Daniel Larison (at The American Conservative) dismisses all the wailing about the future of “the West” (aka “Western civilization”):
Except as a category for organizing different areas and periods of history, “civilization” is not a terribly useful unit of analysis. When those lines are drawn, they are almost always done after the fact and they are drawn somewhat arbitrarily. Few consider the inheritors of Byzantium to be traditionally part of “the West” despite the fact that they share the same legacy of Greece, Rome, and ancient Christianity, and they have almost always been defined as part of some other “civilization” opposed to “the West.” In modern times, “the West” has often been even more narrowly defined to exclude nations that objectively share the same intellectual and religious heritage for contemporary political reasons…
The appeal to studying Western Civ is fine, and I did just that in college, but anyone that has carefully studied that history will know that the definition and values of “the West” have not been constants across centuries, nor have the boundaries of “the West” remained the same. The point is that there isn’t and hasn’t been a single “West” and people that belong to it have quarreled among themselves over its definition throughout our history, and I assume they will continue to do so. Indeed, [conservatives’]’ main problem is that many people in Western countries are no longer buying into the ideological definition of “the West” that [they favor]. Frankly, that doesn’t seem like a problem that needs to be solved.
It cannot bode well when Richard Beck sounds as apocalyptic as Rod Dreher:
Modern political discourse repeatedly brings rival goods into conflict. For example, in the abortion debates protecting life (a good thing) is pitted against the right to make decisions about your own body (a good thing). Two goods pitted against each other.
Regarding the debates about refugees and immigration, a concern over caring for the vulnerable (a good thing) is pitted against a concern for safety (a good thing). Two goods pitted against each other.
The examples abound. Pick any political controversy and you'll eventually find two goods pitted against each other.
Since we lack the ability to adjudicate between these goods we're forced to making one good triumph over the other good. This is difficult to do because these are obvious goods. Evidence for the goodness of the goods is clear and unimpeachable, so it's impossible to convince people that a good isn't a good.
It might be argued that a democratic process could help us find compromises between these rival goods.
That democracy is increasingly unable to bring about these compromises is because when two rival goods repeatedly compete in the public sphere the desire to have one good triumph over the other good causes the parties advocating a good to trivialize, demean, and diminish the rival good.
Democracy, thus, leads to the demonization of the good, making compromise and civic discourse increasingly impossible. Instead of a compromise between two rival goods, the political fight is transformed into Good versus Evil.
At this point, when good is called evil, democracy is doomed.
Calling the good evil…signals that our moral compass has been damaged beyond all recognition, and now nothing stands between us and the abyss.
Beck’s point about “rival goods” and the difficulty of compromise is certainly correct, but I am not so sure about his claim that democratic discourse inevitably leads to the “demonization” of one’s partisan opponents. I concede that such demonization has become increasingly the case, but I don’t see why it has to continue; and I entirely reject the notion that our moral compass is irreparably out of whack just because we disagree on prioritizing various goods and because we sometimes go too far in our partisanship.
Regardless, and even if Beck were correct about all that, the notion that “nothing stands between us and the abyss” is fanciful to say the least. Since Richard Beck is a Christian, he certainly must believe that God stands between us and the abyss; and for those of us who can’t put our faith in a deus ex machina, we can still believe in the human capacity to avert disaster.
I try to stay out of arguments that are none of my business, but sometimes I just can’t resist. According to Rod Dreher and various members of his commentariat, the second-ranking Jesuit in the world (behind Pope Francis) wants to “rewrite Jesus” and pave the way for easy divorce. Since Jesus clearly stated (in Matthew 19:3-6) “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder,” divorce is absolutely unacceptable and divorced-and-remarried Catholics are living in sin and may not receive the Holy Eucharist; they may, however, sit humbly in the pew while the decent Catholics walk past them to the communion rails. As I understand Church teaching, there is no need for such sinners to have a scarlet “D” (for Divorce) emblazoned on their foreheads; the other members of the congregation will be aware of their status.
It is this absolutism that the current Superior General of the Jesuits seems to be questioning when he says things like “the words of Jesus must be contextualized, they are expressed in a language, in a specific setting, they are addressed to someone in particular.” That smacks of relativism to the traditionalists at Dreher’s Corner who respond with things like this:
“Wow – just wow! To me, the craziest thing about Pope Francis’s obsession with making the dissolution of marriage as easy as possible is that it is so clearly opposed to Jesus’ own words. All this “What would Jesus do” crap (whose implication is of course,”have mercy” – i.e., facilitate people moving on from their marriages without shame or guilt) has to completely ignore the fact that Jesus was a hard-liner on marriage.”
I have two questions. First, where does Jesus instruct anyone regarding the withholding of a particular sacrament as a penalty for a particular sin? Even if we assume that Jesus’ words amount to an absolute prohibition on divorce, he said nothing about how those who “put asunder” should be treated.
Second, why do we assume that “what…God hath joined together” is the same as “what the Church hath joined together”? Why do we assume, that is, that God blesses all sacramental Catholic marriages? Is He required to do so? Isn’t it possible that God observes certain nuptials and says, “I wash my hands of this one; it’s on you and on your children”? Couldn’t we just as easily believe that failing marriages were not blessed by God in the first place, or that God has withdrawn that blessing for some reason? If God is omniscient and can foresee, plain as day, the eventual breaking of so many marriage vows, why would He bless them to begin with?
The Church, of course, relies on some other words of Jesus (Matthew 18:18) to underscore its authority in this matter: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Disputes over the authenticity of that verse aside, it still seems quite odd that God, in the person of Jesus, turned over His authority to fallible human beings—but that, I guess, is why the Holy Spirit stays around to guide them; unfortunately, based on the divorce rate even among Catholics, Mr. (Ms.?) Spirit is not doing such a great job these days.