Politics with vigilance, not vitriol: Heeding Cathleen Kaveny's call
Cathleen Kaveny is one of this country’s most renowned public intellectuals focusing on the intersection of religion, law and morality. Kaveny’s work as an ethicist is interdisciplinary. She connects the dots between history and political theory, law and jurisprudence, philosophy and theology. She is a prolific scholar with a keen aptitude for knowing what to focus on and when to speak. She also understands the duty of writing for a wider public than those fortunate enough to have her as a colleague or a teacher. Kaveny has also served for years as a columnist for Commonweal.
The genres of these books are different. One is a collection of short essays on a broad range of hot issues: health care, contraception, abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide, war, torture, economic boycotts, migration, constitutional interpretation (especially religious freedom) and much more. The other is a thick, carefully articulated study of contempt in U.S. political discourse.
Both are timely challenges to the escalating rancor of this year’s presidential election, which bottomed out in a nadir of narcissistic nastiness. After what we have been through recently, Kaveny offers much more wisdom than we have received from what passes for political discourse these days.
Except for a chapter on the complexity of Catholicism, A Culture of Engagement is Kaveny’s selection of columns or blogs that appeared in Commonweal between 2004 and 2014, which she has occasionally updated but only lightly. She added sources cited in each chapter, as well as useful suggestions for further reading on all topics she discusses.
Kaveny describes three distinct cultures surrounding the relationship between religion and morality, including law, openness, identity and engagement. She associates openness with the Second Vatican Council, stated classically in the opening paragraph of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” linking followers of Christ with the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of modern men and women. She associates identity with the long pontificate of St. John Paul II.
The short essays in this book forge an impressive argument for a third culture: engagement, or bringing into proximity different traditions—religious and secular—viewed not as separate one-way streets leading in opposite directions but as going in both directions simultaneously. Kaveny imagines an interaction that may generate an interrelation. Recognizing that U.S. Catholics “cannot stand completely outside” either our national or religious identities, Kaveny seeks to create “some critical distance in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both identities.”
Kaveny recurrently offers ways of seeing complexity where others are reductionist. For example, President Obama stated in 2009 that empathy is a desirable quality in a judge. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, immediately mischaracterized this view as a code word for judicial activism. Kaveny acknowledges that rules are meant to protect the due process value of impartiality for all members of society. Citing her mentor John Noonan—a renowned Republican circuit court judge appointed by President Reagan—she argues that when rules become masks concealing human faces and needs, the application of rules can then be “merciless and inhuman.”
In a chapter on the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial, Kaveny urges President Obama—a Nobel peace laureate—not to be satisfied with Reinhold Niebuhr’s soft critique of U.S. self-righteousness but to be aware that Paul Ramsey demonstrated that “Niebuhr’s framework provided American exceptionalism with its best defense yet.” This counsel applies as well to the extensive use of drones to carry out extrajudicial assassination of suspected terrorists in countries with whom we are not at war and in second strikes to kill first responders to a murder scene or guests at a wedding.
Kaveny also criticizes church leaders. The culture of identity “does not easily accommodate leadership roles for women” in an era in which “women are doctors, lawyers, military leaders, Supreme Court justices, and heads of state.” The crisis of sexual abuse by members of the clergy “eroded the loyalty of lay Catholics...and undermined the church’s moral authority” not only because of grave misconduct by priests, but also because of episcopal cover-up and protection of perpetrators.
A bishop’s excommunication of the president of a Catholic hospital for authorizing “a procedure necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman with severe pulmonary hypertension” is bad canonically, ethically and legally. John Paul II repudiated the bishop’s mistake in his 1992 encyclical “The Splendor of Truth.” If the bishop had his way, “the woman would have been left to die along with the baby—and the hospital would have, and should have lost its license.” Bishops, as well as judges, need empathy, or they will commit merciless and inhuman errors.
In Prophecy Without Contempt, Kaveny seeks “to draw insights from history in order to better understand and critique the current, almost hopelessly polarized state of political discourse in the United States.” She begins the conversation by exploring the distinctive contributions of four major contemporary voices: Alasdair MacIntyre, John Rawls, John Murray Cuddihy and Stephen Carter.
She reports the value of the contribution of these thinkers and encourages religious believers to achieve agreement not by appeal to raw emotion but by inviting rational deliberation about their claims. Kaveny also points out the deficiencies in the writings of Rawls and Cuddihy, arguing that religious discourse is a legitimate mode of deliberation about matters of public concern and that civility does not require a secularist privatization of religion.
Kaveny is a skillful teacher. Where something is well known, she moves swiftly from the familiar to a fresh insight about it. Where her readers might be less aware of something, she lingers longer in the setting or context of her texts. For example, she takes the time to reacquaint us with two biblical prophets—Jeremiah and Jonah—who become paradigms for the political discourse she encourages. Kaveny’s discussion of these prophets, moreover, is enhanced with an impressive awareness of postbiblical—midrashic and talmudic—interpretation.
Kaveny omits consideration of the prophetic actions of Jeremiah, focusing principally on his sermons announcing the imminent doom of Jerusalem. She underscores the prophet’s lament of the fall of the town he loves so well as the key to understanding his task of changing minds and hearts of as many Jerusalemites as will listen to his sermons. Jeremiah thus emerges as a model for us to refrain from contempt for one’s partners in political dialogue.
Kaveny reads the Book of Jonah as a post-exilic example of biblical irony. Jonah is a comic character who leaves Jerusalem to go down to the sea and then down further into the belly of a big fish to flee the unpleasant task of preaching salvation to the classic national foes of Judah. But the fish swims north to spit out the prophet on a beach near Nineveh. There is no escaping God’s call to announce his mercy for all. Jonah thus illustrates the value of relying on irony rather than condemnation to urge one’s views on matters of public import.
Kaveny also offers a close reading of 17th-century Puritan sermons—called jeremiads after the prophet—concluding with the critical insight that this sort of preaching “did not characteristically attack the persons of the audience; it challenged their actions.” In a stroke, Kaveny reframes the debate about U.S. political discourse.
She illustrates recurrent tensions between prophetic denouncers and reflective deliberators on hot but complicated issues as diverse and contentious as slavery and its abolition in the 19th century, or the Vietnam War or abortion and sexual issues in the 20th century, or torture and the indefinite war in which we are now enmeshed in the 21st century. Kaveny mainly contrasts the styles of prophets and deliberators, but she pays grateful homage to her friend John Noonan—whom she served as a judicial clerk—by dedicating this book to him “as a model of both prophetic witness and practical deliberation.”
This happy conjunction raises a question about why Kaveny identifies others in her study, like Daniel and Philip Berrigan, only as prophets and not also as deliberators. Does not the irony of the prophet Jonah extend to using napalm to burn draft cards rather than babies?
Before Nov. 8, the large question before U.S. voters was to select those who represent us in legislatures and executive offices at the local, state and federal levels, and some state judges. As in all such elections, it was important to focus on the prior experience, character and commitments of various candidates for public office. Numerous issues of justice and mercy still deserve our careful attention, diligent efforts to understand, reflective deliberation preceding reasonable judgment and decisive engagement in political action.
The brutal and bruising campaign of 2016 is finally behind us, but Kaveny’s call for a politics infused with vigilance, not vitriol, has by no means outlived its usefulness. Now we must come to terms with the election of a president who has never previously served in public office nor indicated any awareness of the duty of all politicians to seek the common good of all in our republic. Kaveny’s work is all the more relevant as we ponder our responses to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last and most urgent question, “Where do we go from here, chaos or community?” Kaveny does not offer a thin guide to complex issues too often reduced to superficial slogans. She is a Sherpa who can take us to the top of the mountain. If we grasp not only the difference between prophetic witness and practical deliberation, but also their necessary interaction, we may all see things more clearly. And that would be good for our country and for our fragile world.