[Fr. John Joe Lakers was a Franciscan friar priest ordained in 1958. He studied at Oxford with Ludwig Wittgenstein and his colleagues, scholars whose interest centered on language. After he began his career teaching at Quincy College/University, “JJ” developed a reputation for his own form of counseling/spiritual direction. Over the years he spoke on thousands of occasions individually or with couples preparing for marriage or struggling with problems in their marriages.
I originally put this piece on JJ’s blog (jjlakers.net) two months or so ago and forgot about it. There had been very little activity on the blog in recent months, but when I checked the statistics on the blog, I was astounded that it showed 16 hits a day for the past two months. I re-read the piece and thought it was pretty good.
Sadly, I rechecked the stats, and discovered that I had made a mistake in calculating the hits, which were actually a modest 3 or 4 per day—still not bad but not as dramatic. I read the piece again and decided that it needed some editing. The philosophy gets pretty dense at times.
I tried to do this kind of editing while JJ was alive, and he fired me, saying I didn’t know enough philosophy to do it. Now that he is gone, I can try my hand without fear of repercussions, at least from him.
My comments are in italics, bracketed, and indented.]
2. Abortion (January 19, 2007) – 15 pages
January 19, 2007
I often wish that I was not tempted to critique deviations from my understanding of the workings of the Sacramental system. This understanding is the result of 49 years as a priest and 55 years as a person committed to respond to the Gospel message in a pale semblance of Francis of Assisi’s embrace of the call. But I find that I must investigate whether or not I agree with the reservations which Fr. Joe Zimmerman expressed concerning the political agenda (and rhetoric) of the Pro-Life movement.
To indicate the source of my uneasiness, I note that, in my 1997 book Christian Ethics: An Ethics of Intimacy, I worked from Walter Ong’s scholarly readings of texts which indicate how and why literacy triumphed over orality as the foundation of western culture and from Wittgenstein’s analysis of the workings of everyday language. The interplay of the two yielded two theses, (1) that, as linguistic beings, we are naked pronouns in search of fruitful metaphors, and (2) that, as Nietzsche argued, cultures transmitted by the western literary tradition privilege forms of life generated by the metaphor of power and judgment over the form of life generated by the metaphor of intimacy.
[The preceding paragraph contains some of JJ’s most central ideas: 1) that literacy (the invention of writing—Walter Ong is the source of JJ’s thinking on this) changed the way humans process their experience. Nietzsche showed how “power and judgment” is a theme that is central to the “western literary tradition,” as opposed to “intimacy” (JJ’s definition of intimacy: passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of people with each other and with God).]
(Academics, please note that my critiques of the literary foundations of ethical theories is inspired by my search for a moral discourse without foundations. As a postmodernist, I am convinced that arguments concerning foundations are designed to justify a claim that judgments accredited by some ethical theory are devoid of arbitrariness, conventionality, rationalization, assumptions or a will to power. Or, from another perspective, they are designed to clothe an ethical tradition with moral authority over judgments concerning past, present or future responses to events in the personal history of any and all moral agents.)
[When JJ uses the phrase “moral discourse without foundations,” he is arguing that there is no way to ground our sense of morality in some kind of absolute truth. He will argue later in this piece that his position does not mean that “anything goes.” He says there is a lot of room between absolute certainty about moral truths and complete relativism. He would say that our sense of morality grows out of our everyday interactions with others. Those interactions give us language that distinguishes right from wrong. Hopefully our interactions are characterized by respect, passion, vulnerability, and faithfulness.]
In this context, Ong’s analysis evoked an awareness that claims to authority rested on literary conventions designed to diminish the anxiety of authorship generated by the interiorization of the detachment inherent in literacy as an interrogatory stance.
[Literacy created an “anxiety of authorship.” This anxiety led to a detachment based on questioning—a detachment which then claims to be objective.]
Decades later, the import of Ong’s imaginative reconstruction of the gradual triumph of literacy as an enduring foundation of western culture enabled me to appreciate the ways that the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion generated reading codes designed to deconstruct the literary foundations of the rationalist and ethical strands in the western philosophical tradition.
The “postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion” refers to the philosophical movement of the last 40 years called postmodernism, which says, in my over-simplification, “any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, that person is hiding a desire to control the listener.” In JJ’s thinking, that position is “hollow.” It says “you can’t trust anybody who claims the truth,” but it stops there, leaving us hanging. But, he says above, the postmodern approach “deconstructs” the rationalist strands in the Western philosophical tradition. In other words, it makes us question the idea that we can have an absolutely certain understanding of reality based on our scientific knowledge. especially when it comes to our ideas of right and wrong..
Consequently, when I sought to expose the influence of the triumph of literacy on the Christian tradition (Catholic and Protestant), I argued three theses: (1) Any theological tradition which reads the Scriptures through a code derived from a metaphor of power and judgment must assume that the eternal Word would not have entered human history if Adam had not sinned, while the tradition which reads the Scriptures through a code derived from a metaphor of intimacy places the eternal Word at the center of life in the Trinity, the act of creation, the course of human history and the lives of all human beings. (2) When either an incarnational theology or an ethics of intimacy is distorted, the other suffers. (3) Any recourse to power or judgment on a journey to deepening intimacy with the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and other human beings aborts or distorts that journey. But I did not immediately attempt to apply this ethics of intimacy to the abortion issue.
[The core of JJ’s thinking revolves around the distinction between a “metaphor of power and judgment,” and a “metaphor of intimacy.” My translation: You can start your moral thinking expecting to be able to pass judgment and punish somebody, or you can start it with the idea that when you are involved passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully with someone, you never know what that will call you to, but the call will be life-giving. Power and judgment kill.]
Fr. Joe’s concerns challenged me to find out where I stand on the issue. Since so much of my quest for intellectual, moral and personal integrity has occurred in an academic setting, I sort out my tangled responses to issues by writing. And when I write, I must find my way into an issue through a tangle of personal convictions, concerns, frustrations and ingrained prejudices.
1. Somehow, many of my students sensed that I would not be judgmental, no matter what personal issues they shared with me. On my part, I never felt the need to be judgmental, because they came so vulnerably open and so obviously in pain. At any rate, during my many years of teaching, a number of coeds came to me overwhelmed with anguish and anxiety because of an unexpected pregnancy. In each instance, I felt obliged to explore all options with them, including abortion, marrying the man involved, keeping the baby as a single mother, allowing the father to take the baby, putting the baby up for adoption, involving her and his parents in the decision, and whatever else might surface. Though I addressed the question of an abortion with a great deal of anxiety, I had to explore the option non-judgmentally. I prayed that they would choose another option. But, if they ended up as a single parent, I wanted them to remember a conscious decision to refuse an abortion whenever they might later be tempted to resent what a needy child demanded of them.
When I learned, after the fact, that one of these women had had an abortion, I was heartbroken, but I found myself more concerned about her than about the baby. In my reflections on the implications of an incarnational theology, I had long ago rejected the theological construct which consigned unbaptized infants to limbo. I knew the baby was with God. But I also knew that, for the rest of her life, this event (like every other significant event in her life) would influence the woman’s own inner journey and any and all of her interactions with males and children.
In my usual fashion, I find myself wanting to say something that I dared not say at a gathering of people of all faiths and none at the house of close friends of mine. A woman who had been a Catholic referred to the “good old Catholic guilt” that still evoked anguish over an abortion she had had thirty years ago. The bitterness with which she spoke implied that, if the Catholic tradition had not made an essentially personal decision into a moral issue, she would not have carried this burden all these years. Everyone looked at me, but I was paralyzed. Her bitterness grieved me, but I said nothing. If we had been talking person-to-person, I would have responded compassionately. As it was, I feared that she wanted to turn this into a debate in which we would both have been losers on multiple dimensions of personal experience. I could only regret that I have never known how to probe my tangled feelings in a public forum.
Looking back on the event, I suspect that those tangled feelings included the urge to respond compassionately to the revelation that she had carried the abortion as a burden of guilt for all these years. The straightforward expression of that compassion was choked off by an outrage at God and at the Church. The outrage found expression in two questions, “Why didn’t the providence of the Father put her in contact with someone in Project Rachel?” and “Why is Project Rachel one of the best kept secrets in the Catholic Church?”.
[Project Rachel is a movement focused on helping women who have had abortions.]
Today, when I apply the ethics of intimacy to this event, the outrage has a different target. I now trace the fact that this wounded individual was captive to a burden of guilt to recent efforts to situate the issue of abortion in a moral discourse grounded in a metaphor of power and judgment rather than a metaphor of intimacy. Somehow, the moral discourse she acquired through her early indoctrination in the dogmatism of the Baltimore Catechism did not invite her to meet Jesus as the wounded Healer, to hear the Spirit’s word of love for her, or to see the Father’s providence at work in her contacts with others. Instead, it condemned her to process her grieving in terms of a moral discourse which imposed an implacable judgment rather than one which called her to weave this event into her personal history in life-giving ways.
Today, I suspect those present would have been grateful if I had defused the situation by framing the discussion with three theses: (1) We are linguistic beings whose uniquely personal identities are to a large extent the product of the formative power of the everyday languages we use to process and respond to events in our personal histories. (2) Consequently, we may use everyday English in fruitful, sterile, counter-productive or destructive ways. (3) In any case, the meaning of any event in our life depends on how we respond to it in the future, not how it entered our personal histories. - By the time I had led the group down this garden path, I might have defused their uneasiness with the bitterness I sensed in the woman’s self-revelation and opened the way for examples which illuminated the differences between forms of life derived from metaphors of power and judgment and the metaphor of intimacy. In that context, I could have introduced my conviction that the heuristic principle encoded in a hermeneutics of suspicion echoed the insight of Israel’s great prophets that moral issues lie, inextricably, at the core of every human action and assertion.
[Some of JJ’s favorite terminology: “hermeneutics of suspicion” (the idea I described above: any time you claim truth, you are preparing to dominate someone). Here he is claiming that the attitude of the postmodernists echoes what Israel’s great prophets were saying.]
At the time, however, I left the conversation suffused with shame and consumed by grief over my inability to respond directly to the woman’s pain. As it is, the memory reminds me that I must grieve over such interactions in the past if I am to weave them into my life in fruitful ways.
2. My sheltered childhood and the superficial contacts with women during my years in the seminary had not provided me with a language capable of processing eruptive sexual urges. If I had left the seminary in my mid-twenties, I might well have fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman I hardly knew and didn’t love. But I know, beyond a doubt, that I would have wanted to raise any child I fathered. Naive as I was, I might even have supposed that I could enter a life-giving marriage with the child’s mother. Given the number of annulment proceedings that I have been involved in, I now view that supposition as a formula for tragedy for all concerned, but that only confirms my sense of the complexity of the issue.
3. I will be forever grateful for the women involved with Project Rachel who helped me to understand how abortions had wounded them, even if the wound did not surface for years (or even decades) after the abortion. With this understanding, I was able to respond with compassion rather than condemnation when past abortions surfaced in my interactions with women who came to talk about other issues. I wanted to be involved in a way that enabled these women to experience the intensely personal involvement of Father, Jesus and Holy Spirit in their lives. On their part, the anguish of these women showed me how important it is for them to engage in healing and life-giving conversations with their aborted infants.
4. A few years ago, I was outraged by a letter sent by the Bishop of my diocese to be read at every week-end Mass during the last presidential campaign. To frame his pronouncement on the issue of abortion, the Bishop posited a distinction between the laity who were to carry the gospel message into secular environments and the bishops who defined that message. I was cynically amused by the fact that this distinction ignored the role of priests like me whose years of pastoral involvement might be worth hearing. But I was stunned by the Bishop’s assertion that the abortion issue trumped all other moral issues in the up-coming presidential election. In effect, he decreed that I should support the re-election of George W. Bush as president and vote for members of a party which supports huge expenditures of funds for the military, but ignores the cries of the poor and marginalized and allows Texas oilmen to frame its policies on the environment.
If a student had brought up that letter in one of my classes, I would have discussed the issue at length. In this instance, since there was no opportunity for an interactive discussion, I sat stone-faced while the letter was read at all the Masses. But I reacted with moral repugnance to the pretense that this letter spoke with moral authority.
My Critique of the Bishop’s Pronouncement
Rhetorically, the Bishop’s pronouncement made abortion the paradigm example of a violent denial of life. A case can be made for this abstraction, since a fetus is surely helpless and vulnerable. But I am equally horrified by the violence done to children by parents who had themselves been abused in unspeakable ways, by the lack of concern for children who are starving, by the lack of concern for children who are sold into sexual slavery, by ways that Iraqi children have been traumatized by war, and the like. Try as I might, I cannot understand how members of the hierarchy can pretend to rank these obscenities on a moral scale.
From the perspective of the moral discourse I set forth in my work in progress, however, the most disturbing feature of the letter was the way that it politicized a moral issue. This moral discourse articulates an insight first voiced by Israel’s great prophets and recently recovered by the postmodernist movement: a tangle of moral issues lie, inextricably, at the core of every human action and assertion. And since the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion is designed to expose violence in any shape or form, its critical apparatus is worth considering. This apparatus is framed by three insights, (1) that we dwell within linguistic formulations forged by a literary tradition, (2) that it is quite impossible to escape entirely from the formative power of language on longings, passion, desire, perception, imagination, motivation, intentions, thought, action and aspirations, and (3) that moral judgments based on a claim to speak from a god-like perspective on language, experience and reality disguise the will to power on the part of those who seek to impose their judgments on others.
Regarding (2) and (3), the ethical theory forged by Aquinas is grounded in the assumption that the use of reason can reveal an objective moral order which the use of right reason can identify. From a postmodernist perspective, Aquinas’s theory disguises the arbitrariness inherent in any claim to occupy a god-like perspective and rationalizes the violence inherent in judgments which fail to consider the many moral issues entangled in any human action or assertion.
As far as I can see, Thomists still invoke the metaphysical theory used by Aquinas to ground his ethical theory to justify the assertion that there is an objective moral order. To deflect attention from their inability to justify this theory philosophically, they use the emphasis on an objective morality to frame an argument which asserts that morality collapses if authoritative (definitive) moral judgments are beyond reach. In its own right, this argument implies that there are only two possibilities, an objective moral order or a sheer relativism which legitimates whatever an agent wants to do. In my work in progress, however, I weave the insight of Israel’s great prophets into a moral discourse which privileges issues encountered in person-to-person involvements over issues encountered in relationships between and among detached individuals. And I privilege intellectual integrity over -isms designed to rationalize belief-systems of whatever sort.
With profound sadness, therefore, I confess that I have more respect for postmodernists who speak in a hollow voice of prophetic protest than I have for Catholic moral theologians who maintain that Aquinas provided the authoritative description of human nature and, thereby, of human reality. From a postmodernist perspective, Aquinas’ ethical theory is one of the weakest among contending theories which ground moral discourse outside of human reality, in some reductive conception of human reality or in a fictive voice of reason. But I also suggest that the postmodernist insistence that moral pronouncements speak in a hollow voice of prophetic protest is clearly false, since everyday English transmits a moral discourse which can speak for itself.
In the same vein, I trust the literary forms forged by Nietzsche—the archeology of knowledge and the genealogy of morals—more than I trust a literary form that promises the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I also trust (1) that the metaphors of intimacy projected by Israel’s prophets generated a form of life conducive to a realizable purpose and (2) that this form of life provided a positive center for their moral protests against the depersonalizing violence hidden in any moral discourse grounded in a metaphor of power and judgment.
[After struggling for years with JJ’s term “form of life,” which he got from Wittgenstein, I decided that the term is equivalent to “story.” To translate the above paragraph: Israel’s great prophets (Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah) created a story that grounded their protest against the political leaders of their day. Those leaders used power and judgment to ground their activities; the prophets used “intimacy” (passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement) to ground their activities.]
My critique of ethical theories is sharply focused. In Christian Ethics: A Ethics of Intimacy, I offer analyses of everyday English designed to unpack the implications of a language designed to transform the longing for a fully human and uniquely personal existence and for intimate involvements with other unique individuals into a realizable quest. In this project, I used reason as a tool. But the only claim I would make for an ethics of intimacy is that it subverts Kant’s thesis that morality resides in judgment. For a moral discourse capable of promoting the quest for a fully human existence requires many purposes derived from the metaphor of power and judgment as well.
[“A fully human existence” is what we all are seeking. The language of intimacy makes a quest for this goal “realizable”—the quest can be successful. The language of power and judgment cannot make such a quest successful, but that language has some positive features which can contribute to the quest.]
(SUPPLEMENTARY ASIDE: Since judgments must be supported by reasons, deconstructive readings of rhetorics grounded in a metaphor of power and judgment subvert the authority of such judgments by showing that the reasons advanced to support any judgment rationalize a conception of human reality favored by the judge in question. In usually understated ways, these readings expose the benefits conferred on the powers-that-be and the violence inflicted on dispossessed and marginalized individuals by the distinctions and boundaries privileged by the language at hand, In so doing, they voice a moral protest against the violence enshrined in any everyday language in a way that speaks for itself.
[“Deconstructive readings of rhetorics” means the postmodernist authors. They expose how the language of power and judgment leads to violence against dispossessed and marginalized individuals.]
On a positive note, these readings recover the empty literary space projected by the Babylonian epics as a place where the oppressed, abused, marginalized, silenced and excluded can be heard. But the hermeneutics of suspicion is a literary ploy designed to absolve postmodernist readers from any need to state what they stand for. In marked contrast, I do not hesitate to assert (1) that I stand for the elusive longing for intimacy and (2) that this longing is inseparable from the longing for a fully human and uniquely personal existence.
[I have to admit that I have never appreciated the “empty literary space projected by the Babylonian epics.” That is probably because I do not know what epics JJ is referring to here.]
To frame the point at issue, I sometimes invoke Heidegger’s metaphorical description of everyday languages as abodes in which we dwell suspended over the abyss. (Heidegger used this metaphor to subvert the rationalist promise of an ideal language that would present the whole of reality transparently and to bridge the chasm between subjectivity and objectivity generated by Descartes’s methodical doubt.) This depiction of ordinary language illuminates the difference between readings generated by the hermeneutics of suspicion and Wittgenstein’s analysis of the workings of everyday English. On the one hand, the hermeneutics of suspicion is designed to show that the formative power of the languages we inhabit enshrine an ineradicable violence. On the other, a Wittgensteinean analysis of everyday English lays bare the workings of a form of life which evokes vulnerable self-revelations which transform the longing for ever-deepening intimacy with loved ones into a realizable quest. For those who commit themselves to the journey delineated by this form of life, even individuals whose voices were initially silenced can learn how to translate respect for their deepest longings into protests against the ways that their voices were silenced.
[Stories that evoke vulnerable self-revelations lead to ever-deepening intimacy. That intimacy makes the quest for a fully human existence realizable.]
Sadly, their poignant accounts of their personal journeys may reach only a small audience who grasp the import of a moral discourse derived from a metaphor of intimacy rather than a metaphor of power and judgment.
At risk of repeating myself once too often, I note that the metaphor of intimacy is the product of powerful sympathetic imaginations rather than of a fictive voice of reason. As such, it can generate linguistic formulations which enable the cries of the oppressed, the dispossessed, the abused, the marginalized, the silenced, the outcast and the stranger to voice their elusive longing to be heard by those who would silence or ignore them.
[The “fictive voice of reason” means that “reason” is a fiction, a story told to defend a god-like perspective on everything. “Sympathetic imagination” will lead to a fully human existence rather than a dependence on “reason.”]
A CYNICAL ASIDE
Recently, I was backed into a corner by a Catholic woman whose life is centered in protests against abortion. My efforts to transform our encounter into a conversation were futile. (She even ignored my attempts to tell her that she was preaching to the choir.) Try as I might, I could not escape from a judgment that I was hearing echoes of a Christian fundamentalism in her self-righteous indignation. These Christians center their lives in two beliefs, (1) an incoherent doctrine of biblical inerrancy (the Protestant version of the format of the Baltimore Catechism, with its implicit promise of definitive answers to every moral and theological question) and (2) the belief that the only way to be saved was to accept Jesus as one’s personal Savior (with its overtones of exclusive election).
To understand her obsessive need to rant and rave against abortion, I was tempted to judge that she somehow supposed that a passionate opposition to abortion ensured her a place among the elect. To all appearances, she assumed that her righteous commitment to the abolition of abortion entitled her to tell the world how God is involved in the lives of everyone. Tragically, it also enabled her to partake in public protests while avoiding personal involvements with wounded individuals. In Bonhoeffer’s terms, however, she embraced a doctrine of “cheap grace,” since her narrow commitment allowed her to focus all her compassion on a fetus with whom she would never have to be involved in intimate ways on a perilous journey into the unknown.
Sadly, this encounter evoked memories of my reaction to the letter in which our Bishop asserted that abortion trumped all other moral issues in the recent presidential election. If I had followed his admonition, I would have voted for a President who refused to enter into international treaties designed to address global warming, who licensed torture, refused to put his reputed moral authority on the line over the issue of immigration, advocated capital punishment, pushed through a tax-code designed to perpetuate Reagan’s baptism of an economic system in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, disguised his appeals to self-interest with a program of “compassionate conservativism” which promised government support for faith-based programs but refused to include money in the budget to supply food to religious institutions dedicated to providing food to those in need, and appealed to fear and self-interest to justify his war in Iraq. (I have only contempt for anyone who denies that Bush played on the fears evoked by 9-11 in ways that would have won applause from Machiavelli.)
My reference to Reagan’s bastardization of the gospel message is grounded in an article by Robert Bellah on the American secular religion. In this article, Bellah pointed out that the inaugural addresses of every president prior to Reagan universally offered secular versions of biblical themes. (1) All echoed the doctrine of Election: Americans were the Chosen People. (2) All echoed the Exodus theme: to escape some form of religious persecution or from oppressive social structures, our ancestors crossed the ocean (the Red Sea) to enter the promised land. (3) The land they entered was a land “flowing with milk and honey”, an endless frontier which could accommodate an indefinite number of journeys into the unknown. (4) The covenant-theme emerged in the social contract which established the form of government celebrated by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the promotion of equality. (5) And because the citizens of the United States were so favored, they were divinely commissioned to bear witness to the blessings of democracy to the whole world.
Reagan’s inaugural address replaced these themes with a celebration of Locke’s version of the social contract. This version can be succinctly stated. Freedom is an inalienable right. Consequently, the social contract which citizens enter can only constitute a form of government designed to protect their freedom and enforce freely entered contracts. As a result, a government which is concerned with the social welfare of all of its citizens becomes the problem, not the solution to disruptive protests. And elected officials must not forget that the power to tax is limited to money needed to support an army needed to protect them from other nations and to support a judicial system needed to enforce freely entered contracts. On their part, Republicans must insist that this limitation is not arbitrary, since individuals know how to enhance their personal welfare better than a faceless bureaucracy could ever do.
In the end, the motivation for constituting such a form of government is simple: enlightened self-interest. More recently, Bush has taken the inner logic of Reagan’s rhetoric to an obscene extreme in his justification of his unilateral invasion of Iraq. Stripped of shifting rationalizations, this rhetoric extended Locke’s legitimation of enlightened self-interest to include a rhetoric which justified actions designed to protect American interests anywhere in the world. And Bush added insult to injury when he wove echoes of biblical themes into hidden appeals to Christian fundamentalists who were all too inclined to believe that American interests trump the interests of nations we exploit because we are a chosen people, an elect.
From a postmodernist perspective, Bush’s rhetoric echoes the dictum, “Might makes right.” The war in Iraq is a case in point. As moral justification for unilateral action, he insisted that, as President, he was entitled to use force to defend American interests. Callously, he used a biblical theme to suggest that, as the guardian of democracy, we invaded Iraq in order to liberate its suffering citizens and bring democracy to the whole area.
Since my father, whom I respected, was a committed Republican, I had in the past resisted the conclusion that, on the national level, the Republican party remains committed to the gospel according to Reagan. Today, I cannot vote for a Republican candidate for the Senate, the House or the Presidency, and I am appalled by the bias of the Catholic judges appointed to the Supreme Court in recent years. They pretend to be strict constructionists. In fact, they read the Constitution through a code indebted to a strictly juridical understanding of the social contract. In so doing, they impose political positions adopted by the Republican party. And from a Catholic perspective, they use an interpretative code that is strikingly similar to that used by Fundamentalists who pretend to read the Scriptures literally. Somehow, they can find no room for the principles of social justice which are so constitutive of the gospel message.
The reference to the gospel according to Reagan was deliberate. Tragically, the way that Reagan framed political discourse in the United States still sets the terms of debates in campaigns. As a result, I seldom find a democratic candidate who voices my concerns and my understanding of the American dream. But I continue to hope for a politician who will appeal to the prophetic insistence that God’s moral will can be heard in the cries of the oppressed and dispossessed rather than in the dictates of an economic system supposedly regulated by an “invisible hand,”
A LENGTHY DIGRESSION WHICH CAN BE SKIPPED WITHOUT LOSS
I am indebted to a number of postmodernist authors (Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes and LeMan, in particular) for my understanding of the anxiety of authorship and the issue of authority. They provide a critical apparatus for protests against the violence implicit in the distinctions and boundaries favored by anyone who pretends to speak with authority. Since I align myself with those who believe that the Gospel message speaks for itself, I suggest that anyone who wants to accuse me of being a cafeteria Catholic need only peruse earlier installments of these reflections which suggest that Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address reveals that he, too, is a cafeteria Catholic. And in my worst moments, I cannot help but compare the deceit fostered by the totalitarian rule that prevailed in Russia with the self-deception needed to blind ecclesiastical authorities to the violence inherent in the cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors that persists to this day. The strategies adopted by cardinals, archbishops and bishops to prevent the faithful from being disillusioned with and outraged by their stewardship reveal how radically they fail to understand an ethics of intimacy and how thoroughly they have been formed (and corrupted) by the power-structure of an hierarchically structured institution.
I do try to understand why the Pope, curial officials and American cardinals and bishops are so committed to perpetuating the prevailing ecclesiastical structure. Since I have often craved validation by the reigning authorities, I can imagine a system which inculcates that craving in those who are accepted for ordination. In the end, however, I return again and again to the texts which preserved the utterances of Hosea, Micah, First and Second and Third Isaiah, and Jeremiah. These texts speak to me with moral authority because they speak for themselves, and they also provide a detached perspective which enabled me to critique both voices which pretend to bind the future and the voices of adherents of the postmodernist movement who pretend that, to avoid re-inscribing violence in their critiques, they can only critique texts and utterances at hand. (At the present time, I have no interest in exploring which pretense grieves me most.)
In passing, I confess that the above reflections are triggered by two remarks continually voiced by ecclesiastical authorities and lay-people who are ever-ready to report any act or utterance of priests who fail to conform to their distorted version of a pre-Vatican II orthodoxy. (1) The Church is not a democracy. (2) One cannot be a cafeteria Catholic. But the arbitrariness of these either-or formulations can easily be exposed. The Church is neither a pure democracy nor an institution ruled by an imperial papacy. Between these polar opposites, there are countless alternatives. From the perspective encoded in these alternatives, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI are cafeteria Catholics.
On his part, Pope John Paul II assumed that the application of his personalist philosophy to moral issues spoke with moral authority. From an analytic perspective, however, his personalism was a futile effort to derive an emphasis on the inherent dignity of each person from enlightenment metaphors of individuality. This personalism could generate penetrating critiques of the totalitarian import of Communism, but it blinded him to the totalitarian import of his stewardship of the Church.
Structurally, personalism echoes the metaphor of individuality which Luther used to transform a traditional distinction between the sacred and the secular into a polar opposition. And for those who hear a voice in every linguistic formulation, that echo can be heard in the way that Pope John Paul II used this -ism to legitimate both prophetic protests against violence in the secular domain and harsh condemnations of theologians who questioned his authority, including the authority to bind the future.
Tragically, John Paul II’s failure to remain involved in the philosophical dialogue which contributed significantly to his personalism led him to appoint cardinals, archbishops and bishops willing to perpetuate the pretense that he spoke in a timeless voice. And since those appointees included a cardinal who functioned as his Grand Inquisitor, it is likely that prophets who ground their protests in the metaphors of intimacy forged by Israel’s prophets will continue to be marginalized or silenced.
Since that cardinal is now Pope, I must question the frequent journalistic references which portray Benedict XVI as a world-class theologian. Again and again, he pretends to speak as the authentic interpreter of the dialogue between Scripture and Tradition that distinguishes the Catholic from the Protestant tradition. Like John Paul II, however, he avoids an honest engagement with the incarnational theology generated by the Franciscan tradition or the critical apparatus which propels the postmodernist movement. Instead, he derives his critique of secularism from a misplaced debate whose structure continues to center ecumenical dialogue in a polar opposition between revelation and reason, Scripture and Tradition, faith and certainty, faith and works, and the sacred and the secular.
I suggest, therefore, that the belief-system and the moral discourse which Benedict XVI seeks to impose on the Church is grounded in the medieval metaphor of the Two Books. Both inscribe the supposition that a rational and purposive God authored an autonomous Book of Nature which can be read by a natural light of reason and a Scriptural text which reveals God’s response to a transgression committed by the father of the entire human race. Historically, this metaphor generated both a moral discourse which asserted that a rational and purposive Creator inscribed an objective moral order implanted in an autonomous Book of Nature authored by a rational and purposive Creator, and a claim that the Scriptures were an autonomous Book authored by a God whose justice demanded a cruel and humiliating death of the incarnate Word as fitting reparation for the sin of Adam. But the foundational status of this metaphor has been thoroughly subverted by philosophical criticism and biblical studies.
From this perspective, I trace Benedict XVI’s fear of secularization to an inability to escape from the dualism inscribed in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Among his easily identifiable ploys, he couples an emphasis on truth with his insistence that he is guardian of the truth. Less obviously, he seems to believe that an emphasis on Jesus, by taking on human sinfulness, functioned as a mediator who erased all dualisms.
My critique: A focus on sin implicitly devalues the longing for ever-deepening person-to-person involvements between and among unique individuals which has haunted both the literary, philosophical and theological strands of the western literary tradition. For those who commit themselves to this quest, honesty, not truth, is the issue.
In sum, focusing on abortion as the paradigm instance of violence obscures critical issues. The fault lies in the belief that a Thomistic conception of reason can compel assent and consent from all people of good will to the moral judgments which satisfy it dictates. By definition, purportedly authoritative judgments are limited to narrowly focused inquiries. But this narrow focus cannot be reconciled with the prophetic insight that tangled moral issues lie, inextricably, at the core of any human action or assertion.
This prophetic insight, I suggest, concerns the longing for intimacy. At the very least, a moral discourse derived from the metaphor of intimacy reveals that judgments dictated by reason are ultimately dehumanizing and depersonalizing. (Since I cannot take the Bishop’s decree seriously, I have no desire to expend the energy needed to expose its dehumanizing and depersonalizing import.)
To frame this insight in my now abandoned work in progress, I develop three points in considerable detail:
1. The gradual triumph of literacy over orality as the foundation of western culture generated significant distinctions among the natural, social, personal, political, economic, aesthetic, moral and religious dimensions of life.
2. The powerful sympathetic imaginations of Israel’s great prophets inspired metaphors which exposed the violence done to the oppressed, the abused, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the silenced, the outcast and the strangers by the powers-that-be. Because these metaphors privileged the personal dimensions of experience over all others, they revealed that moral issues lie, inextricably, at the core of every human action and assertion. This insight was suppressed by an ethical tradition generated and governed by the rule of the One, but postmodernist critiques of the myth of Modernity recovered it.
[“The rule of the One” is JJ’s reference to the Greek philosopher Parmenides. I have struggled to appreciate how Parmenides plays into the argument, probably because I have never read Parmenides. I think JJ’s point is that Parmenides tried to claim that you could create a system of thought that covered everything and left nothing in doubt.]
These critiques also revealed the dehumanizing and depersonalizing import of any moral discourse derived from a metaphor of individuality. These metaphors were designed to detach individuals from the oppressive hold of totalitarian forms of governance. But a form of life designed to foster and protect detachment cannot generate a language capable of transforming a longing for deepening person-to-person involvements into a realizable quest. (For a prime example of the sterility of any metaphor of intimacy, see the inability of Pope John Paul II’s personalism to escape from a stance toward detached Others which respects their inherent dignity.)
3. Ethical theories designed to validate definitive moral judgments are grounded in a metaphor of power and judgment. In the Modern Era, these theories fill the hollow center of a Cartesian metaphor of individuality with a fictive voice of reason, with the promise that this voice speaks from a detached, disinterested, dispassionate, god-like perspective which human beings can occupy interchangeably. As the postmodernist critique shows, however, a god-like perspective is quite impossible. Consequently, those who pretend that they alone speak from such a perspective are insufferably arrogant.
These three points informed my interactions with pregnant college students who faced issues in the personal, familial, social, economic, moral and religious dimensions of their life. Offering them a prohibition grounded in a dubious ethical theory would have been both disrespectful and counter-productive. Consequently, the Bishop’s letter increased my suspicion that the hierarchy seems determined to center the distinctive identity of Catholics in their willingness to obey norms governing sexuality, with little regard for issues of social justice. And this suspicion was further enhanced when one of the few pronouncements agreed upon by the American bishops at their recent meeting was an insistence on the prohibition against the use of contraceptives. To support the argument, they appealed to a so-called natural-law theory which supports implacable judgments, but does nothing to illuminate how people in love are to integrate their sexuality with all their other passions.
To dramatize the point at issue, I suggest that the only way to address sexual issues effectively is to foster an understanding of genuine person-to-person involvements. From this perspective, it is obvious (1) that individuals who engage in casual sex must dissociate their sexuality from other deep feelings, (2) that passionate, vulnerable, respectful and faithful interactions are the only way to integrate sexuality in deepening person-to-person involvements, and (3) that the inability of members of the hierarchy to treat women as equals and their obsession reveals that they have not so integrated their sexuality in their lives.
In a less obvious way, the liturgical decrees designed to mark a clear distinction between the priest and other members of the Eucharistic community reveal a sad fear of personal involvements. A liturgy which nurtures personal contacts calls for open expressions of a shared commitment to love one another as Jesus loves us. By contrast, a liturgy which is designed to protect a hierarchically structured institution fosters detachment. I suggest, therefore, that liturgical issues cannot be divorced from a Catholic response to the fact that the percentage of Catholics who have abortions does not differ significantly from the over-all percentage of women in the United States.
In sum, many pregnancies outside of wedlock result from the fact that we acquire a repertoire of emotional reactions through a pervasive process of socialization. These long-practiced reactions reduce interactions between individuals to transactions (akin to economic exchanges). And though they may serve us well socially, they are obstacles to intimacy. I.e., if intimacy is to deepen, those involved must learn how to sort out these tangled reactions, identify the deep feelings they distort, and share their discoveries honestly and vulnerably with those targeted by the reaction in question. (To understand how emotional reactions work, try to identify the many and varied reactions you use without reflection to express anger.)
A critical consequence of emotional reactions is seldom recognized. But experience confirms that, if we cannot express all feelings honestly in a genuine person-to-person involvement, soon all are distorted. And nowhere is this more evident than in instances where sexuality is detached from a willingness to face anger, fear, shame, caring, compassion, joy and playfulness honestly. Sex, then, is reduced to a desire for pleasure or distorted by sexual politics. But since nothing is simple in person-to-person interactions, sexual intercourse between individuals marked by every event in their personal histories is never merely “doing what comes naturally.”
A somewhat cynical formula expressing the conventional wisdom exposes the way that socialization uses an economic model to process experience between detached individuals: “Women give sex to get love, while men give love to get sex.” In a culture which celebrates the liberation of sexuality from personal inhibitions and moral restraints, this suggestion may illuminate hidden motivations, but the sort of sexual encounters fostered by the strategies it inscribes are incompatible with a commitment to the passionate, vulnerable, respectful and faithful interactions conducive to deepening person-to-person involvements. Consequently, the sort of “love” it refers to is a blatant counterfeit which cynically prostitutes the language which transforms an elusive longing for intimacy into a realizable quest.
In Christian Ethics: An Ethics of Intimacy, I did not extend my analysis of Jesus’ call, “Love one another as I have loved you,” to concrete analyses of the Catholic tradition’s difficulties with sexual issues. But my concern with the relationship between an incarnational theology and an ethics of intimacy was inspired by a conviction that we fail to provide our young people with a language which enables them to process their interactions with one another in ways conducive to deepening intimacy. As a result, they easily succumb to an urgent sexuality detached from other profoundly human passions in intensely personal interactions.
From a moral perspective, therefore, the pretense that an objective moral order authorizes a categorical “No!” is both an exercise in futility and an abdication of responsibility on the part of those who present themselves as the authentic expositors of the gospel message. Indeed, as a purportedly definitive judgment, the “No” cannot pass the test encoded in a juridical dictum, “Ought implies can.” Though Kant was the first modern philosopher to emphasize this dictum, Catholic moral theology transmitted a principle, Ad impossibile nemo tenetur, which is accurately paraphrased as the insight that individuals cannot be held to do what they cannot do. In both traditions, this dictum was used to generate an understanding of factors which might justify a plea of diminished responsibility. But adherents of both traditions continued to argue that theories of diminished responsibility must be grounded in an ethical theory which provides an authoritative definition of personal responsibility.
When I attempted to apply this dictum to the issue of abortion, Fr. Joe Zimmerman reminded me that I would be in for a “hard sell” if I hoped to be heard respectfully by those who refuse or fail to recognize the moral import of the postmodernist critique of authority in any shape or form. I can only respond: I am often forced to identify with the poignant cry voiced in Romans 7: “The good that I would do, that I don’t, and the evil that I would not do, that I do.” How could I possibly identify with a moral discourse which fostered a stance grounded in a dictum, “Just say No!”? And how could I merely repeat pronouncements of members of the hierarchy in response to the vulnerable self-revelations of individuals who come me with tangled feelings and concerns?
To frame my refusal, I gladly invoke a formulation of the question by a young biblical scholar (whose name I forget) who framed his lecture on Israel’s prophets with three questions: (a) What does the prophet stand for? (b) What does the prophet stand against? (c) Who does the prophet stand with? And I suggest that their metaphors of intimacy speak so authoritatively across cultures because what they stand against is derived from what they stand for and because they call for sympathetic involvement with those who inflict and those who suffer violence.
Tragically, once the issue of abortion entered the political arena in the United States, it was framed by a language of rights. In my work in progress, I invoke Wittgenstein’s insight that the meaning of a word in everyday language is determined by its use in a form of life. From this perspective, a language of “rights” is designed to protect detached individuals from concentrations of power in institutions and from violence inflicted by other individuals. In this context, those who regard “rights” as possessions to be jealously guarded and fiercely defended assume that their use of this language fosters and protects personal dimensions of existence. In point of fact, this use is derived from Descartes’ posit of solipsistic individuals and Locke’s supposition that these individuals are endowed with an inalienable right to freedom from coercion of any sort whatever. And in the end, this form of life must degenerate into a litigious society with echoes of Hobbes’ war of all against all.
But invocations of “rights” have a very different meaning in a form of life designed to foster person-to-person involvements. Such involvements evoke a shared vulnerability. In this context, I support your right to say what I violently disagree with so that you will support my right to counter what you say. (In my work in progress, I argue that political discourse remains moral if and only if it evokes a sense of shared vulnerability which calls all concerned to protect freedom and promote equality.)
From the latter perspective, the rhetorics of Pro-Choice and Pro-Life advocate a stance grounded in a metaphor of power and judgment rather than in a metaphor of intimacy. Concretely, the rhetoric of Pro-Choice advocates invokes Locke’s supposition that freedom is an inalienable right. It is supplemented by the assertion that a woman’s body is her own. In its own right, this assertion implies that those who seek to prohibit abortion want to dispose of women’s bodies in a way that amounts to ownership over them. But from an analytic perspective, it invokes a metaphor of individuality which implies that rights are possessions that must be jealously guarded and fiercely protected. In so doing, it defines the controversy as a power-struggle.
In the same vein, when Pro-Life advocates present themselves as defenders of persons who cannot speak for themselves, they echo the moral discourse centered in a shared vulnerability. But their single-issue agenda devalues the vulnerability of many women who see abortion as the only option.
Even the most passionate among individuals committed to the Pro-Life movement bear witness to the flaws in their obsession. Their commitment implies that those who perform or undergo abortions are objectively murderers. When asked if they would advocate prison terms for women who have abortions, most demur. They want only to target those who provide abortions.
(ASIDE: Though many Pro-Life advocates have no such qualms, leaders in the Pro-Life movement shy away from talk of “murder”. To avoid the appearance of being harshly judgmental, they seek ways to retain the insistence that abortion is objectively murder without passing judgment on those involved in an abortion. E.g., in the Prayers of the Faithful at Eucharistic celebrations, many Pro-Life advocates pray “For an end to abortion and its atrocities.” In an effort to be positive, others pray instead “For a respect for life from conception to natural death.” Please note: There is a considerable gap between advocating prison for abortion providers and a desire to respect the often anguished decisions of women who are surely accomplices in the act.)
On this issue, then, I advocate a moral discourse designed to evoke the longing for intensely personal involvements and delineate a quest which transforms the longing into a realizable purpose. Clearly, a moral discourse grounded in a metaphor of individuality cannot evoke such a longing. As a result, I am convinced that both the political process and the proclamation of the gospel message have been disastrously distorted by the polarization provoked by the prominent role acquired by the issue of abortion in recent elections.
The damage to the political process can be seen in the support of the Christian right for politicians who couple a stance against abortion with a determination to promote an economic system in which the gap between rich and poor is becoming obscene. However, since I have always viewed the political process with a suspicion bordering on cynicism, I am unable to offer a strategy capable of refocusing the issue. I can only suggest that the disastrous prostitution of the gospel message inherent in the politicization of the issue of abortion can be illuminated by a “thought-experiment” of the sort used by scientists and philosophers to illuminate issues which seemed to defy resolution. This thought-experiment is my version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” without its eloquence.
1. To set the stage for the thought-experiment, I note that everyday English transmits many forms of life, including a form of life which transforms the longing for intimacy into a realizable quest. This language enables Christians to hear the gospel message in a distinctive way.
2. To formulate an experiment which can never be performed, I wonder how committed Christians who use the language of intimacy to process their interactions with others would respond to the issue of abortion in a society in which they had no hope of influencing the political process. I cannot imagine that they would attempt to politicize the issue. If they hoped to prevent an abortion, they would have to find a distinctively Christian way to do so.
3. To focus of the question of a distinctively Christian response, consider Jesus’ call, “Love one another as I have loved you,” understand Communion with him in the Eucharist in light of his words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me,” and embrace the insistence of Israel’s greatest prophets that God’s voice is heard in the cries of the oppressed, the dispossessed, the abused, the marginalized, the silenced and the outcast.
(a) The call to love as Jesus loves implies that Jesus is intimately involved with women contemplating an abortion, responding to their anguish and anxiety with compassion.
(b) His intimate involvement with them implies that we increase his pain when we wound them with judgments passed without concern for their crises.
(c) The insistence of the prophets implies that Jesus comes to us through one another, and, by extension, that he depends on us to translate his compassion into effective care and concern.
In this context, the paradigm experience is that of married couples who vow to enter a marriage in Christ which will soon reveal that they are strangers to each other and to themselves. If they live the vow to allow Jesus’ love for the one they love to come through them, they soon discover how little they understand or trust Jesus’ love for themselves. And as the involvement taps deeply buried tangles, they lapse into emotional reactions which provoke dramatic confrontations or silent struggles. But sooner or later, if only from exhaustion, lovers come to realize that intensely personal involvements call for passionate, vulnerable, respectful and faithful interactions with one another. And from this new perspective, they learn how to identify the judgments and strategies enshrined in emotional reactions.
Nonetheless, if married couples were the only ones who could discover that intimate involvements call for passionate, vulnerable, respectful and faithful involvements, I would be excluded from the elect. In fact, I have heard the call in countless experiences. One such transforming moment was triggered by a letter from my beloved niece who noted that her three children had deprived her of any semblance of control over her life. In countless ways, this letter has been the literary foundation for my analysis of intimacy as a form of life and for my gratitude to the many people who have deprived me of control over my life. In each instance, they called me to plunge in over my head and to listen for the word which voiced the love of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for them and for me, however that word came to me. And in almost every instance, they exposed temptations to bring an abrupt halt to the involvement by passing a judgment, with full knowledge that such a reaction would announce “Case closed!”