Augustine's Two Cities and America's Nuclear Onanism
“Bring out the holy hand grenade of Antioch.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Part I: The Augustinian Option and the Libido Dominandi.
Central governments arise, at least in part, because war makes them necessary. And central governments, in their turn, make war inevitable. In ancient Israel the original confederation of tribes during the period of the Judges gradually gave way to the alleged necessity of having a king in order for Israel to fend-off her marauding and pillaging enemies. Israel was fine so long as the Judges that ruled her were competent and righteous men. However, the quality of the Judges declined over time with many falling into complete corruption. Indeed, right before the rise of Israel’s monarchy, the prophet Samuel’s sons, who had taken over as Judges after Samuel stepped down, were apparently so corrupt and/or incompetent that many in Israel felt the need to press Samuel to anoint a new Judge/King to unite the scattered tribes against their many enemies.
However, the Bible itself records that this movement toward monarchy was not without loud and pointed dissent from those within Israel who knew that once they had a monarch that Israel would become just another nation like other nations, with all of the corruptions, social stratifications, and inequalities that this clearly implied. Many Israelites viewed any monarchy as a challenge to the theological status of Yahweh as their true and only king, which in practical terms meant that, instead of a society oriented around monarchy, they preferred the old sacral order of local shrines and priestly sacrifices, the rule of tribal law under the judges, and the egalitarian social structure of tribal society, all loosely united under the banner of Israel’s God with the moral and cultic laws He had decreed. This debate within ancient Israel was only resolved when the prophet Samuel finally intervened, although somewhat reluctantly and ambivalently, and anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. But God makes it clear to Samuel that this is something that he will “allow,” even though it does represent a rejection of Him as King, and even a kind of “mistreatment” of Him through their ingratitude for all that He has done for them up to this point. He will nevertheless grant this request for a king but only insofar as the coming kings of Israel will be faithful to the laws of God. (1 Samuel 8:7-8). He instructs Samuel, in an important verse filled with foreshadowing, to “solemnly warn” the people of Israel that infidelity on the part of the kings will be judged harshly.
In essence what Samuel’s anointing of the king represented was a sacral blessing for war since the entire reason people wanted a King was so that he could create the central bureaucratic apparatus necessary to raise the money for a well-trained and well-equipped standing army for the purposes of war-making. And in this regard it was indeed true that Israel soon became like all other nations where nothing is more sacred , nothing more celebrated, nothing more whitewashed in the name of monarchic legacies, nothing more utilized as the supreme Totem of courage, nothing more “uniting”, than war. But here, once again, the Biblical ambivalence (and honesty!) about this whole process can be seen in the various, and often conflicting, historical accounts of the rise and fall of even Israel’s greatest and most iconic kings.
And it is this biblical witness that makes Israel’s experience of theocratic monarchism different from all others. Because by her own accounting in these narratives, Israel makes the claim that for every monarchic “triumph” on the stage of worldly power and empire building, there is an equal, if not greater, legacy of corruption and failure - - a failure caused by the monarchic nullification of the true eschatological meaning of God’s “kingship” as the Lord of all of history, gentile and Jewish alike. Couched in the language of “disobedience to the Law” what is truly being asserted, as seen in the Deuteronomic history in particular, is that the inner theological meaning of the Law as the Revelation of God’s steadfast “hesed” for all, had been eclipsed by the language of coercive force in the name of a purely national god. Israel had been called to be a “light” unto the gentiles leading by example, and not a divine bludgeon for giving the gentile dogs their comeuppance.
This biblical critique of Israel’s monarchy in the historical narratives is subtle and understated, as it engages in a pedagogy of instruction through simple story telling that eschews strong didactic conclusions that allows for both the strengths and weaknesses of the reality of monarchy to play out on the stage of Israel’s history. What it gives with one hand - - the glories of Israel’s greatest kings as icons of God’s care for Israel - - it takes away with the other by recounting in lurid detail all of the manifest failures of the same. As such, the biblical narrative is neither a full-throated endorsement for “integralism” and “confessional States,” nor a robust rejection of the same in favor of the anarcho-syndicalism (my friend Christopher Altieri’s wonderful term) of the old tribal configurations.
It was left to the prophets to draw out the didactic elements latent within the narratives and it is no accident that the high point of prophecy is reached at exactly the same time as Israel is at the zenith of its worldly political power. The prophetic critique of the confluence of Temple cult and Kingly power is bracing and cutting, as it accuses both Temple and Monarchy of engaging in a kind of magical thinking wherein Israel thought it was immune from worldly destruction as a theo-political reality so long as an heir to David was on the throne and the Temple sacrifices were being “properly” carried out. Think of it as a kind of ancient Israelite version of her national “indefectibility” so long as certain forensic rubrics remained in place. And within this prophetic critique we see for the first time the deeper implications of Israel’s high, ethical monotheism brought to bear on this regime of magical thinking, as Israel is warned that absent a conversion of heart to the ethical aspects of the Law as a “sacrifice of the heart” that the Temple cult and the Davidic monarchy would amount to exactly nothing. Worse, it would all be taken away as God, the Lord of history, would utilize gentile pagan power to destroy Israel’s paganism of power in a judgment that would be swift and total. Seen in this light what the prophets are doing is engaging in a hermeneutic of theological/historical retrieval where Israel’s history is interpreted, not as a fall from a pristine past, but as a movement from corruption to corruption - - from the corruption of the Judges who fell from faithfulness and wisdom into idolatry and moral dissolution, to the corruption of the monarchy which fell from an iconic symbol of God’s hesed for Israel into the vanity of glory-seeking, empire building and magical presumptuousness.
This prophetic witness reaches its conclusion in the late, second Temple apocalyptic writings of Daniel who characterized the history of the world as a succession of empires which are symbolically referred to as “beasts” (animals) that arise from below and which challenge God’s historical Providence. Joseph Ratzinger, in his book “The God of Jesus Christ” (Franciscan Herald Press, 1979), notes Daniel’s designation of the various empires as “beasts from below” and then goes on to point out that Daniel juxtaposes this worldly political hubris “from below” with the “descent” of one “like onto a Son of Man” from the divine realm “above.” From the “sea” did the beasts arise, with the sea here representing the very chaos that God had subdued in creating the world, and thus does Daniel equate the empires of this world as an “anti-creation” that threatens Israel, which now stands politically impotent and vulnerable under Hellenistic oppression, and whose only hope is to remain steadfast since God will not allow the torturers to have the last historical word. Thus does the Son of Man represent Israel herself as the chief provocateur of a divinely restored creation if she will but turn to God with converted hearts. Temple and Monarchy are not rejected in this scheme but are radically eschatologized as symbols of a divine reign that is yet to come where the kingdom-beasts of this world will be put down and replaced with God’s Kingdom. It is no accident that Messianic expectation arose in this late second Temple era since the dominant ethos in Israel was a sense of the futility in “trusting in chariots.” In other words, what Daniel here reflects is the growing eschatological horizon in ancient Israel as people became disenchanted with terrestrial political machinations in the service of a purely intra-mundane, theocratic fantasy.
The New Testament appropriates this prophetic thread in Israel’s biblical autobiography, with Jesus self-identifying as the very embodiment of this “man from above” who destroys the ruling power and worldly logic of the beasts from below. But he does so not through even greater displays of coercive pyrotechnics but by subverting the very notion of “power” as such by revealing God’s “dynamis” through what appears to the world as “weakness.” Ratzinger states:
“Jesus, the Son of God, came as a man among the beasts. In the weakness of his humanity he established divine sovereignty. Precisely, by the sign of his weakness that was opposed to brutality, he incarnated divine greatness. He came among the beasts without becoming himself a beast and without using their methods. And he let himself be devoured, but in that way he triumphed over them. For what was an apparent defeat was a victory. There was no bestial element in this victory. There was a love that went to the very end (John 13:1). In him humanity was renewed.” (pp. 57-58)
To deny that this is the inherent theo-logic of the New Testament is to engage in a theological revisionism for the sake of maintaining some kind of an approbation for the various Leviathans that have governed all of world history, with an eye toward “purifying” them with the antiseptic of the Gospel. But this has rarely been a “jeweler’s eye” of prudential precision and has instead, in almost all instances, been the Church’s way of blessing worldly power so long as it is used in the service of the Church’s aims. And in so doing she has emulated Israel’s kings and engaged in her own form of magical thinking as she insouciantly trusted in her own “indefectibility” of holiness as an ideological talisman that guarantees and underwrites her forays into worldly idolatry as if it is some kind of magical hedge against the same divine judgments that befell Israel. And just as God’s covenant with Israel remained intact even as God removed just about every worldly “prop” that Israel could point to as a mark of its “specialness,” so too might God judge the Church of today by removing every last vestige of her worldly prestige and influence. The Church’s indefectibility will remain, but in the service of which God(s)?
As I noted in my last essay on Dorothy Day’s anarchism of anti-centralization, I am not making any strong claims here about the legitimacy of confessional States, integralism vs. Liberalism, or of any specific theo-political arrangements. Nor am I arguing, as I stated before, for a retreat into an apolitical realm of an impossible ecclesial purity. Instead, my aims here are more modest as I seek out the pedagogy of the Holy Spirit in both the scriptural witness and in the Church’s unfolding historical experience. Therefore, my claim is simply that no matter the “politics” we adopt we must keep this pedagogy in full view. And the pedagogy of both the Old and New Testaments is in the direction of a negative judgment on the role played by sinful concupiscence in creating political structures oriented to the libido dominandi rather than the ordo of the City of God. We must engage the world and that includes the realm of the “polis” and its ordo. But as Henri de Lubac noted, with deep consternation over the post-conciliar swooning over the Liberal order, our engagement with the world will, more often than not, take the form of a creative “confrontation” with that world, which in turn must surely involve a radical prophetic critique of the animating spirit of the libido dominandi.
My argument, therefore, is not that of an apolitical indifference, but quite the opposite since it is the path of a politics of critical engagement that is far more serious than the politics of the desultory “Catholic citizen” who has made his/her peace with the reigning bourgeois order and mainstreamed into it seamlessly, coming out to vote every four years and do their “civic duty” as they cast their ballot for the least objectionable presidential candidate. My argument here is deeply political as it stands against the false piety of sacralized power which the New Testament in particular radically subverts. Think of Mary’s Magnificat with its conjoining of God’s loving plan of redemption with his “lifting up the lowly” (herself included) and His overturning of the economic power asymmetry between rich and poor. The sacral order thus revealed is one of subversion of the ordo of the libido dominandi with God “casting down the mighty from their thrones.” So subversive is this hymn that the British government outlawed its public recitation in India during colonial rule, as did the Argentinian and Guatemalan military Juntas that bristled at its political uses by the poor. The Magnificat is indeed an eschatological hymn and not merely “political” in a worldly sense, but that is precisely why it is deeply political in a much more radical sense. Furthermore, there is nothing in the scriptures that suggests that Mary was simply a pious “Gentle Woman” who was content to be nothing more than an inert vessel for God’s entry into the world, a kind of theo-uterus for divine usage, as if the whole affair was simply one of biological utility. The thunderous term “Theotokos!” was meant to convey her missional importance in the entire economy of salvation and not that she was nothing more than a pliant tool, used and then discarded once Jesus embarks on his public ministry. Her brash intervention at Cana and her presence at her son’s bloody and brutal execution give the lie to all “religious” whitewashings of her as a model of quiet female submission. Her Magnificat, therefore, is not simply an effusion of pious joy that is expressing her gratitude, but is also, and perhaps primarily, a programmatic Christological hymn that conjoins her son’s coming mission with God’s plan for the radical overturning of the structures of power. The entire hymn is a Christological provocation and a foreshadowing, in nuce, of the theo-political logic of the Kingdom of God.
Think too of the book of Revelation which casts all of history as the arena in which this overturning takes place, with the historical conflict between Christ and the anti-Christ (worldly imperial power) gradually, and then suddenly(!) reaching a crescendo that shakes heaven and earth. Revelation is completing Daniel’s taxonomy and adding Rome and all of the “Romes” to follow to his list of beasts. This is no neo-con, Whig Thomist vision of the Lion of the State lying down in peace with the Lamb who was slain, now made possible after many false starts by advances in constitutional political thinking. There is in the New Testament’s treatment of worldly power - - and despite St. Paul’s prudential tip-toeing around the dangerous question of Christian submission to Roman civil rule - - a black and white quality whose central theological motif is one of the inevitable confrontation between two rival kingdoms, two rival orders of reality, and two competitive versions of power. However, what is presented is not a simple confrontation between “politics” and “religion” since the two rival versions of power find a home in both the Church and the Empire in Revelation’s narrative, where religious apostasy and/or lukewarmness are very much in play as part of the confrontation between the Gospel and the anti-Gospel.
Thus, the New Testament gives us no “theory of the State” and still less does it outline the relation of this State to a reified and essentialized fiction called “religion.” Even Christ’s celebrated words “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God” is far more subversive and provocative than it appears at first glance to modern eyes which are accustomed to reading everything through the lens of Liberalism’s false “religion” vs. “politics” binaries. Jesus had no such Liberal notion in view when he uttered those words and if read properly and in full context it should remind us of the words of Dorothy Day who once said that “once one has rendered to God what belongs to God, there should be very little left for Caesar.” And do not overlook the fact that Jesus is discussing “duties to Caesar” in response to a question about taxes, which in the Roman world were a glorified form of extortion and theft and which, therefore, carried none of the virtuous “civic duty” connotations surrounding taxes that we have today. Thus, Jesus here is most certainly also referring to his admonitions about the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon (with “Mammon,” as William Cavanaugh points out, remaining untranslated as a term, giving it the quality of a personal name as a quasi-personified reality). The verse in question, therefore, far from being Christ’s first century endorsement of a “separation of church and state” (a gross and vulgar anachronism in this context) is rather most likely something far more in tune with the Gospel’s negative judgment on the “kingdoms of this world.” One could rephrase the verse as follows: “Let Caesar have the realm of Mammon which is the satanic realm of greed, lies and violence. Pursue instead the Kingdom of God which alone is your true destination and home.” And as Jesus makes clear to Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John, even Pilate’s authority comes ultimately from God, which, once again, is not the articulation of a grand theory of the relation between divine and human sovereignty, but is rather a direct put-down to Pilate’s Roman hubris and a reminder that all worldly power that is focused inwardly on itself and outwardly at domination, is a futility rooted in idolatry and destined for the fiery destruction of Gehenna.
In this regard it is very much like St. Augustine’s distinction between the “amor Dei” and the “libido dominandi” which are polar binaries that are very much at home in the Church as well as civil society. My analysis here is therefore unapologetically Augustinian. It is interesting, is it not, that in the “City of God” Augustine, like the Bible, never gives us a theory of the State or a systematic rendering of how the Church must relate to it going forward, and this despite the fact that Augustine lived in a post-Constantinian world. Rather, Augustine, as in the book of Revelation, gives us a performative accounting of history that gets at the deeper theo-drama that is in play here. Augustine’s point, and mine, is that regardless of the political arrangements within which the Church, in many and various ways, finds herself in actual history, and regardless of the necessary prudential judgments that the Church must make - - for better or for worse - - in its relations with the realm of worldly civil authority, that it must never lose sight of the pedagogy of the Spirit in Scripture which should lead us into an analysis, first and foremost, of idolatry, both in the Church and in the broader world. And that the Church’s most proper “political function” is precisely this identification and naming of idolatry within herself and in society, and her resolute opposition to it. Idolatry is here understood as much more than a substantive metaphysical/theological rejection of God on a conceptual level, and is instead best understood as a functionalist and performative reality where God, even when conceptually acknowledged “properly,” is effectively eclipsed and replaced with penultimate worldly values. In other words, the Church, even when it is perfectly “orthodox” in its theology and doctrine can nevertheless be effectively idolatrous, and by implication, a-theistic in her actions and dispositions.
If the pre-lapsarian vocation of humanity was to offer God a perfect doxological worship as the mouthpiece of all of creation, then, as Fr. Khaled Anatolios points out in his marvelous book “Deification Through The Cross,” the salvific action of Christ can be construed as a restoration of this doxology by offering to the Father a perfect act of “doxological contrition” on behalf of humanity, thus restoring our original vocation and even going beyond it. This is why the Church’s most essential form is best expressed liturgically (doxology) as the coming together of repentance and true worship. Seen in this light, the Church’s primary “political” role is the identification and reversal of idolatry, which is the essence of all sin. Which is also why the Church’s most common public stance is that of “witness” (martyrdom) rather than that of coercive power. The “sword” of the Church’s authority is thus nothing other than the sword of the cross with the public, historical ordo of doxological contrition it establishes. The Church’s counter witness to the libido dominandi is thus a eucharistic “politics” of opposition to idolatry. Thus does the Church violate her most constitutive mark when she herself baptizes the libido dominandi in various ways as she attempts to impose via civil authority what she cannot achieve through doxological persuasion. And the soft version of this same ecclesial idolatry happens when the Church simply accommodates herself to the ruling ordo of power without confronting its idolatries.
Part II: A Case Study in Non-Prophetic Accommodation to the Libido Dominandi: The Idolatry of American Military Power.
Bringing this into our own reality as American Catholics (with apologies to my non-American readers) my claim is that the neo-con political project of portraying America as a crypto-Catholic country in her constitutional order is utterly bankrupt as a pastoral project. Making use of the Thomistic natural law tradition, they have definitely made some fine conceptual points about the many ways that the American project differed from the Euro/French tradition of “laïcité” and was, therefore, more open to a Catholic reading of its principles. Nevertheless, most of the analysis remained on the abstract and theoretical level, and in actual pastoral practice seemed geared toward justifying on Catholic theological grounds, Capitalism, American “power,” American militarism, and the “virtues” of American middle-class patterns of living. The politics that flowed out of this project was almost universally “conservative Republican” with a focus on abortion (a focus I have zero issue with since I too abhor the abortion license), lower taxes, and supply-side economics with its message of “a rising economic corporate tide raises all economic boats.” The influential journal First Things, founded by the irrepressible Father Richard Neuhaus, became one of the chief intellectual mouthpieces of this movement. Fulsomely funded by large corporate sponsors, it quickly became the face of conservative, American Catholic political thinking and had a deep influence on the American Catholic episcopacy as well.
But lurking beneath all of the Journal’s erudition and cultured, prosaic charm was a very non-prophetic and non-Augustinian, Whig Thomist blessing of American power. Long on analysis of sexual and reproductive issues but short on social justice issues that involved economic and military policy, First Things, and the neo-con project in general, turned a blind eye to the many ways in which the United States was part of the order of the libido dominandi. In this regard I want to focus on a single issue, an issue I wrote my Master’s Thesis on, as paradigmatic of this missed prophetic/pastoral moment. And that is the issue of the American nuclear arsenal and the strategic adoption of the policy of “mutually assured destruction” by the American authorities in charge of that arsenal - - authorities that included not a few Catholics. It will be my claim that not only did the neo-cons miss a prophetic moment here, but so too did the American Catholic bishops, and every pope from Hiroshima until today, with implications that go far beyond this specific issue for the topic at hand.
I did my thesis under the tutelage of the late moral theologian Dr. Germain Grisez. It was his view, a view with which I agreed, that the American nuclear deterrent was clearly gravely immoral since it involved not only the possession of weapons of mass indiscriminate slaughter, but also the intent to use them should the necessary provocation arise. Catholic moral theology had always condemned such things as carpet bombing of civilian populations, even though that condemnation was severely muted during the second world war, and the American nuclear deterrent clearly falls within that condemnation since the intent to use such weapons is also gravely immoral, irrespective of whether or not they are ever actually used, since the intent involves a willingness to use such weapons in ways that are condemned by the Church. And it is no good to argue that in an actual war that the United States might choose to never launch such weapons, because the potential for their use is still there and is enshrined in America’s official nuclear policy of retaliation. Ours is not a policy of “possession but will never use,” but a policy that explicitly states that should we be attacked with nuclear weapons that we will retaliate with the same. Because absent a military posture of “intent to use” the deterrent “bluff” has no teeth. And for that very reason the entire system is geared toward their potential use rendering any alleged reluctance to actually use them on the part of this or that individual morally pointless and irrelevant.
The American Catholic bishops, following the lead of Pope John Paul II, issued a pastoral letter in 1983 (“The Challenge of Peace”) that reaffirmed Catholic moral teaching on the immorality of using nuclear weapons against civilian populations. However, after much debate, they stopped short of condemning the possession of such weapons with an intent to use with the proviso that such a “deterrence strategy” was acceptable “in the short term” as a “transitional” situation so long as serious efforts were also undertaken to “negotiate” them out of existence in the interests of “peacemaking.” The bishops, and Pope John Paul, were concerned that unilateral nuclear disarmament by the West would leave it vulnerable to nuclear blackmail from the Soviet Union, and therefore the prudential decision was made that a “temporary” possession of such weapons was the lesser evil. Of course, absolutely nothing was mentioned about the morally and spiritually distorting effects that this would have on society or on individual Catholics involved in the nuclear deterrent business. Everything remained on the abstract level of policy with the bishops and the Pope giving a wink and a nod to the continuance of the status quo, all in the name of “peace.” Nobody seemed to notice the dissonance involved in the fact that Pope John Paul and the American bishops had remained resolutely opposed to proportionalist forms of moral reasoning in the sexual domain, but were now, in the nuclear domain, suddenly using the proportionalist language of parsing the moral commensurability of lesser and greater evils as the proper path forward. Gone was any discussion of the traditional Catholic teaching that it is better to suffer a million material evils at the hands of others rather than commit one sin ourselves. Nuclear blackmail was on the horizon and so we just could not bring ourselves to give up our putative “protection” against such an evil.
My dear old friend, the retired historical theologian Dr. William Portier, once observed to me that it is striking that in the domain of sexual morality the Church teaches that there is no “parvity of matter” with regard to all immoral sexual acts. In other words, all immoral sexual acts, from adultery to a fifteen year old boy succumbing to Onanistic temptation, are with regard to the “moral object” in question, always “gravely disordered.” I have no problem with this teaching nor, I think, does Bill. The point however is that this fact exposes a weakness in traditional natural law moral reasoning insofar as the issue of sexual immorality is always objectively “black and white” but when it comes to owning with an intent to use, weapons of horrific and indiscriminate slaughter, we are now suddenly in the realm of “prudential judgments” and “policy adjudications.” Think of a young Catholic who is stationed in a nuclear missile silo and who has been trained to “turn his launch key” when so ordered, and who fully intends to do so should that order come, and is thus prepared to incinerate 10 million people in the blink of an eye. He is not required by the Church to quit his post out of moral conscientiousness, and he is not required by the Church to go to confession for the forgiveness of the sin of intending indiscriminate slaughter. Nevertheless, should he go home after his shift is over in the silo of “deterrence” and engage in Onanistic pleasure, he is now required to go to confession. And it is precisely this asymmetry of moral teaching that has robbed the American Church of any hint of a prophetic witness against the libido dominandi of the American military establishment.
The American, Catholic neo-con project has blessed, and continues to bless, this idolatry of power and this asymmetry of moral teaching. I will be accused by them of engaging in some very uncareful and unnuanced thinking here. Poppycock. In reality, it is they who are guilty of deep inconsistency, perhaps even hypocrisy, when they excoriate anyone who dares challenge the Church’s sexual teaching (a teaching, once again, which I support) but who then turn around and twist an encyclical like John Paul’s “Centesimus Annus” into a ringing endorsement of American style capitalism (Michael Novak), which it most certainly is not and which instead contains some stinging condemnations of modern, Western-style Capitalism. One could also point to George Weigel's regrettable advice that we need to take a red pen to Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate," and insist that the bits that are critical of capitalism were “not really written by Benedict but by someone on the peace and justice commission.” When you see such theological legerdemain then you know that what is happening here is, at the very least, a flirtation with an idolatry of Americanism straight up. And even though I disagree with the liberal Catholic critique of the Church’s sexual teaching, I can at least appreciate that quite often such critiques have this kind of neo-conservative cafeteria Catholicism in view. Because if we can apply a kind of prudential latitudinarianism to all manner of sins in the political order in the name of “nuance” then why can we not do the same in the sexual order? This, it seems to me, is what motivates Pope Francis as well, who speaks of “accompaniment” with regard to sexual sinners, even as he condemns, and rightly so, and finally(!), the mere possession of nuclear weapons. And notice how this latter point, which he made just recently, seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the American Church. That, and his twice repeated assertion that the Just War theory is something that “we can no longer hold to.” Yikes. Lookie there Homer, a Pope from the global South who doesn’t want to play in the superpower sandbox of false flag lies.
Therefore, I make no apologies for my view that the proper stance of the Church vis-à-vis the political order is essentially eschatological and prophetic in the manner of Augustine and the New Testament. And by “prophetic” I mean it does not begin and end with a simple recitation of the “duties and obligations” of the “Catholic citizen” in a manner indistinguishable from the Boy Scout Manual or the mission statement of the local Rotary club, and with the whole of it neatly parsed-out with neo-scholastic precision in a manner designed to dull the edge of the Gospel’s sword. Rather, by “prophetic” I mean that the Church’s chief political contribution to a Christian polity is to engage in a critique of the various idolatries which afflict both Church and society in a given culture - - a prophetic critique which then commits the Church to a counter-witness of a politics of Eucharistic resistance.
That resistance can take many forms of course and does not in any way necessitate a “retreat” from engagement with the world, since it will most often take the form of a counter-witness from within. Indeed, the Church’s permanent “form” socially speaking, as I said above, is precisely that of being a “witness” (martyr) to the Truth from within the structures of the world and not as a cranky, cracker-barrel, outsider engaged in “drive-by” critiques that cost them nothing. The Greek word for “martyr” (marturia) means “witness,” and a prophetic critique of idolatry from within the belly of the beast will almost certainly require such a witness from us. As Peter Maurin put it, we need to create a new society from within the shell of the old, and not presume that we just need to blow the whole thing up like violent revolutionaries. “Revolutions” in this mundane sense almost always involve a simple movement from one form of Girardian violence to another. Which is why the Church’s prophetic critique of idolatry will also be eschatological in the sense that it needs to remind society that the essence of all idolatry is the replacement of ultimate things with penultimate things. The Church must live this ultimacy as well, i.e. must be an “Ad orientem” Church with an eye toward the Lord’s return and the restoration of all things, in order for her message to have the credibility of authenticity. She must not be utopian in a purely intra-mundane sense, and she must not hitch her wagon to any particular political form as that which is “most consistent with the Gospel.” And this latter point is one which we in allegedly democratic countries need to remember in particular. And it is definitely something American Catholics need to hear rather than the Whig Thomist, neo-con, lionization of American exceptionalism as a quasi-Catholic enterprise.
But this is where the Church needs to empower the creative moral agency of the laity and to encourage the laity by means of ecclesial example to engage in whatever forms of intentional Christian living they can develop. But what the Church cannot do, and must not do, is to actively discourage such resistance as somehow lacking in “civic virtue.” Recently, a group of Catholic Workers (the “Plowshares Seven”) were arrested and sent to jail for breaking into an American nuclear facility and symbolically “disarming” America through an act of vandalism (blood, hammers, crime scene tape…) on some statues of nuclear weapons there. One of those arrested, Patrick O’Neill, was also a member of the Knights of Columbus in North Carolina. But the Knights have decided that Patrick’s actions warrant him being kicked out of their organization. You can read his account of this sad story here. (Thank you to my Facebook friend Greg Walgenbach for bringing this story to my attention.) And regardless of what you think of the prudential wisdom of their actions in the protest, the fact remains that the moral evil they were protesting is a real one and one would hope that the Knights would at least acknowledge that fact. But one suspects that the problem is that the Knights do not believe that the nuclear station in question is engaged in anything gravely immoral, and for that I blame the silence of the American bishops and not a few popes.
How different would American politics look today, and how different would the Catholic Church in America look today, if in 1983 the American bishops had published a stinging denunciation of the morality of the American nuclear deterrent and had forbidden all Catholics from participating in it on pain of mortal sin? Instead we got a mealy-mouthed and toothless document that made all kinds of anodyne statements about how icky war is and how cool peace is, and that Jesus wants us to love everyone, including, I guess, even those we are targeting with nuclear annihilation. We got a document that said the status quo of nuclear brinkmanship was just fine so long as we don’t really mean it and so long as we are trying our dadgumdest to avoid murdering every living thing on the planet. Never mind that the American military budget is still more than that of all other nations combined and that a goodly chunk of that chump-money goes toward maintaining our nuclear threat so that, you know, we can “negotiate” from a better strategic position. Never mind all of that because American Catholics have arrived baby and we do not want to upset the delicate modus vivendi that the Church has established with bourgeois pecuniary culture. In 1983 the bishops spoke with the abstracted distance of the theoretician as if they had no skin in the game, as if they were not bishops in the most powerful nation in every way that the world had ever seen, as if they had no greater responsibility in such a milieu to the Gospel and the salvation of souls than if they lived in Costa Rica or Swaziland. These bishops, these men, had one of the gravest moral evils the world had ever seen on their plates and on their watch and they punted. Perhaps they had to. Perhaps the head coach told them to. But whatever the case, they missed their prophetic moment, as did the Church as a whole. And the Eastern Churches are no better, as we see Patriarch Strangelove Kirill greenlighting Vlad the Impaler Putin’s murderous barbarism complete with threats of nuclear war.
What a mess the churches have made. We have made a deal with the Devil and packaged it as “prudence.” It reminds me of Saturday Night Live and Dana Carvey’s brilliant imitation of President Bush: “Not gonna’ do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.” And thus do we end up looking instead like Carvey’s equally hilarious, “Church Lady” and her empty sanctimoniousness.
We are good at condemning sexual Onanism. We got that down pat. Now how about condemning our nuclear Onanism? The Onanism of our self-worshipping orgasmic idolatry of threatened violence and the blackmail of mutual annihilation. The Onanism of the spilled-seed of our spiritual integrity on the altar of “security.” At the end of the day there are only four false gods that govern the libido dominandi: Moloch, Mammon, Ares, and Dionysius. They are all linked together and the Church should be in the business of identifying and calling out all four, or it should not be in business at all.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.