Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Be Alert

Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the better. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.
Your affectionate uncle

C. S. Lewis

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I’d like to address my fellow Christians, liberal and conservative. The last several days have scared me: not (primarily) what the administration has done, but the vitriolic, shrieking, arrogant spite I’ve been seeing from both sides of our political spectrum toward their opposites—even from many people that I regard as friends. To our shame, I have seen no difference between those of us who believe on Jesus and those who don’t.

So I’d like to make a few points. I do not write impartially; I certainly have a point of view. But I hope I write rationally, with an eye to truth rather than to my likings.

1. Conceding that someone could rationally disagree with you is not conceding the argument. Let’s suppose that you are right. (Of course you are.) Let’s suppose, also, that a reasonable person takes a different view than you do. We have now imagined a scenario that is possible and sometimes happens.

I say this because I’ve been seeing, over and over,1 memes and statuses to the effect of ‘If you really cared about X, you’d care about Y, but you don’t, so stop pretending you care about X when really you’re just [insert preferred genre of awfulness]!’ This is objectionable on many levels—not least of which is that running around accusing strangers of being remorseless liars is rather cockbaggish and not in the best of taste—but the worst thing about it, intellectually, is that it’s profoundly shallow. People could care about X for a multitude of reasons, some of which have no implications for Y at all; people could care about both X and Y for unrelated reasons. This reductio ad ad hominem doesn’t really grapple with the opponent’s views or reasoning, nor is it very likely to convince anyone of anything. It’s preaching to the choir—cheap, in every sense.

Here’s the thing, though. Suppose that any reasonable caring about X would logically involve you in caring about Y. Okay; does the person you’re talking to know that? The only way to find out is to ask them. And the most effective way of asking is going to be with good manners: i.e., posing a question rather than a challenge, and listening to the answer for its contents rather than its incrimination value.

2. Catholic teaching2 addresses not only individual virtue but social justice, and isn’t adequately represented by either party. Good things always start with an individual, because individuals are the only entities that can choose to do things. No system is a substitute for personal justice, generosity, and compassion, and every system that exists was designed and run by individual people. To assign all responsibility for social justice, or injustice, to the state is either naïveté or a sham. And to talk as though people who object to the state doing X are really objecting to X is neither fair nor intelligent.

However. Catholic teaching, especially the teaching promulgated by the Popes over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has stated in no uncertain terms that the task of caring for the poor and vulnerable is something society as a whole is responsible for, not just individuals. In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote:

One class, very small in number, was enjoying almost all the advantages …; the other, embracing the huge multitude of working people, oppressed by wretched poverty, was vainly seeking escape from the straits wherein it stood. Quite agreeable, of course, was this state of things to those who thought it, in their abundant riches, the result of inevitable economic laws, and accordingly—as if it were for charity to veil the violation of justice which lawmakers not only tolerated but at times sanctioned—wanted the whole care of supporting the poor committed to charity alone.3

When personal responsibility and hard work and charitable gifts have all had their say, there still remains a corporate duty—one that the government must attend to, and that its citizens must accept as citizens, not just as men and women—to relieve the destitute. Does that mean every possible form of relief, for everyone in the world, is the state’s obligation? No. But it does mean that we can’t casually, or indignantly, dismiss calls for official humanitarianism as though they weren’t the government’s business.

3. Violence provokes violence in response. After Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist,4 was punched in the face on TV after the inauguration, ‘Punch a Nazi’ became a meme. It wasn’t the first instance of violence I’ve encountered, on either side, but it seems to have raised the temperature considerably.

That’s really scary to me, because I not only don’t want the government exercising a fascist level of power, I also don’t want to see them given an excuse to do so. A punch in the face isn’t about justice, it’s about satisfying your outrage, and while that might make it more excusable it doesn’t make it better. Still less does it make it safer. If you’re worried that a government is turning authoritarian and could resort to false flags to bolster its power, giving them true flags is a very silly response.

4. The scale of an event often matters less than its context. The executive order that halted the settlement of Middle Eastern refugees5 in this country, while the vetting process is revamped, was, of course, perfectly legal. But when authoritarians take power, things usually do start quite small. It’s a procedural reform. It’s a leave of absence. It’s not a big deal. Because if and when it is a big deal, they’re not going to tell you that. They want you to be used to accepting this stuff as normal. Tyrants practically never take over by force: they get the populace to beg them to assume power.

EDIT: A couple of readers have pointed out that, given the judicial challenges it has already faced, the legality of the EO is in fact dubious. I thank them for reminding me of this.

Don’t just look at the order, in this or any case: ask what we were doing about it before, look to who profits, examine the voice as well as the words. And listen to the other things they plan to do; the means a person is willing to use is a measure of their character, and when a President, or anyone, openly advocates torture and the murder of foreign civilians, it ceases to be uncharitable to treat him with a modicum of suspicion. Don’t panic—but be alert.

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1I have, for the most part, been seeing this in the leftist response to Trump’s order halting the acceptance of refugees. But the syllogism is not reserved to anti-conservative use.
2This point will inevitably matter more to my Catholic readership than my Protestant. But on this subject, Catholic teaching is at any rate fairly representative of the views of most Christians at most times.
3Quadragesimo Anno §§3-4. I’ve adapted the punctuation a little for easier reading.
4To be fair, Spencer disavows the term white supremacist and prefers identitarian. To be even fairer, he has quoted from Nazi propaganda multiple times, advocated a white homeland, and called for a ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ (whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean) to preserve white culture. So I find it hard to see the practical distinction.
5That is, refugees from certain countries (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Yemen). As far as I can tell, there is no relationship between the countries subject to the order and those whose citizens have committed terrorist acts on American soil in the past; Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for instance, were not subjected to the EO’s restrictions.


  1. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to call your attention to my blogpost about the executive order on refugees and immigration from a highly select seven countries.

  2. Agree 99%. I have myself been guilty of letting emotion get the best of me, for which I've had to humbly apologize to some of my friends on the other side of the fence.

    My only point of disagreement: I do no believe the executive order (as articulated, and as more nefariously intended) is "perfectly legal," not morally and not constitutionally, which is precisely why several judges have put a stay on certain aspects of the order.

    1. A friend of mine pointed out the same thing on Facebook. I'll be adding an edit as soon as I can.