July 31st, 2005


Theological Notebook: Murray on the Bill of Rights

I continued reading this afternoon/evening, over in the Court of the Fountain, in front of Joan of Arc, mostly in John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, as well as starting to get into Religious Convictions and Political Choice by Kent Greenawalt of the Law School of Columbia University. (I've also been scooting through the slightly more popular The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion by Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter, but I didn't take that one outside. It's also about ten years old at this point, and much more anecdotal, which is interesting just for the variety of illustrations of different points of how these things are playing out in the culture.) Greenawalt I tripped over as one of the lawyers highly involved in the legal aspects of the secularization of the College of New Rochelle in that school's case study in Burtchaell's The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches when I read that last month. He's quite readable here. But it was Murray who grabbed my attention early this evening while the setting sun lit up the roses around the fountain, and the sound of the water competed with the highway and with the band that was playing for the class reunions taking place today. (They just finally stopped blasting the neighbourhood at midnight, ending on a cover of Paul Simon's "Late In The Evening," which would have been totally cool if their horn section had not been falling apart at this point: someone was either blasted or is strangely tone-deaf for a musician.) What got me especially was this passage dealing with one of his more interesting historical points, which was that the principle components of the American Constitution were not derived from the current thought of the 18th-century's "Enlightenment," but from the inherited thought of the medieval legal heritage of England and the Church:
One characteristic of the American Bill of Rights is important for the subject here, namely, the differences that separate it from the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the France of '89. In considerable part the latter was a parchment-child of the Enlightenment, a top-of-the-brain concoction of a set of men who did not understand that a political community, like man himself, has roots in history and in nature. They believed that a state could be simply a work of art, a sort of absolute beginning, an artifact of which abstract human reason could be the sole artisan. Moreover, their exaggerated individualism had shut them off from a view of the organic nature of the human community; their social atomism would permit no institutions or associations intermediate between the individual and the state.

In contrast, the men who framed the American Bill of Rights understood history and tradition, and they understood nature in the light of both. They too were individualists, but not to the point of ignoring the social nature of man. They did their thinking within the tradition of freedom that was their heritage from England. Its roots were not in the top of anyone's brain but in history. Importantly, its roots were in the medieval notion of the homo liber et legalis, the man whose freedom rests on law, whose law was the age-old custom in which the nature of man expressed itself, and whose lawful freedoms were possessed in association with his fellows. The rights for which the colonists contended against the English Crown were basically the rights of Englishmen. And these were substantially the rights written into the Bill of Rights.

Of freedom of religion there will be question later. For the rest, freedom of speech, assembly, association, and petition for the redress of grievances, security of person, home, and property- these were great historical as well as civil and natural rights. So too was the right to trial by jury, and all the procedural rights implied in the Fifth and later in the Fourteenth Amendment provision for "due process of law." The guarantee of these and other rights was new in that it was written, in that it envisioned these rights with an amplitude, and gave them a priority, that had not been known before in history. But the Bill of Rights was an effective instrument for the delimitation of government authority and social power, not because it was written on paper in 1789 or 1791, but because the rights it proclaims had already been engraved by history on the conscience of a people. The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of eighteenth century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law. The "man" whose rights are guaranteed in the face of law and government is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man, who had leamed to know his own personal dignity in the school of Christian faith.

I'm also interested to see--and it's certainly convenient for me making quotes from my current reading--that John Courtney Murray's work is all being put online, along with material from Teilhard de Chardin and Ignatius of Loyola at the library of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Certainly Murray's stuff is not in the public domain yet, so it's cool of the Jesuits to have made this choice. The buzz I've heard lately in the academic community is one of a resurgence in regard for his work and its continued challenge, applicability and value. While he's always regarded as the great genius behind Vatican II's declaration on religious freedom--the distinct American contribution to the Second Vatican Council--the rest of his work seemed to have been neglected for a while. I have to say that for myself, I'm beginning to see why he was and is so highly regarded. (And why my dissertation director keeps a framed portrait of him on his otherwise-buried desk.)

Random: A New Planet Around Sol?

This time-lapse image, provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of a newfound planet in our solar system, called 2003UB313, was taken on Oct. 21, 2003, using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif. The planet, circled, is seen moving across a field of stars. The three images were taken about 90 minutes apart. Scientists did not discover the planet until Jan. 8, 2005. (AP Photo/NASA/Samuel Oschin Telescope, Palomar Observatory)

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All right reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Still, I've been under the impression that we've had 10 planets all this time: that we've known the misnamed Moon wasn't a moon for decades now, and was a planet in a double-planet system with the Earth. I imagine that Official Astronomy might just not want to confuse people. But the thing doesn't orbit the Earth....

Theological Notebook: Von Balthasar on Prayer

On the Memorial of Ignatius of Loyola (a fairly big deal here at Marquette)...
There was a really interesting set of articles on Hans Urs von Balthasar in this week's America. Over breakfast today, I was reading one called "The Witness of Balthasar" which was written by Edward T. Oakes, SJ, a Von Balthasar scholar down south of me in Illinois. The opening of the article struck me as a particularly good treatment of how useful Von Balthasar can be in taking theology into spirituality.
Because I have spent much of my life trying to convey Balthasar’s massive achievement through translations, essays and monographs, I am often asked what first drew me to his theology. Actually, it was rather accidental. I had entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1966 and came across a book by him titled simply Prayer. The first paragraph showed me that here was a writer who got down to business right away. The opening lines struck me as so relevant to my own experiences in prayer (or rather lack of them) that their author captivated me from the start. Here is how the passage begins:
Prayer is something more than an exterior act performed out of a sense of duty, an act in which we tell God various things he already knows; a kind of daily attendance in the presence of the Sovereign who awaits, morning and evening, the submission of his subjects. Even though Christians find, to their pain and sorrow, that their prayer never rises above this level, they know well enough that it should be something more. Somewhere, here, there, is a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up—a seed that has the power to grow into a mighty tree bearing abundant flowers and fruits, if only I had the will to plant and cultivate it.
Ah yes, I said, that’s me! Rote prayer I knew well enough from my Catholic upbringing, but when I entered the novitiate I thought there should be something more. Yet here I was, trying to pray one hour in the morning and a half-hour in the afternoon, but I was apparently still the same religious automaton I had always been. Balthasar seemed to know just what I was feeling: Christians, he said, often feel like a foreigner forced to speak in a language whose rules they have never learned, or a stuttering child who wants to say something but cannot.

Still, how was Balthasar going to solve the problem he had so accurately diagnosed? Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the problem resolved not just over the course of the whole book but in the very next paragraph! The point of prayer, Balthasar said, is not to learn some new way of speaking, a task as arduous as memorizing French irregular verbs. No, prayer is first an act in which we learn, in his words, that “our halting utterance to God is but an answer to God’s speech to us.”

This might sound all well and good, but how is one to pray in a language God has spoken, when one’s very aridity in prayer makes God seem so silent? Again, the answer was not slow in coming: “Just consider a moment: is not the Our Father, by which we address him each day, his own word? Was it not given to us by the Son of God, himself God and the Word of God? Could any man by himself have discovered such language? Did not the Hail Mary come from the mouth of the angel, spoken, then, in the speech of heaven; and what Elizabeth, ‘filled with the Spirit,’ added, was that not a response to the first meeting with the incarnate God?”

Among other things, this passage explained to me why the Rosary is so popular. For it is almost entirely composed of these God-given prayers to help us in our need. Why worry about aridity or “experience” when we can resort to the Rosary when contemplative prayer seems to fail? Of course, Balthasar did bluntly assert in the first paragraph that prayer is something more than stereotyped formulas, and the Rosary is often considered to fall into just that formulaic rut. But as the book progressed, Balthasar explained that by interiorizing the Our Father and Hail Mary, one gradually learns to make use of the key privilege of prayer, what the New Testament calls parresia.

This term is usually translated “frankness” or “free speech.” But because of habits learned from a typically American devotion to the First Amendment, “free speech” does not really get at what the Greek term meant to the New Testament writers. Rather, true intimacy with God means we can be free to say whatever is on our minds. The Psalmist provides an admirable example of such bluntness; he feels no compunction about expressing his bitterness, sense of persecution, laments, sufferings, sicknesses and so forth. In other words, all inner movements of the soul are appropriate to bring before God—and that is true freedom.

Theological Notebook: More Follow-Up to Schönborn's Article

This material is taken from John Allen's column and additions to it that he posted and that I referenced last week. I wanted to toss all this in my journal for future reference. I include the following three items:
1) Allen's full interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president for the past 12 years of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. A 78-member panel of distinguished scientists from around the world, the academy advises the pope on scientific matters. It's descended from the "Academy of the Lynxes," founded in 1603, making it the oldest scientific academy in the world.

2) Allen's full follow-up article on the affair entitled, "Catholic experts urge caution in evolution debate: Scientists, theologians take issue with Schönborn's op-ed article"

3) An excerpt Allen included from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission document, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” on the mechanisms of evolution. The ITC is the Pope's advisory commission of theologians.

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