This Week Online: Mary Gordon Podcast and The Politics of Get-Off-My-Back

This week's podcast features an interview with the novelist and essayist Mary Gordon. Gordon's new book, Reading Jesus, began as an effort to understand Christian fundamentalism by looking at the primary sources of the Christian tradition. As she examined Jesus' life and work, she discovered that she did not always agree with Jesus's teachings. Yet she did not find her faith undermined by these disagreements, and instead came to a richer if more complicated understanding of what it means to be a believer.

Listen to assistant editor Kerry Weber's interview with Mary Gordon.


Thomas A. Shannon's essay in the May 31 issue considers the role of the moral theologian. Back in 1995, he looked at the American political scene in the early day's of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." Shannon offered a fuller notion of the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, which, both then and now, is often used as an argument in favor of smaller government:

But the principle of subsidiarity has its flip side: as big as necessary or appropriate. This is the dimension of subsidiarity we are in danger of forgetting. For while we should not do for others what they should rightly do for themselves, neither should we require them to do what they cannot or should not do for themselves. The virulent anti-government rhetoric of the current Congress, the talk shows and other electronic media suggest that each individual can do it all on his or her own: No instructions needed; Pull yourself up by the bootstraps; I made it by myself; Government destroys initiative; Government destroys freedom. Such rhetoric goes beyond standard liberal cries for autonomy and traditional libertarian celebrations of the rugged individual. Witness Presidential candidate Lamar Alexander's pledge to dismantle the Federal Government and make Congress part-time. Such anti-government, anti-insider sentiments are only the latest extreme in a season of extremes.

Tim Reidy

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8 years ago
"But the principle of subsidiarity has its flip side: as big as necessary or appropriate."
The problem with this maxim is that there is soon to be nothing that is considered small enough for individual communities to handle on via their own initiative.  This is the self fulfilling prophecy of liberal goverance in the modern age of the atomized individual.
The problem is also that both the left and right consider only the centralized polity or the individual - there is something else - the COMMUNITY!
As Catholics we should know this!  And stop falling back on individualism to justify big government or the "free" market.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
I don't share Brett's take on the development of modern liberalism, e.g., the Progressive Movement embraced both a more active government as a reflection of efficiency and to check the undemocratic nature of big business.  But it also placed an important value on Community and republicanism/citizenship (think Jane Addams & Hull House).
8 years ago
I don't think volunteerism is the same thing as community - and it is certain that the highest political good in our liberal culture and government is the pursuit of individual liberty. 
All limits (social or economic) are destroyed in the race for "liberty."
As Rene Girard says, "individualism is a formitable lie."
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years ago
Or why is Rene Girard quoted?
Is it assumed that those of us who appreciate the social justice message of the Gospel are somehow, individualists?
8 years ago
Make that "formidable" ;)
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
I'll let others jump in on this but I'm not certain how or why Brett mentions "volunteerism" (I didn't mention it in my post). Ditto for "individual liberty" and "individualism." Are you rejecting all of them?
As for liberty, that is a capacious term but one that 18th century republicans (and 19th century artisan republicans) used freely.
8 years ago
Why the Rene Girard quote?  Why not - have you read any of his stuff?  If you think that abstracted individualism is not the driving force of modern liberal politics and free market economic then you are very mistaken.
When you divorce the "social justice" (correctly called, the common good) from the truth and social prohibitions of the Gospels you denude it of its meaning and can use it for purely political or partsian ends.
Finally, in regards to Tim Reidy's post - the idea the subsidiarity be reduced and government power expanded due to our increasingly atomized society is absurd.  The increased power of the government and markets have caused this atomization - so to say that this problem can be addressed by more centralized power is really a bit much - but that is the logic presented.
To cite another Catholic political philosopher, Tocqueville predicted that the rise of the "vast tutelary State" would come about as the result of ever-greater individualism, not political philosophies of collectivism.
So there is a connection between our private, liberal individualization (destruction of family, sexual morals and religion) and our political collectivization of power and current corporatism...
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years ago
Brett, I am familiar with the Scapegoat theory of Rene Girard through Gil Bailie's writings, especially the book, "Violence Unveiled".  I never would have associated him with abstract individualism.
What confuses me about your arguments is your assumption that liberal politics embraces individualism, the right of the individual to do whatever s/he wants and to get as rich as s/he wants.  Sort of a la Ayn Rand.  Yet, you seem to be arguing FOR a more community based society, where people take care of each other - some might call this socialism or communitarianism - and that is more the agenda of the political left than the right.
If you listened to the podcast  of the interview with Mary Gordon, you would have heard that Jesus said nothing about abortion, birth control, or any of the sexual issues.  What are the social prohibitions of the Gospels that you refer to?
I agree with you that the corporations are way too big and powerful, but how do you propose to dismantle that monster without government regulation?
8 years ago
Hi Beth,
The quote is from his newest book, "Battling to the End" but most books are about the idea of memetic desire - where an individual feels that they are self-sufficient / separated from communion with the group.  This results in pride but it also bring self-loathing due to the persistence of fragments of divine in others around them which they try (but cannot) obtain from themselves.  It is complicated - here is a good interview done recently:
As for left vs. right for community issues - each have a part of the picture, but not the whole.  Each are libertarian at heart with the left representing social/sexual libertarians and the right representing economic libertarians.
Both wish to destroy any limits to human behavor - whether economic or social.  I would say a better picture is provided by the localists or distributists such as Chesterton or, a more modern, Wendell Berry.  It would be tough to do - but we will not matter what as our current course only leads to collapse.
Christ did not need to cover every topic in ethics because it was already established in the Jewish law - laws he came to enforce, not destroy, as he famously declares.  "Thou shall not kill" directly addresses the issue of abortion and homosexuality is obviously covered in laws against sexual license.
Both left and right of our nation hate, hate, hate the idea of limits of human freedom.  But obedience to God requires them - either that or suffer the fate (both now in terms of social collapse and in the afterlife) of our unrestrained hubris...
Pearce Shea
8 years ago
Beth, you are arguing with something like a "postmodern conservative" which, in their most recent veins are often very communitarian-oriented. I think MacIntyre, though certainly not a fan of postmodern-leaning philosophy, is a "conservative communitarian."
I think what Brett is trying to say is that liberal politics embraces a worldview in which a person ought to be able to do all things, or, at least, most things. This includes things which are traditionally unacceptable (a man marry a man) as well as biologically impossible (a man become a woman, say). Liberal politicians see government as a potentially palliative force among an oppressive nature and society. Liberal politics seeks to free the world from itself. In this critique, liberalism celebrates an individual that, like Rorhty's ironic liberal, is self-centered, self-celebratory, and parasitic (Girard would say that this individualism is mimetic, self-delusion, and parasitic). What the individual sacrifices is (a) any sense of local community for an atomized sense of self among a vague, broad, meaningless society and (b) a large portion of their income and what they gain is a state that handles that protects their ability to be whatever they want to be (this is all me trying to paraphrase here and parse out a statement from references to Girard and Toqueville) 
The issue here, I think, is that this sort of talk is so far afield of the broader perceptions of political left and right that it is hard to classify. I do think it gets one thing right, and that is that liberalism does seem to increasingly emphasize the rights of the atomized individual, the rights of each repressed, increasingly small cohort, to the point of absurdity. This is what happens to the left when interest groups run the show (not that things are better on the other side of the spectrum in the same situation).
In re: how to break up monopolies and large companies in the communitarian sort of society envisioned? I think that Brett might respond that, in his ideal world, things are structured in such a way that "big" societal or economic projects are literally practical impossibilities. Keep everything small enough and there is nowhere for a company to grow too big. If things seem to grow too large anyway, trim it away. A government need not be big to have a strong executive. Jefferson carved the national budget to ribbons and obliterated the debt. Not that this was necessarily the best thing, but it's not to say it can't be done without a "big government." How everything is to be kept small is a more tricky issue. Probably with a delicate alliance which occasionally collapses into violence and chaos. 
The bone that this liberal politics has to pick with Catholicism should be obvious because not only is the state in direct opposition with any organized religion insfoar as they both struggle for the same marketshare (and the more organized the religion, the worse the struggle) but also because the central philosophies run crosswise: in one, we must give of ourselves to help our neighbors and the other, we must give of ourselves so that we never need worry about helping our neighbors. Again, not my personal philosophy, but one that should be pretty comfortable alongside what Brett seems to be espousing.
8 years ago
Thanks, Peter.  That was a very good summary/explaination on the points I was working at.
I am not a policy wonk, so I do not know how a more humane economy and society would come about; however, I do think local and/or federal governments could have play a role with the family/faith/community promoting legislation.
Why should they not favor this traditional building blocks of a good society?  (money and centralized power, would be two good candidates)
As MacIntyre said in After Virture, it is time for a new Benedict (and we seem to already have one...)
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
This sounds a lot like 18th century republicanism-but that put citizenship as being the most important aspect of an individual's life (something that hasn't been mentioned here).


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