the way, I have enjoyed the "Beer and Books" posts on Grunky (despite my firm conviction that beer is a drink that should only be consumed after hard labour in the hot sun, on all other occasions red wine being the preferred beverage of the civilized man). For some reason these shorter videos work well on my computer, whereas with the longer ones there are always glitches. I hope there will be more. I am particularly looking forward to you proposing a slightly different view of "Romeo and Juliet" to Joseph Pearce. Pearce's interpretation has a lot of merit, but it seems to me he goes too far: I have even seen him refer to Romeo as a "cad". But a cad is surely one who seduces the girl then doesn't marry her, while as I remember it Romeo always wanted to marry his love, and this in a society where there was no divorce as a get-out: Romeo was "all in" as much as Juliet! But in any case, I look forward to seeing a continuation of the discussion.

Kevin O'Brien said...

I think the other things that Joseph slights is the great soaring romantic verse of Romeo. He may be a cad, but he has flights of Eros that are stellar. There's more to Romeo and Romeo's passion than mere lust. Joseph would agree with that, but the supreme beauty of the love poetry makes it hard to apply Joseph's thesis in full.

Anonymous said...

from Andrew Lomas,
Well, on the general question of "Eros" (hate the capitalization), I'm on Joseph's side! I regard with extreme suspicion any attempt to dress up natural, biological desires--perfectly legitimate in their limited way--as grand spiritual impulses. One of the problems is indicated by the phrase "flights of Eros". Where exactly in this is the actual woman, the human person, such as Juliet? Nowhere, really,she is merely the occasion of the flights, what the young man is really celebrating is his own urges.

Nonetheless, the question here is not what you or I think of "Eros", but what Shakespeare thought. And I quite take your point that he has Romeo celebrate it in wonderful language, which probably represents his own opinion--contrary to Joseph's thesis. I think a problem with Joseph Pearce's interpretations of Shakespeare generally is that he moves too quickly from the propositon that Shakespeare was a Catholic--which I regard as not proven but possible--to the conclusion that Shakespeare was his kind of Catholic. That is, a fervent, Chesterbelloc-interpretation-of-St Thomas-type Catholic. But after all Chaucer, Villon, Racine, even Rabelais were all Catholics, but they held very different views on human love, and its relation to reason and divine love.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Well, Andrew, I think Joseph's "type of Catholic" is not as morally pinched as you make him sound. A Thomistic Chester-bellocian is rather more comfortable with Eros (or even eros) and creature comforts than the Puritan Catholics are - or even than most of the Catholics who read this blog.

I do indeed agree that Romeo indulges in Eros - but there is something divine in it all the same, even if the source is ultimately lust - and this is evidenced by the poetry. Romeo and Juliet do discover a kind of love, despite the culture which surrounds them, their own sinfulness, and the lack of guidance either gets from authority figures. The play is, after all, a tragedy and not a morality play - and quite a rich tragedy at that.

I think there's much to be said for Joseph's thesis on this play and others. I think the charge of a kind of crypto-Puritanism has more to say about our shock that the plays are about virtue and vice than anything else.

Andrew, why don't you write something for the Christian Shakespeare site? It's been languishing of late, as I'm too busy with other things. But Joseph and I would both welcome a lively discussion on his thesis. Even if you don't write an "essay" per se, just come up with a solid commentary of a few paragraphs, I'll post it and we'll let the discussion take off from there. That's exactly what that site needs.

Kevin O'Brien said...

... so says Kevin O'Brien.

Anonymous said...

from Andrew Lomas,
Kevin O'Brien, I find your short reading of "Romeo and Juliet", about the two finding a "kind of love" excellent--as indeed is the case with most of your comments on Shakespeare. That's why I was interested to see the part of the video where you actually challenge Joseph Pearce with this more moderate, nuanced view!

As for writing something for the Christian Shakespeare site, I thank you for the suggestion. I have always been somewhat reluctant to put myself too forward on questions of Shakespeare interpretation. For although I did receive an excellent education on these matters--including an Honours Literature course devoted entirely to Shakespearean tragedy--unfortunately that was a long time ago. My mind is full of half-remembered points and half-remembered lines, but to properly "get up to speed" I would have to do a lot of re-reading. I would gladly do that, if you could just deal with these troublesome people who keep insisting I do some work to earn my living!

However I have a slightly less heavy work load now for a while, so I will make an effort to do the necessary reading to be able to make an informed contribution. But it might take a while. For further down the line, I have sometimes considered doing a piece on the "Christian Shakespeare" presented by Rene Girard in "The Theatre of Envy", which is a very different version from that of Joseph Pearce. I even have a title: "The Other Christian Shakespeare"!

I agree with you that discussions are more interesting when you have someone who actually disagrees with the majority line. And as long as you don't go too Bellocian on me, I am willing to play the role of provocateur!

Kevin O'Brien said...

"The Other Christian Shakespeare" is a great title! Feel free to get me something whenever it's convenient for you, and don't be intimidated. Do what most scholars do. Fake it!