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Justice, Mercy, And Anti-Semitism

Further thoughts on the Edgardo Mortara controversy

A couple of you bring to my attention the comments of the Catholic writer Eve Tushnet, on the recent online controversy over Catholic integralism, a concept that can be defined simply like this (from a Catholic integralist website):

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

This all came up on this blog in response to a book review on the First Things site in which a Dominican priest issued a full-throated defense of Pope Pius IX for removing Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family’s home. The Mortaras were living in the Papal States at the time, and Pius was therefore the head of state. The child had been baptized secretly by a Catholic housemaid when he was on the verge of death as an infant, and when this fact became known to the Church five years later, the pope’s men seized him, saying that they had a responsibility under canon law and otherwise to give the Christian child a Catholic upbringing. The Mortara case caused a huge uproar at the time, and had something to do with the Pope losing the Papal States.

I’m not exactly a liberal, but it was still shocking to me to read in a mainstream journal like First Things an unapologetic defense of Pius IX’s actions. But there it was. And, as I blogged here yesterday, that same author had in a different place, published a farrago of clericalist B.S. downplaying the seriousness of the priest sex abuse scandal, and longing for the days when the Church had the right to police its own priests, and not have them compelled to answer before secular courts of justice. Pre-2002 Boston wasn’t an integralist polity, nor was the nation of Ireland, but both were arguably as close as you can get to that in the modern world, in terms of the role the Catholic Church played in public life, and the results were catastrophic.

It is perfectly reasonable to point to the abuse scandal, including the way the secular world collaborated with the Church to sweep sex crimes against children under the rug, as an argument against integralism, a philosophy that would subjugate the state to the power of clerics. I can easily imagine myself around 1998, as a younger Catholic, full of ardor and ideology, finding the clarity and logic of integralism appealing, but having spent years writing about the abuse scandal, and seeing how terribly clerics can screw things up — not because they’re clerics, but because they are human beings, and their ordination does not change that — there is no way on God’s green earth I would stand for an integralist regime. I say that mostly as someone who wants the Church to flourish. A church that has too much temporal power imperils itself in a different way from a church that it completely at the mercy of the secular state — but imperil itself it does.

Here’s the thing that is very hard to get progressives to understand: liberalism today is turning illiberal in a way that resembles the Papal States of Pio Nono. Many on the left don’t see it because they are caught up in the relentless logic of virtue. Let’s step away from the religion aspect for a second. Have you been watching the progressive mob savaging Margaret Atwood — Margaret Atwood! — as a traitor to feminism for having said publicly that a Canadian academic punished for sexual harassment was denied due process? The Handmaid’s Tale author was a hero to feminists yesterday, but today she’s a monster because she deviated ever so slightly from the Virtuous Position. Extremism in the pursuit of progressive virtue is no vice. I’m sure the author of this passage would agree:

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?

That was Robespierre, by the way. There’s a case to be made that Robespierre had Asperger’s syndrome; if true, it would give a neurological basis for his fanatical focus on Justice (as he saw it) at the expense of any tempering principle, especially mercy. Robespierre was initially admired as incorruptible, because he really wasn’t in the Revolution business for himself, but only for principle. Yet his relentless purity got a lot of people killed before he finally lost his head.

Robespierre was an extreme historical case, obviously, but his spirit is present wherever ardent idealists trample on basic humanity for the sake of following principle or law. This is the logic behind burning heretics. If it is worse to lose your eternal soul than your body, and the flourishing of heresy will lead to people losing their souls, then it seems reasonable to kill the heretics before they take uncounted numbers of souls to hell. Right?

The same principle is playing out on the Left today, though thankfully not (yet) with physical violence. Progressive militants are thrilled to throw dissidents from their purity project on the metaphorical bonfire, torching careers and reputations for the sake of Justice. And if one protests that this or that person was treated unfairly, well, mistakes might be made, but maybe it’s time that the Enemy (males, whites, straights, religious believers, et al.) knows what it feels like to be oppressed. That’s the rationale.

I have no doubt that there are more than a few progressives who read the controversy over Edgardo Mortara’s case and are rightly appalled, but who would tomorrow cheer the State for removing a child deemed transgender by experts from the home of his Christian parents who disagree.

For me, the especially chilling thing about the First Things essay was the cold certitude with which its author, Father Romanus Cessario, wrote in defense of taking a six-year-old Jewish child away from his parents because the housemaid once baptized him. The Catholic writer David Mills re-posted the other day this comment he made a couple of years ago, because it very much applies in this case:

Yes, it is. If applying the law were simple, we wouldn’t need judges; we could let computers do it. But a good judge brings wisdom to his rulings. He applies justice tempered by mercy. There are cases like Mortara’s in which the strict application of the law would bring about a greater injustice than the one the law seeks to address. As a Christian, I believe the greatest good for all men is that they accept Jesus Christ, and be fully reconciled to God through Him. But to force that belief on others would be wicked. Pope John Paul II said that the Church proposes; she does not impose. That is the ideal we must follow, though obviously Christians did not do so in the past. Though it cannot be an open-ended proposition, we have to accept the right of others to be wrong. That is a principle of, well, liberalism, and it’s why I, personally, struggle with what I see as liberalism’s eventual demise into authoritarianism. I’ll write more about this in a different post.

Anyway, Eve Tushnet had some interesting things to say about the recent controversy. For example:

This harmony with God and neighbor is what (at their best) Catholic leftists call solidarity and Catholic rightists call order. The longing for harmony, and the recognition that it can only emerge as the result of personal submission to an outside authority, emerges more strongly the greater your experience of individualistic disorder–a lot of Infinite Jest is about this btw.

But so far I am not sure I’ve seen any discussions of Catholic “postliberal” politics which acknowledge the need for any peaceful social order to accept and accommodate disharmony. If your temporal political goal is public harmony you can either a) make a lot of compromises with unbelief and sin for the sake of peace or b) impose order by force, thus creating a lot more chaos, cruelty, and sin. This is the thing I talked about at the beginning of my Hans Fallada review. Any reasonably okay society will have a lot of uncriminalized sin and a lot of unpunished crime, because the things you need to do to root out and punish sin will themselves involve sinful abuses of power. People coming up with ideas about how public life should be too rarely ask themselves about the sins and temptations of the imagined enforcers. (Including the less-coercive enforcers, the people who set social expectations and uphold moral order–the people Oscar Wilde’s plays are about.) That’s part of why I said the thing I say at the very end of this review, about the limitations of political philosophy.

(Go to the original to follow her links; too many to reproduce here).

Tushnet raises a critical point — the critical point, I suppose — about liberal democracy, for liberal democracy’s critics: How is the postliberal order going to treat unbelievers (and by “unbelievers,” I mean those who deviate from the beliefs and practices of the power-holders)?

More Tushnet:

From the Roman Empire to the American, the consistent sticking point in every Catholic political fantasy is the Jews. And every reimagining of Catholic politics which is not explicitly and uncompromisingly opposed to Jew-hate will be slowly corroded by it. This is another thing you notice as you spend more time in Christian history. I am not totally sure why it’s always the Jews but I suspect it’s because Judaism is in certain important senses true.

I’d love to read more about that. Walker Percy believed that the persistence of the Jews in the modern world is a sign of God’s presence. Percy was a believing Catholic, certainly, but he also considered the Jews among us as a sign. Perhaps in the Mortara case, they are a sign of the Christian capacity for wisdom, justice, and mercy — or the lack thereof.

Maybe, maybe not. What I know for sure is that whenever I see real anti-Semitism, whether it comes from the Left or the Right, I hear the sound of jackboots, and I know who and where the enemy is.

UPDATE: I should probably clarify that I am not saying that everyone who supports the Pope’s decision in the Mortara case is therefore an anti-Semite.