Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cardinal Stafford Right On

On November 13, Cardinal Stafford, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, gave an address at Catholic University of America entitled “Being True with Body and Soul,” a phrase he later explains comes from the French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac. Though some have described the address as being overdone or reactionary, I found it quite profound, and so have decided to take some time to comment on it. By the way, my dad put me onto the talk.

This I suppose will be my return after a little hiatus from blogging. Actually, it wasn’t a planned hiatus. Teaching high school is just a bit time consuming. I figure the new church year is as good a time to start again as any.

Stafford begins: “For 51 years of priestly ministry I have been attentive to res sacra in temporalibus in American culture, i.e., ‘to the element of the sacred in the temporal life of man’ or, in a more Heideggerian idiom, ‘to man as the sacred element in things.’” With that note, Stafford strikes a rather intellectual tone throughout his discourse, moving effortlessly along a wide spectrum of authors. Stafford proposes to cover three areas: First, “the narrow, calculative, mathematical mind and its manipulation of the humanum and, more specifically, of human sexuality since 1968;” Second, the response of the Church in Humane Vitae and later popes; Third, “Other Catholic and theological responses to what John Rawls calls the ‘embedding module’, namely the increasingly disenchanted world in which we work and pray.”

I found most interesting his analysis of the first, possibly because of Stafford’s apparent affinity for Heidegger which I share. He begins by describing the year 1968, the year of “America’s Suicide.” If that was the case, then 2008 is the year of “America’s exhaustion,” and maybe of the rest of the world as well. The reason he gives for this is primarily the pernicious and growing disregard for human life that has precipitously dominated American culture over the past 40 years. He writes:
“Yet honesty compels me to admit that this decision against human life is in historical continuity with the pragmatism on the part of the Fathers of the 1787 Constitutional Convention for the recognition of Black slavery and, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, in continuity with the same meanness toward Native Americans on the part of the politicians, entrepreneurs and settlers. The 1803 event was a meanness enshrined shortly in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.”
The 1973 decision of Roe vs. Wade simply amplified how we already think about the “other.” Republicans and Democrats alike have been guilty in this matter since it appears to Stafford to be an American problem.

He describes the problem in modern times as one of the manipulation of human life by various “strategies of power.” If he sounds a little like a post-modern Foucoultian, well, he may be in this regard. He argues that “Politics in turn becomes an arena for contention among rival techniques,” leading to “the creation of a worldwide colossus, America’s military…Freedom itself has been reduced to power.”

Stafford seems to primarily blame America’s philosophical heritage of pragmatism because by it, “the good has been drained of ontological content.” There is no good as such, but only goods to be pursued equally by all according to their preference. For Britain, the good is to become the world’s leader in embryonic stem cell research, to be the “scientific midwives of this cultural monstrosity.” In the United States, as if fighting two wars was not enough along with the perpetuation of the colossus of American military might, “Obama has co-sponsored a bill….. that would authorize the large-scale industrial production of human embryos for use in biomedical research in which they would be killed.”

The problem as Stafford reads it is a “technological mind-set.” He again turns to Heidegger for explanation in a long quotation:
“Techne can only cooperate with phusis, can more or less expedite the cure; but as techne it can never replace phusis and itself become the arche of health itself. This could happen only if life as such were to become a ‘’technically’ producible artifact. However, at that very moment there would also no longer be such a thing as health, any more than there would be birth and death. Sometimes it seems as if modern humanity is rushing headlong toward this goal of producing itself technologically. If humanity achieves this, it will have exploded itself, i.e., its essence qua subjectivity, into thin air, into a region where the absolutely meaningless is valued as the one and only ‘meaning’ and where preserving this value appears as the human ‘domination’ of the globe. ‘Subjectivity’ is not overcome in this way but merely ‘tranquilized’ in the ‘eternal progress’ of a Chinese-life ‘constancy.’ This is the most extreme nonessence in relation to phusis-ousia.”
While hard to decipher, Heidegger hits the nail on the head. Techne can never be phusis, nature. It can only help or aid it according to its own potentialities for growth and development. But techne is no longer satisfied to simply dominate nature qua non-human creation. That has almost exhaustively been done it seems. No, techne now must also dominate subjectivity, dissolving it into thin air. Of course subjectivity in this case does not cease to exist, but simply becomes statically tranquilized by techne. It rolls along in a daze as techne absorbs and destroys all around it, the recent financial crisis being a case in point. Nature – including human subjectivity – can only be nature, phusis, properly when directed toward its own intrinsic ends. Otherwise nature is simply power, and subjectivity is no longer freedom. Or, Freedom is Power if there is no Good. American pragmatism is no more than a philosophy of power-technique.

More to come later as to the solution. So far I think the diagnosis by Stafford is pretty spot on.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

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