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Justice in the Here and Now, Vol 112, No 448

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When William F. Buckley Jr galvanised the new conservative movement in 1950s and 60s’ America, especially around the influential magazine National Review and the Young Americans for Freedom organization, he popularised the most unlikely of political slogans. You can still find it on lapel badges and bumper stickers: ‘Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton’. The ‘them’ here were Marxists, communists, utopian liberals and socialists – all those who acted out of a belief that final perfection, the eschaton, could be brought about immanently, that is in human history rather than exclusively in the hereafter. Those, in other words, who sought to create heaven here on earth.

Turning such an esoteric and cryptic phrase into a conservative call to arms showed the smarter-than-thou attitude that marked the movement in those years – understandable, perhaps, as conservatives were at pains then to show that they were drawing on just as intellectual a tradition of enquiry as the liberals who disparaged them. Buckley derived his catchphrase from Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, a dense but influential critique of modernity. Voegelin’s argument went as follows. The Christianisation of the Roman Empire, owing especially to the influence of St Augustine, entailed articulating society into two distinct orders, the spiritual and the temporal, and rejecting all world views that looked for finality or fulfilment, the eschaton, within history. That was a perfection only to be found in the supernatural realm. Christianity thus was responsible for the ‘de-divinization of the temporal sphere of power’, and to that extent the creation of the secular. Yet Voegelin detected recurrent instances, especially in modernity, of ‘re-divinisation’, of seeking once again the final perfection of human existence within history itself – Enlightenment humanism, Hegel’s dialectic, Comte’s positivism, Marx’s historical materialism, and even National Socialist millennialism. These in his view were reversions to a gnostic vision of certainty, clarity, and redemption. They were what you get when humankind comes to see itself as God. What it leads to is the loss of individual freedom and, eventually, totalitarianism.

Voegelin certainly belongs to the cohort of illustrious influences on American conservatism, but his thought was more weighty and nuanced than his politicised devotees would leave you thinking. The sense which Buckley, for example, gave to the slogan he adapted from Voegelin tended to be trite. He used it mostly to express libertarian individualism, anti-communism, and a call for small government, free-market economics, and the end of social relief and reform programmes like those introduced in Roosevelt’s New Deal. In his eyes these offended against the values of individual liberty, tradition, gradual reform, and the preservation of established institutions – conservative values which he had imbibed from such sources as Russell Kirk’s exposition of Edmund Burke’s writings in The Conservative Mind (1953).

What seems clear is that this new conservative movement prepared the way for an alignment of faith and ideology in influential sectors of US Catholicism. A strikingly large number of the leading editors, writers and activists in the movement were either ‘born Catholics’ or converts, and in their view their conservatism followed naturally and necessarily from their Catholicism. Even the non-Catholics among them thought along the same lines. They shared what one of them, the Jewish sociologist Will Herberg, called ‘high reverence for the Papacy and the Church as a great conservative force and a mighty bulwark against the totalitarian subversion of Western freedom and culture’.1 No surprise then that many US Catholics at the time came to see this brand of Cold War conservatism as applied Catholicism plain and simple.

The signs of this alignment are still apparent in the US Church – arguably more apparent than ever. Many of the most prominent critics of Pope Francis are senior ecclesiastics, academics, and media leaders in the United States, and they receive at least quiet support from a considerable number of other bishops and lay Catholics. When he was asked recently about this overt criticism of his leadership in the US, the Pope noted the presence of ‘a very strong reactionary attitude’ there, and averred that it caused them to lose ‘the true tradition’ and to replace faith with ideology.2 Is this fair? Well, the application of the term ‘ideology’ is notoriously culture-variant and context-sensitive, but there are good grounds for thinking the Pope’s judgement holds more than a little truth. How his conservative critics – not just in the US, of course – understand such terms as tradition, continuity, freedom, and reform often betrays a Burkean perspective rather than a meaningful engagement with the longer and more complex Catholic theological tradition. And those further to the right, especially the traditionalists who have been most vocal in their opposition to Francis, tend to hold to notions of authority, sovereignty, governance, social hierarchy, and the role of religion in society that owe much to the Catholic Counter-Enlightenment tradition of Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, Juan Donoso Cortés, and their successors. There is a great deal of historically embedded ideology – mostly unacknowledged, and maybe unrecognised – in all of this.

The trouble, of course, is not that there are Burkean conservatives in the Church, nor indeed that there are theological conservatives in the Church. The trouble is that there are many people – left as well as right – who bring ideological presuppositions to bear on their understanding of Catholic faith and insist that their view of things is Catholicism plain and simple. It may be impossible for any Catholic to extirpate completely the traces of ideological thinking from their understanding, but the effort must be made. Ideology, as Pope Francis has insisted repeatedly, only functions as a set of ideas. It cannot be ‘incarnated’, as doctrine must be. It cannot be rooted in the life of a people, in their experience, their reflection, and their attentiveness to the concrete reality of Christian life – all brought into dialogue with the revelation of the Word in scripture and the theological culture of the Church.

For the Pope’s conservative critics, of course, it is he who is the ideologue, and nowhere do they see it more than in his commitment to social justice. By giving unprecedented attention to climate change, migration, the death penalty, economic inequality, and other aspects of social justice he has shown himself, they think, to be a leftist, a Peronist, a Marxist, a Leninist – certainly a secularist whose only concern is with the bettering of life on earth. Many conservative Catholic media outlets have accused him of horizontal worldliness, of preaching the Kingdom of God on earth – precisely of seeking to immanentize the eschaton. One of these outlets savaged his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, on fraternity and social friendship, under the headline ‘Glory to man in the highest’.3 And for Archbishop Viganò, that encyclical was merely an ‘ideological manifesto’ that envisions an earthly paradise. So where do they think the Pope goes wrong? Bishop Athanasius Schneider, one of Francis’s severest and most visible critics, thinks that progressive Catholics like the Pope ignore the reality that ‘social justice is not the first task of the Church’. ‘There were a lot of social problems, injustices, in the time of Jesus and the apostles,’ Bishop Schneider said, ‘but it was not the first concern of the mission of the Church. The first concern was to guide the souls to heaven.’

But it is precisely separating things out in this way that Francis opposes, and the magisterium of recent decades is with him on that. Vatican II affirms that ‘a sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man’,4 and it asserts unequivocally that that dignity is predicated on the scriptural doctrine that every person ‘was created to the image of God’.5 And the Church since the Council has become increasingly sensitive to the consequences of this intimacy between God and God’s creation. There is no love of God without love of neighbour. The human person – the real, concrete person – is at the centre of the Gospel, at the centre of faith. ‘For the Church,’ Pope St John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical, ‘all roads lead to man’.6 The human, he adds, in their concrete being, ‘is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption’. And fifteen years later he returned to the theme in Evangelium Vitae: ‘The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.’

It was this same post-conciliar insight that led the Jesuits at General Congregation 32 (1974–5), at the instigation of their 25th Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, to commit to ‘a faith that does justice’. Justice specifies faith; it doesn’t follow after it. ‘The mission of the Society of Jesus today,’ one of the Congregation’s decrees read, ‘is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another’. Faith, then, is a lived reality; to believe and to act on the belief are the one thing. As Johann Baptist Metz put it, ‘The Christian idea of God is in itself a practical idea. God simply cannot be thought without this idea irritating and disrupting the immediate interests of the one who is trying to think it’. In this sense, then, Christian praxis does not follow Christian theory or knowledge; rather it belongs ‘to the fundamental way theology itself operates’.8 Or, as Pope Francis likes to say, ‘reality is superior to ideas’.

It is not ideology that has brought the Church to this realisation. It comes from reading reflectively into scripture and into the tradition of its reception in the Church. Contrary to what Bishop Schneider implies, both Old and New Testament are replete with affirmations that there can be no love of God without love of neighbour. You cannot tilt your head upwards and set your eyes on heaven – perhaps like the pharisee in Christ’s parable – while below you, out of sight, a neighbour lies wounded and in pain. Isaiah cries out in his vision:

What do I care about your unceasing sacrifices? says the Lord … When you stretch out your hands, I will turn away my eyes from you. Even if you pray endlessly, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood … Cease to do evil and learn to do good. Pursue justice and rescue the oppressed; listen to the plea of the orphan and defend the widow.

God’s word in the prophets, as well as the gospel message of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, insists that other than by pursuing justice there is no road to God. Nor even knowledge of God. ‘Did not your father have enough to eat and drink?’, the Lord asks in the Book of Jeremiah; ‘But because he did what was right and just, all went well with him. Because he dispensed justice to the poor and needy things continued to go well for him. Is this not what it means to know me?’

It is ideology, not religious insight or theology, that judges that seeking justice in this world is not central to a life of Christian faith. This idea has roots, perhaps, in the Aristotelean prioritising of theoria over praxis, which contributed to the privileging of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa in Christianity for so long, and arguably it owes much to classical liberalism and to post-Enlightenment traditionalism, but it does not have support in scripture or in the teachings of the Church in our time. And by limiting Christian hope to the individualistic expectation of a righting of wrongs in the next life, it eviscerates a significant portion of the Gospel message.

In God Matters, Herbert McCabe, the brilliant Dominican Thomist and unrepentant leftist, offered a different take on the effect of what Voegelin called Christianity’s ‘de-divinization of the temporal sphere of power’ in the Roman Empire. The Christian God, he wrote,

is the liberator fundamentally because he is not a god, because there are no gods, or at least no gods to be worshiped. This leaves history in human hands under the judgement of God. Human misery can no longer be attributed to the gods and accepted with resignation or evaded with sacrifices. The long slow process can begin of identifying the human roots of oppression and exploitation, just as the way now lies open for the scientific understanding and control of the forces of nature.

It is not a question of seeking the eschaton in the here and now. Rather, it is about embracing an eschatologically oriented pursuit of this-worldly justice.

***

Pursuing justice in this world as a response to the mandate of Christ is the theme of this issue’s opening essay, by Peter McVerry SJ. In ‘A Kingdom Here on Earth: Jesus the Social Revolutionary’, he expounds eloquently, perhaps even provocatively, on the theme of justice in the Gospels. The prayer in the Our Father, he notes, is for the Kingdom of God to come ‘on earth as it is in Heaven’. What are we to make of this prayer for God’s Kingdom on earth? For Fr McVerry, it is a prayer for the realisation of God’s vision for humanity, for the coming of a ‘kingdom of non-violence, equality, caring and sharing, reaching out to the unwanted’, a kingdom where power is the power to serve, not to oppress. Jesus challenged the social and political order. His siding with the poor and his insistence of the dignity of every person was ‘a profoundly political act’; but, Fr McVerry clarifies, the kingdom he wishes to establish is ‘in this world, but not of this world’. He concludes with a warning: ‘Unless the Churches rediscover the centrality of social justice to their mission, they will continue to become more and more irrelevant and fade away’.

In ‘Homelessness: Some Theological Reflections’, Suzanne Mulligan casts a theological light on the growing phenomenon of social exclusion through homelessness. She frames the problem in terms of some of the principles which underpin Catholic social teaching, namely human dignity, integral human development, and accompaniment. For one to have dignity they must have, as the Fathers of Vatican II wrote, ‘all that is necessary for living a genuinely human life’, but homelessness deprives people of these things and leaves them vulnerable and exposed. They are hardly capable of well-rounded integral development – spiritual, cultural, relational, and emotional – and they lose the opportunity to exercise ‘contributive justice’, that is to make a positive social contribution that brings them into a community and allows them to flourish there. Mulligan warns about the danger of focusing solely on the provision of shelter to the homeless, ‘to the neglect of the spiritual healing that is also needed’.

In ‘Looking Out onto the World: Global Compact on Education’, Bishop Brendan Leahy describes an initiative of Pope Francis to promote an idea that is present in the vision of the Second Vatican Council, namely that schools and colleges are not merely institutions but communities. This theme from the Council was taken up in later papal documents, especially with Pope Paul highlighting that education ‘of the whole person and of every person’ is needed if true progress and development are to be promoted. Bishop Leahy notes the calls from many quarters to recognise a crisis in education, which increasingly neglects the humanities and tends to produce, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, ‘generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements’. In launching the Global Compact, Pope Francis identifies commitments or principles that can be adopted, including placing the human person at the centre of education, listening to the voices of children, and encouraging girls and young women to participate fully in educational programmes.

***

In ‘The Problem of Celibacy in the Clerical Films of Bob Quinn’, Jacob Martin SJ examines two films by Bob Quinn in the 1980s and 90s, Budawanny and The Bishop’s Story, with regard to their treatment of the problems of clerical authority and the power imbalance in the priest/lay relationship. He pays particular attention to the matter of celibacy and the meaning of the physical gestures of the priest protagonists of the movies, especially as they progress towards sexual intimacy.

In a follow-up to his essay on Irish diplomat Leopold Kerney in the Spring 2022 issue of Studies, Barry Whelan tells the fascinating story of Kerney’s determined efforts to forge trade connections with France in the early years of the Free State, mostly as a means of reducing the ability of the British to set the Irish trade agenda. Given Ireland’s dependency on Britain as a trading partner, the country was forced to remain ‘a pastoral country’, supplying Britain with ‘vast supplies of cattle, sheep and dairy produce’. Ireland could not grow into a modern economy while the relationship stayed that way.

In the first of two review articles in this issue, Joseph Dunne takes a lengthy look at Essays in the Phenomenology of Learning: The Challenge of Proximity by Fiachra Long. Long’s book is about the practice of education and, as Dunne notes, is primarily targeted at the Cartesian conception of the disembodied ego. Through a set of discussions of phenomenologists and other modern thinkers, Long reflects on the role and meaning of proximity in education – presence, closeness, wide-awakeness, attentiveness. Dunne commends the book as a substantial contribution to the philosophy of education, and he proposes a number of avenues that could be explored further.

In the second review article Jesuit historian Thomas Morrissey SJ examines The Jesuit Mission in Early Modern Ireland, 1560–1760, a set of essays on Irish Jesuits from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, edited by Mary Ann Lyons and Brian Mac Cuarta SJ. The essays in the collection are not intended to present a comprehensive history of early Jesuit activity in Ireland. Rather, each of them focuses on a specific aspect of the missions. One essay examines the correspondence of three Jesuits involved in the second mission, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when the Catholic Church still held out hope for her conversion and the Irish people were confused about their religious allegiance. Other essays consider the role of women in Jesuit ministry in the seventeenth century, popular Jesuit preachers in that same era, and the Jesuits and music in early modern Ireland.

Contents

  • A Kingdom Here on Earth: Jesus the Social Revolutionary

    Peter McVerry SJ

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    Jesus had a mission statement, long before mission statements became popular. We pray, in the Our Father, that Jesus’ mission may be accomplished: ‘Thy Kingdom come … on earth, as it is in Heaven’. Jesus talked about a kingdom here on earth, over which God could happily preside.

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  • Homelessness: Some Theological Reflections

    Suzanne Mulligan

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    During my time in America, I was invited to spend a week at another very well-known Catholic university. It too proved to be a very fruitful visit; the generosity of the staff and the welcome I received was amazing. But in truth, I felt a little uncomfortable with the opulence that I saw around me. I met with one professor who works closely with the homeless community in the locality. She divided her time between her academic responsibilities at the university and running a homeless shelter. On the Wednesday evening she took me to the shelter and located in the upper room of the building was a small, simple chapel. That evening, along with about twenty homeless folks, we celebrated the Eucharist.

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  • Looking Out onto the World: The Global Compact on Education

    Brendan Leahy

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    The Global Compact on Education is one of the many inspiring initiatives launched by Pope Francis. Put simply, it’s an invitation on his part for any two or more – individuals, families, schools, institutions, organisations, or nations – to commit themselves to work for a more open and inclusive education, in order to respond to the challenges of a world in rapid transformation and increasing divisions. The Compact is not a particular educational activity or programme but rather a networking of people who, respecting diversity, reach out to listen attentively to one another in order to dialogue constructively on education in its broadest sense and in its significance for the future of our world, our planet, our relationships.

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  • The Problem of Celibacy in the Clerical Films of Bob Quinn

    Jacob Martin SJ

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    In the wake of myriad revelations of clerical abuse and its cover-up by Church authorities in the last two decades, the question of mandatory priestly celibacy has been largely relegated to discourses surrounding child sexual abuse that are frequently informed by the misguided perception that clerical sexual continence leads to paedophilia. However before the clerical abuse crisis came to the fore in the late 1990s, and at least since the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the necessity and practicality of compulsory chastity for Catholic clergy has been a contested issue within the ecclesial and public spheres in Ireland.

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  • Une Mission Spéciale: Leopold Kerney’s Diplomatic Activities on Behalf of the Irish Republic in France, 1919–23

    Barry Whelan

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    On 21 January 1919 two significant events happened in Ireland that reverberated across the world: the War of Independence began and Irish deputies convened a meeting of Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) to declare independence from the British Empire. Despite emerging exhausted from the Great War, Britain was in no mood to acquiesce in any diminution of its imperial power and would use all means necessary to defeat this independence effort.

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