Like Nathan, I’m also curious what the next encyclical will have to say… Undoubtedly it’ll make some demands for a return to a more moral economy, but I’ll be curious if the Church’s longstanding interest in subsidiarity and community translates into a more explicit localism or if the spatial side of things won’t enter into it much. My guess is not, but we’ll have to wait and see.

On that note, America has a piece up this morning about the end of consumerism and Catholic political life.  Some of it’s policy prescriptions sound rather 1972 (full employment? srsly?) but at least its a start in the right direction, particularly on connecting the excesses of consumerism with environmental destruction.  Nonetheless, this part gave me pause:

7. The church and subsidiarity. A principal objective of publicly proclaimed laws and regulations is to stigmatize certain types of behavior and to reward other types, thereby influencing individual values and behavior codes. Aristotle understood this: “Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating habits in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure. It is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.” While families, peer groups, churches and schools play the most important role in shaping behavior and inculcating values, public laws have a role to play as well. While civil law, for example, cannot make people stop holding racist beliefs, it can stop them from engaging in certain types of racist behavior. Over time that behavior (refusing service in a restaurant, for example) becomes delegitimized in public opinion.

Though this certainly isn’t my area of expertise, I think this does abuse to both subsidiarity and Aristotelian constitutionalism.  In Aristotle’s case, the task of cultivating good behavior is directly tied to the polis‘s immediacy. To quote from Barker’s introduction to the Politics,

It [the polis] is a small and intimate society: it is a church as well as a state: it makes no distinction between the province of the state and hat of society; it is, in a word, an integrated system of social ethics, which realizes to the full the capacity of its members and therefore claims their full allegiance. A limit of size is imposed upon it by its very nature and purpose; being a church and a system of social ethics, it cannot be a Babylon.

Clearly these are not the conditions under which we live; the functions of church, state, city, and locality are divided for us along completely different lines, and so the state’s attempts to establish mores (either left or right) does not posses the intimacy necessary to shape the character of the people. It can, and should, protect the rights of individuals to be free of undue persecution, but without the support from those other pillars of civic life, the outcome will not be the better public character: it will be culture war.

Now this shouldn’t turn us away from trying to address questions of civic character; it merely means that they must be addressed at whatever level best approximates the dynamics of the polis, specifically, at the level of the town, the church, and the neighborhood. This is why the biggest flaw in Wilbur’s policy outline, and in the Vatican’s current stance, is the lack of a fully articulated localism which recognizes that the polis, and the law, requires more than the institution of the state, more even than the legal recognition of groups in abstract: it requires that our ways of life be actually intertwined with those of others, something possible only when our commitment to place and community is central to our outlook.


One of the more interesting consequences of our current way of life, with all its demographic segmentation, extreme specialization, and multi-faceted culture, is the curious role imagination plays in our daily lives.  For some, imagination has become a daily undertaking, required by a job or needed for recreation, while for others, it remains at the borders of experience, understood vaguely and utilized only implicitly. However, despite the many different uses to which it is put, the function of imagination is now universally explicated as creative work, as being always an act of creation, related to things created and sometimes consumed, of something whose output is always put away or brought to oneself.  Our imagination has become technological in the Heideggerian sense: we conceive of our imagining as a dispensing of forces in concrete directions, to be picked up or not picked up or not elsewhere in the system. And following Heidegger’s thinking, if human imagination is part of the standing reserve, then it falls under the control of modern reason, which as we all know leads to problems.

Of course, there are alternatives to this way of thinking and understanding, a fact which underpinned much of Heidegger’s later work and that becomes only more pertinent the longer the machine age persists. The operative question is where and how thinking can be without being technological. One option involves a reclamation of Greek thought and a renewed appreciation for the role of the poetic in bringing us closer to truth. This was Heidegger’s preferred route. Another option, explored by many going back at least to John Ruskin and extending all the way up to the liturgical movement, was a reclamation of the middle ages as an escape from technological enframing; in Gothic architecture and medieval economics they found an alternative to the atomization of life and culture inaugurated by industrialization. One could find oneself, wholly in a Cathedral, or in the labor of the medieval peasant, not as number but as a person.

And just as with thinking, so with imagination. At least, this was what I found myself thinking after looking through Brother  Lawrence Lew’s piece on Gothic architecture. Though the classic in this case remains Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, Lew’s essay is a good further take on it with an eye to how Thomism underpins the Gothic era’s aesthetic sensibilities:

This is to say that the symbol – and in this case we mean the Gothic cathedral – is not just an earthly reminder or signpost of heavenly realities, but rather it is the ‘en-fleshing’ in worldly matter of heavenly realities. As in the Incarnation the eternal Word communicated with humankind in the flesh, so God continues to communicate his truth to us through material signs and visible means. For, Von Simson argues, the medievals understood that “the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol… symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality”. This metaphysical sensitivity characterizes the medieval artistic vision, so that the Gothic cathedral is not to be primarily understood in functional or socio-economic or aesthetic terms, but in metaphysical and theological terms, and one has to ask what truth the cathedral symbolizes; how does God communicate with us in its beauty and form? Hence, Von Simson says, “the medieval artist was committed to a truth that transcended human existence. Those who looked at his work judged it as an image of that truth”.

This is definitely true. Architecture can be instruction, and it can symbolize the relationships that structure the cosmos, and it can stand halfway between heaven and earth, a literal embodiment of the world it belongs to. But it strikes me that the key point is that each of these functions is possible only if imagination is not merely productive of things but constitutive of a world. Encountered at the base material level, the Cathedral is nothing but glass, wood, and stone. Even with some education, we may see it as a collection of stories and pictures, but in order to truly understand it, to be in it, we must invoke imagination; we must reach beyond the parts and encounter the thing in the fullness of its background, where the unseen is wedded to the seen. This interweaving requires a way of thinking and being which is expressly not technological; we find the thing (the cathedral) in the place that it finds itself, and to understand it is not to understand its use, but to imagine (and thus find) the world it expresses.

One of the few  truly great church services I have ever attended was at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a huge building that overlooks the valley where downtown is nestled.  It was a hot afternoon in late August, and I wandered in on it purely by chance. The Cathedral was all but empty except for a few people scattered here and there and the voice of the priest speaking out into the echoing silence overhead. The sense of something greater was absolutely overwhelming; I remember wondering how much more powerful the place must have been a century ago, when the city hadn’t yet covered the horizon and the languages were still foreign. It was still pretty powerful as it stands, and the sense of humility and awe it imposed on me was remarkable. But most of all, it seized the imagination, and forced me to awareness that I was surrounded by a web of meaning that led beyond myself, up into the darkened corners of the building, out to the edges of belief and the known.  Of course, what I’m calling imagination here might also be called faith, in a broad sense. But faith, like doubt, has objects: non-technological imagination has no particular object. It predates the object and shapes its appearance when it arises. And its something we would do well to reclaim, regardess of our attitude towards faith.

David Brooks sees a problem in the GOP’s obsession with cowboys. Namely, that cowboys need towns to have a story, and the GOP doesn’t really have any concrete policy points for the town (and city!) crowd:

If the Republicans are going to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.

Then they will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded.

Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party. The Republicans know they need to change but seem almost imprisoned by old themes that no longer resonate. The answer is to be found in devotion to community and order, and in the bonds that built the nation.

To me, the operative question, as Brooks mentions, is that the Right does not understand the communities of cities in the way it intuitively understands the communities of small towns, and thus is lost when it comes to civic virtue.  The city through their lens is contradictory and largely negative: its a place for the thriving of free-enterprise, a place riven with contradictions arising largely from government failures to encourage the markets, a place incapable of becoming the Real America because it is so dominated by cowboys and bureaucrats and so lacking in real people,  a place where ethnicity plays a constant role and where communities are innately in flux.  What they fail to see, by and large, is that cities have much more diffuse but equally present communities which can be quite strong, which often can be augmented by good policy decisions, and which can be a foundation for the stability the country needs.

Now all of this wasn’t a problem for the GOP so long as their electorate was distributed between small towns and suburbs in the West and Midwest, huge swaths of the South, and enough of the coasts’ urban areas. But as the country becomes more urban, more racially diverse, and more divided by class contradictions, the GOP will have to come up with some way to speak to precisely the groups Brooks lists, the young, the middle class, and the upper middle-class, all of whom are increasingly concentrating in urban areas. As much as the branding problem Brooks points to is about personality, it is also about location: Obama is fully comfortable in the urban milieu, and can speak the language of that milieu far better than any major Republican figure, especially the likes of Sarah Palin or even John McCain.

And I think that may be the ultimate test for the Republican part in the coming years: whether or not it can get past the language of the cowboy, and even the townsfolk, and learn to speak in the language of the neighborhood.