By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio – articles – email ) | Feb 28, 2023
I see the so-called Equal Rights Amendment is back in the Senate again, and of course the USCCB is once more warning against it. Or perhaps I should not say “of course”, because we have learned the hard way that we can take almost nothing for granted as Catholics. But in this the USCCB has been right, recognizing the tremendous harm of politically guaranteeing civil “rights” that violate the natural law either explicitly or in their likely mode of practice. And to this concern we must add another: The modern tendency toward bureaucratic totalitarianism in the absence of virtue.
A coincidence of Personalism
It is interesting to me that this question arises again at the very moment that I am skimming through philosopher David Walsh’s book The Priority of the Person (published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2020). Walsh’s project is to articulate the great challenge of philosophical Personalism, which is to recognize that our own inviolable subjectivity as persons is not an excuse to do (or pretend to be) whatever we want, but a call to acknowledge the very ground of our own mysterious being—that is, the prior reality of Being itself. For it is by, through and within Being itself that we are all inescapably constituted as unique persons.
Walsh realizes that the proper culmination of philosophical Personalism is not a radical subjective autonomy but the understanding that we can find the horizon of meaning only in the gift of being itself. In other words, we cannot find our own meaning or purpose or morality or goal within our own peculiarly isolated subjectivity. We can find it only within the constancy of the eternal Being from which our very nature, indeed our very person, derives.
Now from the philosophical point of view, I have probably stated this badly. Walsh himself seems to struggle to state the matter clearly, perhaps because, as a professional philosopher, he is necessarily bogged down in the project of extracting such an insight (which is actually quite rudimentary) through an examination of the personalist efforts of other major philosophers of the modern era. The problem, of course, is that so many of them have failed to make perfect sense for the simple reason that they have been so anxious to avoid a direct acknowledgement of the Divine through Christianity. Philosophy, like so many other advanced areas of study, is often manhandled by those who think Christianity must be rejected as a tragic imposition which, by its very nature as a claimed revelation, necessarily violates the rules of authentic human thought.
Walsh knows better of course, but he is after all a modern academic philosopher at Notre Dame. Insofar as the reader can penetrate his philosophical analysis of the development of Personalism through the figures and topics covered in this book, the reader will see that Walsh ought to be personally clamoring for Divine Revelation. Academically, perhaps, it will not do to state this too clearly, let alone frankly. Philosophy and religion are not the same—a more than academic distinction which must be maintained. But when a lay reader is only two-thirds through a seriously challenging book which contains such seeds of promise, he lives in hope—not perhaps as a philosopher, but as a person reading philosophy.
The Quest for Equal Rights
As it stands now, a seriously imperfect tradition of philosophical Personalism has helped mightily to get us into the mess we are in. Modern society, under the more or less deliberate manipulation of the false promise of democracy, is prey to every ideology imaginable—ideology being merely subjective discontents idolized as comprehensive theories of man. Or put it this way: Ideology is what we substitute for Christianity when we switch from wanting what Christianity gives us to complaining that Christianity does not give us what we want.
Modern politics, as brilliantly exemplified in the Equal Rights Amendment, is radically influenced by the tendency (derived in part from a woefully incomplete Personalism) to believe that we must be forever rebuilding our “thought world” from our own personal subjectivity—a process which, given ever-shifting cultural pressures and the difficulty we find in conforming our impassioned minds to reality, makes us prey to one ideology after another. These constantly shifting ideologies are invariably implemented through essentially totalitarian bureaucratic systems which operate in the guise of democracy. After all, it is always considered most noble to abuse individual persons in the name of “the people”, and it is easy enough for those in power to control an atomized electorate in the absence of strong intermediary institutions.
Therefore, the hallmark of modern democracies is the leveling of intermediary institutions on the pretense that “the vote” makes them superfluous. This includes also the institutional fragmentation of Christianity and its exclusion from what we call the public square. Under the mantra of “one person one vote”, stabilizing institutions are swept aside, and the State confronts only the isolated and ungrounded individual. Wealthy, powerful and psychologically manipulative groups seek to marginalize tradition as peculiar, to remake society according to their own distorted interests, and even to destroy resistance by eradicating our memory of the past.
Thus do a succession of ideologies du jour gain sway—always in the name of false human rights. These “rights” are increasingly derived precisely from a distorted human subjectivity, radically separated from the ground of Being and turned in upon itself. We Catholics call the ground of Being God, and know about Him through Revelation. But Revelation no longer has political credentials. We are not only subsumed in a magnificently illusive democracy; we are all, to one extent or another, precisely Democrats.
The secularization and marginalization of Christianity is always a prime political objective because the Christian grasp of reality is so profound as to invariably terrify sinners. In particular, the chief institutional presence of religion, the Catholic Church, must be institutionally marginalized. To the same end, in academic work, in journalism and in pulp fiction (which includes every kind of media), any and all authentic Christianity must be marginalized. It must be regarded as at best an unproven and impermissible shortcut to human understanding that nobody can live up to anyway. But what everybody fears deep down is that it is really an indispensable medicinal aid to the human digestion of reality.
Politics, sound philosophy, and Christ
Sound philosophy can orient us properly to the nature of the human problem…but sound philosophy has rarely guided politics any more than it currently guides academia. It seems likely that, in the absence of Christianity, it never has. But sound philosophy, wherever it is well-understood and well-taught, can acquaint others with reality. It can often be a good preparation for faith, but until it is Catholic philosophy—practiced rigorously by those illuminated by Christianity and strengthened by grace—philosophy will only very seldom be good philosophy for the simple reason that, without a prior knowledge of truth and a prior experience of grace, we so seldom succeed in doing what David Walsh hopes modern Personalism is at last on the verge of doing: Transcending our own subjectivity.
In truth, neither philosophy (nor politics!) can begin to do this unless it recognizes that only the ground of Being (however identified) gives existence to and encompasses the human person generally and each human person individually. But what are the chances in a world in which the mantra is individual rights, the method of governance is an essentially false and manipulative democracy, and the supreme mode of influence is lucrative, lowest-common-denominator mass media?
If the reader is wondering about all this loose talk about a ground of being, a shortcut may be found in St. Paul’s speech in that once great philosophical center, Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it…is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’.” (Acts 17:24, 27-28)
Even Macaulay’s school boy should know that there can be no “right” to separate the use of our sexual faculties from their proper ends in stable family life, for no human enactment may seek to undermine the very ground of our being, which is not our own subjective creation, but something within which we already find ourselves. More politically, there can be no justice that penalizes or even criminalizes our efforts to both teach and legislate in accordance with that ground of Being which is reality itself, within which every human person finds himself, and within which the human person must discern what it means to be not the owner but the steward of his life.
I hope I have not been so abstruse here as to become irrelevant. It can be confusing to relate philosophical trends to present cultural and political difficulties, especially when there is still so much confusion in the philosophical trends. This is one of the difficulties presented by any modern attempt to study philosophy, especially without a prior personal and intellectual grounding in reality, whether from upbringing, sound education, or a faith in God informed by Revelation.
We sometimes forget how closely truth was linked to virtue for the greatest of the ancient philosophers. The failure of virtue in so many modern philosophers has unquestionably retarded the progress of Personalism. But if David Walsh is right about a gradual breakthrough in modern philosophy to an authentically-grounded Personalism—or even if he isn’t—my readers might get the point and even solve our political problems far more quickly if only Walsh or myself would stop trying to explain it all philosophically from within our subjectivity and instead simply quote St. Paul: “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?“ (1 Cor 4:7)
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