Friday, February 22, 2013

The same topic, continued

“If heretics no longer horrify us today, as they once did our forefathers, is it certain that it is because there is more charity in our hearts? Or would it not too often be, perhaps, without our daring to say so, because the bone of contention, that is to say, the very substance of our faith, no longer interests us? Men of too familiar and too passive a faith, perhaps for us dogmas are no longer the Mystery on which we live, the Mystery which is to be accomplished in us. Consequently then, heresy no longer shocks us; at least, it no longer convulses us like something trying to tear the soul of our souls away from us…. And that is why we have no trouble in being kind to heretics, and no repugnance in rubbing shoulders with them… It is not always charity, alas, which has grown greater, or which has become more enlightened: it is often faith, the taste for the things of eternity, which has grown less…”
Henri de Lubac: Further Paradoxes (Newman Press 1958) and reprinted in Paradoxes of Faith (Ignatius Press 1987)

Thanks to Fr. Zuhlsdorf for the quote.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Good Country People

Several people who I respect immensely, notably my former professor Rick Garnett, have recently been advocating the idea that what we really need in this country is to be nicer* to one another. Rick points to a recent post by Robert Miller over at First Things regarding the late Ronald Dworkin. Prof. Miller's thesis is, generally, that one can be a "good person" while holding and disseminating dangerously wrong ideas, and that we should all be nice to people with whom we disagree because, apparently, they're probably good people.

Now, I certainly will not advocate acting uncharitably. But charity demands neither that we be "nice," in a conventional sense, nor that we think that people who spread lies are "good people." Laying aside for the moment the first point, who is a "good person"? That should be an easy question for even the most lackadaisically peeping Thomist. A good person is a person who does good things. And how many bad things must a person do before we agree that he is no longer a "good person" in a conventional sense? Well certainly if he dedicates his life to promoting something evil, it becomes rather difficult to continue to claim that he is nevertheless a "good person." Does a person's wrongdoing "not count" because he refrains from beating his wife, or because he puts a roof over his children's heads? May the saints preserve us from the tyranny of small expectations. This sounds like nothing so much as the classic intellectual-property line: the defendant may not escape liability simply be showing how much of the plaintiff's work he did not copy.

To hold otherwise---that we can say a person, irregardless of the things he believes, is nevertheless a "good person"---is to fall into nominalism and related errors. A person's character is defined by his actions, including his actions of belief and advocacy. So we would never say "Jim believes and advocates the Arian heresy, but is not an Arian," or "Bob vehemently and firmly believes that it is good to barbecue infants, but he's not a barbarian." This makes no more sense than the statement "Steve sleeps with numerous women who are not his wife, but he's not an adulterer."

Granted, "good person" is almost vacuously vague. And even "bad persons," again somewhat vague, deserve love and respect (for themselves, if not for their ideas and actions). But it's stuff and nonsense to say that a person, otherwise guilty of profoundly wrong and destructive actions (such as the widespread propagation of false ideas) is a "good person" because he is not also an axe murderer, or a sociopath, or a burglar. One doesn't get a pass for murder because one says one's prayers at night and gives generously to the poor. One oughtn't to receive a pass on writing vile books because he throws nice cocktail parties.

The advocacy of such passes is Laodicean at best.

* In fairness, the word "nice" does not appear in Rick's most recent post or in Prof. Miller's linked post. It's my gloss, based partly on a prior Mirror of Justice post---to which I don't have a link at the moment---about dinner parties.