Newsletter #22: Césaire, Kirk, Arendt, and Newman, on the development of ideas and political discourse
In this newsletter: the Divine Right of Kings (and Queens), Catholic influencer conflict, the silencing Church, and the Discourse on Colonialism
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
Did God give the Queen her power?
Conflict among Catholic influencers
The Church still perpetuates a conspiracy of silence
What I’m reading: Discourse on Colonialism
Did God give the Queen her power?
Queen Elizabeth II has died. With her death, many conversations have surfaced concerning the colonizing of Great Britain and the responsibilities of the Crown. Once aspect of the Crown that has been given very little attention, however, is the age-old view idea of the Divine Right of Kings, the view that the political legitimacy of the monarchy comes from God. Many Catholics would be surprised to know that the Church, even into the modern era, has affirmed some version of this idea.
For example, Pope Leo XIII in Diuturnum Ilud argues that political power and authority come from God. By nature, men and women are social beings: “[N]ature, or rather God who is the Author of nature, wills that man should live in a civil society.” And it is our social nature as members of political bodies which helps us to understand our rights and duties. When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he is doing two things. First, he has explicitly empowered the State, even the unjust State, to exercise its political authority. Second, as Pope Leo XII writes in Immortale Dei, “Jesus Christ has Himself given command” to Christians to follow that political authority. That is, he empowers the state and commands obedience from his followers.
So it is not necessarily that God specifically had chosen Queen Elizabeth II to lead. Rather, Christ has recognized and leant authority to the State, in its various forms. This certainly does not mean that the State is entitled to act in any way designated by its leaders. But it does pose a challenge to those who would argue that the role of Christianity is to overthrow the State and establish a more perfect regime.
I had written more about the authority of the State and the call to disobedience for Christians here.
Conflict among Catholic influencers
Last week, I shared the public exchanges which preceded and followed the closing of the “Reconstructing Catholic” Instagram account. I’ll share thoughts on all of this later. But if you want to see the public exchanges, you can read them here.
The Church still perpetuates a conspiracy of silence
I know at least a handful of people who experienced serious harm at the hands of clergy (sexual, discriminatory, abusive) but don’t want to come forward. Because they’re afraid. Because they’re worried that they’ll lose their careers and will never be able to work for the Church again. Because they’ve been told this by Catholic leaders: if you come forward, no other Catholic organization will want to hire you. As one woman told me, “I’m worried that they’ll just see me as a troublemaker and I’ll never be able to get hired again.”
There’s a lot about the clergy abuse crisis that hasn’t made its way into the public. I’d guess that 30% (maybe less) of the crisis is publicly known, in part because the structures of power in the Church haven’t really changed. The incentives for silence are the same.
I’ve been personally warned by multiple people to be careful, given what I’ve uncovered. This is part of what’s driven my decision to not work for the Church. Right now, it’s a high priority that my income not be dependent on the Church, and I won’t volunteer or put myself forward for any positions of leadership. I won’t do Church leadership unless I’m specifically asked. Nonetheless, I’ve been warned that if you pursue certain issues in the Church, or try to address abuse or cover-ups by certain Church leaders, that they will punish you by going after your friends who work for the Church. People are terrified.
The McCarrick Report is instructive here. Almost all the implicated Church leaders in the report were dead at the time of its release. The Report, which was released in the name of “transparency,” didn’t actually “uncover” any of today’s problematic figures. No Church leader was disciplined as a result of the Report. (Wuehrl’s downfall came before the Report was released.)
A number of Church practices contribute to this state of affairs. Dioceses like the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis have overly strict rules regarding recording conversations for employees (they can only be recorded with the permission of your supervisor, with no exception for whistleblowers). The Washington Archdiocese will only pay severance if terminated employees sign non-disclosure provisions. And many Archdioceses only have whistleblower protections if one speaks with diocesan leaders.
And “religious liberty” protections don’t help. Under current law (lobbied for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), it seems that Catholic organizations won’t be held accountable to their employee handbooks or contracts. The Morrissey-Berru case involved a school that had a non-discrimination policy based on disability, but which terminated an employee and then won a lawsuit by arguing that the employee couldn’t bring disability-related claims against the school. What this means is that protections in employee handbooks and contracts aren’t real. So we need other methods of protection.
There are a number of changes that can be made to improve this state of affairs. We should have stronger whistleblower protections, including if employees go to the media. Outside organizations and groups (lay-led and not under Church leadership) can step in to provide financial and job support to targeted whistleblowers and victims of discrimination. And we need more transparency when it comes to Church processes and communications, as well as real accountability for bishops. Non-disclosure requirements should be limited and abundantly clear.
In the meantime, know that the clergy abuse crisis is far from over. Currently, we’re on a 10-year cycle for serious revelations.
What I’m reading: Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (and also Kirk, Arendt, and Newman, on the development of ideas and political discourse)
Last week I wrote about Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, and ways in which the text’s concerns overlap with Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. In response to my piece, one person commented: “You’re unwittingly amplifying oligarchic-aristocratic voices and are marginalizing peasant farmer majority experiences.” This comment is an interesting one, and it merits consideration.
For one thing, The Conservative Mind does speak in favor of oligarchic-aristocratic structures and values. It does so explicitly at times. And it does discuss a number of issues in ways which I find deeply problematic, especially issues related to racism and the South.
At the same time, I chose to write about The Conservative Mind because it is a text I have studied and considered at length (including in one of the seminars I had facilitated). The text does have its problems. However, even texts with problems are worth considering and unpacking. Just because problems exist in a text does not mean that the text has nothing to teach or offer us. In these newsletters, and in other spaces I manage, I will continue exploring from time to time texts that are “problematic,” and considering what they have to offer us, in spite of (and while acknowledging) their problems.
The commenter is right in their concern to make sure that those on the margins are not forgotten or further marginalized. It would be great for me to also read and study texts by (for example), peasant farmers in India (to the extent such texts may exist in English). But writers should not be silent on what we have read, simply because there are other texts we haven’t read.
I want to deepen my own knowledge. In the meantime, I will present my limited knowledge and perspectives, and ask you all to keep my limitations in mind.
Here, we will see a divergence in approach. For some, a participation in or contribution to a system of oppression renders the entirety of an individual’s work and ideas impure, unworthy of any consideration. I have chosen a different approach, believing that participation or contribution to a system of oppression does not mean someone has nothing to teach us. I continue to believe that when you engage someone with openness and good faith, even in the midst of disagreement, you can open up a “third space.” Hannah Arendt and John Henry Newman can help us understand how the space of discourse can lead to creativity and change.
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt speaks of the ancient Greek understanding of the polis, as a space in which citizens can enter to participate in politics. This participation consisted of political discourse, discourse on the good of the community and the state and how it might best be achieved. It was a sort of “conventional and artificial” space, set apart from the rest of daily life, but one in which one’s highest aspirations and most significant rational qualities might be pursued and realized. Prior to the modern world, “freedom” did not simply mean the absence of constraint, but the ability and choice to participate in discourse in the political realm. (For this reason, Arendt argues that the French Revolution ultimately failed, because it gave up its original aim of securing access to and expansion of the more ancient understanding of the political realm and ended up focusing on the assurance of material needs and certain apolitical rights.)
In her text, Arendt distinguishes between interests and opinions:
“Interest and opinion are entirely different political phenomena. Politically, interests are relevant only as group interests, and for the purification of such group interests it seems to suffice that their partial character is safeguarded under all conditions… Opinions, on the contrary, never belong to groups but exclusively to individuals, who ‘exert their reason cooly and freely’, and no multitude, be it the multitude of a part or of the whole society, will ever be capable of forming an opinion. Opinions will rise wherever men communicate freely with one another and have the right to make their views public… No single individual… can ever be equal to the task of sifting opinions.”
According to Arendt, opinions are ideas held uniquely to each person, and which can only come into the light through clear discourse between two persons. The exchange impacts and changes the opinions which, again, are unique to each. And while perhaps Arendt undervalued the role of certain emotions and passions in forming and articulating opinions, she does provide important and helpful distinctions.
Jennie Odell writes similarly of social media in her 2020 book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Treating “public opinion” in a way similar to the “group interests” Arendt discusses, Odell writes:
“After all, it is public opinion that social media exploits, and public opinion that has no patience for ambiguity, context, or breaks with tradition. Public opinion is not looking to change or to be challenged; it is what wants a band to keep making songs exactly like the hit they once had. Conversations, whether with oneself or others, are different.”
And John Henry Newman makes a similar argument in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine. According to Newman, an idea is changed every time it enters a new human mind. An idea is wholly unique to each mind, which is partly why every time a person interacts with an idea, it undergoes a change. “No sooner do we apprehend than we judge,” he writes. Because of this, we should expect variation in statements of common truths. And this is both how and why Christian doctrine changes: any idea which engages with an active living mind will change; any living ideas will develop.
There is no one-to-one agreement upon Newman’s “ideas” or Arendt’s “opinions,” because ideas and opinions are wholly unique to the virtues and limitations unique to each individual. What this partly means is that, when people are given space to voice aloud their considered opinions in public discourse, they are always opening space for something new to come into being. Insofar as they present something and expect total compliance or agreement in every aspect, they are expressing something closer to Arendt’s treatment of “interests.” But to the extent they are raising opinions and are opening themselves up to the opinions of others, they are always opening up a space for something new, something beyond each and every individual involved. To truly enter political discourse is to enter a space of constant change, both for others and for oneself.
This, I believe, is what we can do when we open up spaces for true discourse of any kind. When I truly engage the considered opinions of another and bring my own opinions to that space, what might occur is not necessarily just a “bridging the gap” between the two of us or a compromise that is a sort of “meeting in the middle.” Rather, what can occur is the development of something entirely new for both of us. We might both walk away changed, not in a way where one is necessarily made to be more like the other or becomes a simple mixture of two, but where what arises is something entirely new and unexpected. The goal of discourse might not necessarily be “compromises” with evil or seeking blind and total compliance with what is right, but can be the creation of something new that opens up unforeseen possibilities for the future. The development of ideas is not linear; it is a process which is mysterious and unpredictable.
I don’t put Césaire and Kirk in conversation so that I might become a sort of mix of the two, or so that we might find ourselves a boring “middle ground.” Rather, I believe that these two writers have put forward opinions that, when brought into discourse, might change everything in ways none of us had expected.
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
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