“Dignity” as dangerous? Alasdair MacIntyre and “The Power of the Catholic Intellectual Ecosystem” | Catholic National Register
Why should an ordinary Catholic care about what happens at a muckety-muck college conference?
That’s a good question, and I think it’s a question more than a few Catholics have asked when they discovered the cover of Alasdair MacIntyre’s provocative speech at the annual “fall conference” hosted by the DeNicola Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame, an event I affectionately described as a ‘graduation party’, with more academics in slings than one can tell (to be completely frank, I once wore a collared sweater rolled cappuccino color).
To review: The theme of this year’s conference was “Human Dignity in the Secular Age”, the collective goal of the various keynote speeches and article presentations to articulate not only the conceptual foundations of “human dignity”, but also its practical implications in a variety of contexts, from writing and education to medicine and the legal system.
But MacIntyre – or “Big Mac” as some call it, a nod to the 92-year-old status as arguably the most important living Catholic philosopher – had something else in mind. In the article he presented, âHuman Dignity: A Confusing and Potentially Dangerous Idea? MacIntyre questioned the very concept of “human dignity”, or at least our contemporary use of it, which serves as the basis for Catholic political engagement today. In his opinion, this version of “dignity” is a meaningless word. It was introduced into the post-war lexicon as a convenient term that could be contrasted with the atrocities of the Nazi regime while still being vague enough that parties with deeply divergent worldviews could come to an understanding during this period. the drafting of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As such, to be for dignity is simply to be versus certain evils committed against human beings.
The problem? According to MacIntyre, this version of dignity is too âminimalâ, a predominantly ânegativeâ precept that reduces our sense of political duty to simply preventing social evils. According to the philosopher, dignity replaced the more substantial and positive concept of Justice, as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas as the basis of a Catholic approach to the organization of society. Justice demands much more than dignity because it emphasizes the proactive role that society must play in ensuring that each person has access to the goods necessary to achieve their ultimate end as a rational creature – knowledge and love of God. MacIntyre made this point by emphasizing slavery and abortion. Dignity can tell you that both practices are wrong and must be avoided, but justice demands that the material needs of former slaves and vulnerable mothers and children be met.
But the question remains: if you are not a philosopher or a theologian, why should you care what MacIntyre said? Why is this important? Why is it worth attracting the attention of readers of the Catholic National Register what did an old Scottish philosopher have to say to a room full of academics in tweed?
I have two reasons, one more catechetical, the other more practical.
The catechetical answer is quite basic. As Catholics we follow God, who is the very truth. We should be open to discovery and living according to the Truth wherever we find it, including at a philosophy conference. This does not mean that we have to become experts on all subjects under the sun; but it just as strongly demands that we not dismiss philosophical claims as “irrelevant” or out of touch with real life, which reveals a dangerous pseudo-materialist perspective. Instead, our first question should be whether they are true or not. If MacIntyre’s assertions about how we should order political life are true, we need to be careful and discern how to live accordingly.
But the more “practical” answer is that, whether MacIntyre’s opinion is correct or not, there is good reason to believe that it will have ramifications on the ground for the way Catholics live in America in the United States. generations to come.
Why? In part because MacIntyre is extremely influential in the Catholic intellectual world. There is something of a mystical aura about the moral philosopher, and his profound talent for questioning the basis of much of our ordinary moral language and practices has the capacity to turn the world upside down. Read his seminal After virtue is still considered a rite of passage among educated Catholics, a prerequisite for taking part in the ongoing conversation about Catholic social ethics and its relationship to the modern liberal nation-state. (Important note: “liberal” here refers to the broad political perspective that society should be primarily oriented towards promoting individual freedom. Thus, in America, “conservatives” and “liberals” are generally liberal.) His annual CEC conference address – which, as far as I know, is the only public speaking he does these days – is by far the busiest event over the entire three days, something like the masses going to hear what the oracle might have to say.
If you want further proof of MacIntyre’s influence and the wider impact of what he said, just consider the responses his speech generated in the Catholic intellectual sphere over the past week. Catholics who criticize America’s political foundation of pluralist liberalism were eager to highlight MacIntyre’s speech and relate it to their own arguments: AUC theologian Chad Pecknold, for example, used the speech to claim that a society without civic religion loses its basis and its coherence. . The website Ius and Iustitium began with MacIntyre as the basis for arguing that the articulations of human rights should be replaced by jurisprudence, “the science of saying what is owed to each person in a particular case”. And Pat Smith took the opportunity to gloat a little, facetious tweeter that he “went around the right-wing liberals jostled [conservatives who embrace political liberalism] after Big Mac’s speech and giving them copies of Grenier on the Objective Right.
These same right-wing liberals (or at least those who were less keen on abandoning the liberal order), however, were also quick to engage with MacIntyre’s speech, but, in their case, to downplay or not. not agree. In a long Twitter thread, political scientist Jason Blakely, a member of the Nova Forum for Catholic Thought, criticized what he called “tendency to reduce hermeneutical complexity to polemical caricature.Roberto De La Noval, a theologian who teaches at Notre-Dame, said the speech was “quite disturbing” and “failed to reflect anything specifically Christian”. And Ave Maria political scientist James Patterson recently published a response to MacIntyre and Pecknold titled “Doing Justice to Human Dignity.”
These various responses to MacIntyre’s speech differed, but they were all united in the fact that they recognized that what the philosopher was saying had to be engaged, as this has the potential to shape the way Catholics engaged in these kinds of questions think. to their responses.
However, you might point out, we are still only in the realm of Catholic intellectuals and academics. How does what they think about seemingly esoteric topics like the conceptual foundation of political life impact the rest of us?
To which I would respond – how any other idea that is gaining traction in academia could possibly affect us. Many Catholics can see how the thought of academics like Marx or Locke, or more recently critical race theorists, ends up shaping our institutions and discourse on a very practical, everyday level. But the same kind of thing is happening in the Catholic world. In fact, a Protestant author has just described it as “the power of the Catholic intellectual ecosystem,” the process by which ideas are brought in from Catholic academia to more popular levels, such as the seminary, the apostolate or the church. publishing house, and finally at the level of the Catholic school, the parish and the family. It’s not some kind of scary plot. It seems like a pretty natural way that high level thinking spills over into everyday life.
And in fact, when it comes to Catholic critiques of liberalism, there is good reason to believe that these ideas are already gaining ground. This is in part due to the vacuum created by the weakening of the national and secular “government consensus” of American politics. The weakening of the liberal order allowed Catholic critics of American liberalism – which have always existed – to assert themselves with renewed vigor and confidence. âIs America a tyranny? Is the theme of an upcoming conference organized by the Catholic outfit based in Steubenville, Ohio, New policy. Some of the main conservative Catholic âilliberalsâ – Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law, Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas and the aforementioned Pecknold – recently launched their own platform, The Postliberal Order. These efforts are increasingly better organized and visible.
And these ideas and events are already topics of conversation among young Catholic intellectuals. When I was at Notre Dame for the conference, I spoke with the editors of the Irish rover, an independent Catholic student newspaper. Each of them was well acquainted with the particular ins and outs of the current debates between the so-called fundamentalist Catholics and the so-called liberal right-wing Catholics. To be sure, fundamentalists are a small faction, and they are certainly not the only option for a post-liberal Catholic; but they are loud and know how to draw attention to themselves and their ideas.
As a result, I hear from friends across the country that Catholic critiques of liberalism have never been more widely discussed among young Catholics, both among Catholic college undergraduates, but also among members. from Capitol Hill staff. The question these young people ask themselves is not “How can I be a good Catholic in a pluralistic liberal society?” ” corn “Can Am I a good Catholic in a liberal pluralist society? And if not, what are the alternatives?
Remember, I’m not saying MacIntyre’s critique of dignity-based politics – and the broader Catholic critique of broader political liberalism – is correct. I’m not sure what I think about all of this. I simply point out that this speech is important and that it will – in fact, already is – coming out of Catholic academia and into more popular levels of the Catholic world, shaping the perspectives of people who will advise our bishops, teach in our schools and write in our journals.
To answer my original question, I guess an ordinary Catholic doesn’t need to worry much about what happened at the Ethics and Culture conference in Notre Dame. Just know that MacIntyre’s speech, and the broader conversation about Catholicism and liberalism, will and have real-life consequences, and shape how present and future generations become Catholics in America.