Unprincipled Burkeanism

Socially conservative blogs are a pretty diverse lot, consisting of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, whites, blacks, professors, housewives, neo-Thomists, Straussians  . . . But one influence they all seem to share, to some extent at least, is Edmund Burke. Burke’s scathing Reflections on the Revolution in France argued in favor of authority, faith, and tradition against “the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason” (54). Tradition, in his view, reflects the pooled wisdom of many generations, and hence it is greater than anything that could be designed by a single intellect or even by a single generation.

The problem with Burkeanism is that it can easily be perverted to mean “there are no truths outside of social convention;” or, perhaps more charitably, “there is a natural basis for philosophical truth, but it can only be approached through social convention.” This is not an outcome that Burke himself intended. He was a committed Christian, and as such, he recognized a transcendant standard by which we can judge society: the Bible and the Church that Jesus Christ founded. In Burke’s philosophy, there are limits to what we owe to the world, for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) when the two conflict. Burkeanism, therefore, does not hold that all traditional practices–including slavery or infant exposure–are right, but rather that we should keep most traditions and discard the unjust ones (though the burden of proof for what constitutes an “unjust tradition” is on those seeking change).

I am not sure all Burkeans understand this distinction. A commenter posted a link on my blog condemning interracial marriage–which I would usually ignore, but it happens to be an attitude I’ve seen on some other socially conservative blogs (though thankfully it is a minority view). I suppose their thinking goes: Tradition is good; most cultures have traditions prohibiting interracial marriage; therefore, this tradition must somehow be good.

I can’t understand how a Christian, Burkean or not, could hold such a view. The Bible not only doesn’t forbid interracial marriage, but such a prohibition seems anathema to its universal call to salvation. Jesus Christ instructs us to “go, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28: 19). God’s decrees are no longer restricted to one nation, but instead bring Jew and Gentile alike into the body of Christ. Perhaps Christians who oppose interracial marriage think that Jesus calls all races to be brothers in Christ, but that such Christian love does not require that we accept marital love between the races. However, given the care with which St. Paul wrote of marriage–recommending against “interfaith” marriage, for instance, and establishing male headship–it seems that he would have mentioned interracial marriage if there were any moral problems with it. Even in the Old Testament, in which God shows special love and favor to the nation of Israel, marriages sometimes take place between Jews and people of other nations: Ruth, Rahab, Esther.

One might argue that, by undermining natural categories, proponents of interracial marriage display the same logic used to justify same-sex marriage. But the comparison is a specious one, because the natural basis for racial difference is more ambiguous than that for sexual difference. Sexual difference corresponds to an obvious difference in function as well as genotypical and phenotypical differences. Two men who marry are sterile, but an opposite-sex Jew and Gentile who marry are obviously not.

“But,” say some social conservatives, “we have to reconcile ourselves to the realities of our fallen world! People are naturally disposed to racial prejudice, so we must accept these dispositions, perhaps try to mitigate them slightly, but should never force a totalitarian transformation of human nature.” I am sympathetic to human limitations, and I think it is natural for us creatures to be more attached to our families, our communities, and our religious groups than to a cosmopolitan “human community” (though we obviously do have obligations to the human community too). But, in this day and age, those local communities are racially diverse. There is no reason why duties to one’s own have to be constituted along racial lines.

I do grant that there may be pragmatic reasons that recommend against interracial marriage, such as the difficulty in navigating profound cultural differences in a marriage, or the desire to preserve a small and vanishing ethnic group. The link posted in the comments also claimed that it is healthier to mate with someone genetically similar to you (though that seems counterintuitive to me, since that would be an argument in favor of incest). But sometimes there are stronger pragmatic reasons in  favor of interracial marriage. Have you looked at white people lately? A traditionally-minded white Catholic would probably sympathize better with a black, Latino, or Filipino Catholic than with the typical white American. Non-European peoples are doing a better job of safeguarding the Western Christian heritage than we are. But this is really beside the point, because pragmatic arguments against interracial marriage do not rise to the level of moral arguments.

In short, I’m a bit astonished that this is even a debate among Christians.  We are called to love each human being as God does–something which I often (well, usually) fail to do, but which isn’t exactly helped by separatist ideologies.


Sigrid Undset on Religion and Politics

Sigrid Undset is best known for Kristin Lavransdatter, which is weighty and detailed enough to serve as a life’s work.  But she also wrote more novels—most notably the Master of Hestviken tetralogy–and several hagiographies.

Her biography of Catherine of Siena is well worth reading.  Consider this quote, which argues that we need to understand the nature and teleology of man before we can decide what his rights or form of government must be:

The artificial division of religion and politics did not exist for the people of the Middle Ages.  If they thought over the matter at all, they were completely aware that all the problems concerning the community—good or bad government, the welfare or misery of the people—are in the final instance religious problems.  The fundamental question is, What do we believe a man to be?  What is it he needs, first and foremost, so that he may be in a position to attain all his secondary needs—peace, justice, security, satisfactory relationships with his fellow men?(Sigrid Unset, Catherine of Siena, 127)

Fat Tuesday . . . and Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday . . .

It’s Fat Tuesday. My Facebook friends, who normally heap vituperation on the Catholic Church for its silly old rules about chastity and self-denial, are now posting ecstatic updates about paczki and Mardi Gras parades.

I’m not offended–after all, the day of feasting before Lent is a custom, not an official part of the Catholic liturgical calendar, so it’s not like they’re appropriating our sacred rituals for their own amusement. (Though they do that, too). But I do wonder if they’re nonetheless paying an unintentional tribute to Catholicism.

After all, paczki don’t make much sense in the philosophy of modern hedonism. Why get excited about them unless you’re going to fast for the next 40 days? It’s true that they’re only “seasonally available,” but such periodic availablity, unless subject to genuine environmental or religious limitations, is instead subject to corporate marketing schemes, like McDonalds varying the availability of the McRib.

I think people get excited about these vestigial and supposedly neutral bits of Christianity because they realize that the struggle of self-denial, the cyclical interplay between feast and fast, makes the world a more dramatic place.

Of course, Epicureans understand that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and hence promote moderation for the sake of preserving pleasure (not to mention health). But that’s so banal. It’s the difference between two lovers kept apart by fate versus two lovers who voluntarily limit the time spent together in an effort to keep their relationship interesting. Such strategic manipulation might work but has little mystery or awe attending it.


Attachment Parenting and the Catholic Mother

Many Catholics believe that attachment parenting (AP) is the only parenting style compatible with Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Answers message board for parents is rife with accusations that sleep training and spanking constitute child abuse. Many Catholics also claim that non-AP methods are based in Calvinist views of children as naturally depraved.

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Insisting that AP is inherently Catholic is an odd claim–after all, it’s hardly in the Catechism.  Yes, Dr. Sears and his wife are Catholic, and have successfully reared eight children under this method. But AP as a coherent philosophy is only as old as the 1980s. (AP proponents claim that it’s the oldest parenting style on the planet, but their anthropological research appears faulty).  The AP philosophy can only be partially supported by Scripture: while the Bible repeatedly mentions breastfeeding, it offers little support for co-sleeping (the Virgin Mary laid Jesus in a manger, not in bed with her) or for a fanatical anti-spanking attitude (see Proverbs 13:24).

In my discussions with Catholics raised before Vatican II, I’ve gathered that, in the days of yore, Catholic parents didn’t attend to their babies’ every cry; that they liberally applied the belt once the children got old enough to be disciplined; that they sent their kids to Catholic school (nary a homeschooling group in sight!) where the kids then got a brief respite from the belt and instead got to experience the flat end of Sister Mary Margaret’s ruler. You know, for variety.

AP proponents may dismiss the historical experience of the Catholic family and insist that AP is clearly superior. We live in more enlightened times; surely we must treat children with greater humanity and affection. Isn’t that what building a culture of life is all about?

I’m sympathetic towards these claims. After all, a pro-life attitude demands that we treat children as ends in themselves, not as inconveniences to be managed or controlled. AP can be a welcome addition to a culture of life because it reminds parents that babies are persons in their own right, and that we should consider the emotional needs proper to their stage of life.

On the other hand, though, a pro-life attitude demands that we recognize the messiness and complexity of, well, life. By insisting that any other method, no matter how well-intentioned, is child abuse, AP proponents push a procrustean approach that undermines their own goals. When families feel pressured to adopt attachment parenting despite its unsuitability to their circumstances, they often do end up viewing their children as inconveniences, because of sheer exhaustion and frustration. Before long, the idea of having another child–let alone the five or six that often result from foregoing contraception–seems overwhelming.

I freely admit that much of my disillusionment with AP comes from personal experience. I’m a failure at babywearing; I’ll do it from time to time, but overall it’s just too hard to get anything done with a Giant Hunk ‘O Baby strapped to my front–possibly because of my stupid short dinosaur arms, to steal Simcha Fischer’s awesome phrase. I also happen to have a squirmy, curious baby who often seems happier in a stroller than snuggled against my chest. Co-sleeping and night nursing, though, was definitely the biggest AP disaster for my family. At nine months, my daughter was still waking up every hour at night, despite the fact that I had desperately applied the entire gamut of solutions from The No-Cry Sleep Solution. I knew that sleep deprivation couldn’t be good for her. When I finally just put her in the crib and let her cry for an hour–staying with her the entire time–she learned to fall asleep on her own and began sleeping 3-4 hour stretches at night. After that night, her daytime moods improved and she suddenly hit a bunch of long-overdue milestones.

I bring up my experience to show that parents are often driven to non-AP methods precisely because they do care about their families and precisely because they are open to life and therefore need to make child care manageable. I think that we Catholics ought to behave charitably and supportively towards mothers instead of making a dangerous idol of any one parenting practice.