The Catholic Thing
Lessons of the Season, Seen and Unseen Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Sunday, 06 December 2009

In a story worked into a legend, a visitor to a famous campus was shown the chapel, along with several of the principal buildings, but then turned to ask his guide, “Would you show me now the university?” The story became a classic illustration of what was meant by a “category mistake.” For the visitor, the mistake came in conceiving a distinction between the buildings he was seeing and “the university,” as though they were in separate classes of things.

Mr. Sean Hannity, of the Fox Network, one of my favorite commentators, fell into a comparable mistake in one of his political commentaries. And though the subject was political, it was curious that nothing in Hannity’s Catholic background alerted him to what he was apparently failing to see.

He was celebrating the resurgence of conservatives in the special election in the 23rd congressional district of New York. The Republican county chairman had selected, as a candidate, Dierdre Scozzafava, who was “pro-choice” on abortion and in favor of same-sex marriage. That bizarre offering, on the Republican line, was just too much for the conservatives in the district. An accountant, Doug Hoffman, came forward to run under the label of the Conservative Party, and to the surprise of nearly everyone, he almost won. His surge forced Ms. Scozzava to drop out – and endorse the Democrat. After the recount, Hoffman had lost only by a few hundred votes.

The experience showed that conservatives were indeed a vibrant force, not only in the 23rd district, but in the awakening produced in other parts of the country. Sean Hannity took the occasion to offer that reflex, all too common now, of inveighing against the Republican Party as just too flaccid, too wanting in moral definition to be a vehicle for conservatism in our politics. American parties are sprawling affairs, but there is usually an underlying scheme of principle that connects most of the parts and makes them notably different from one another. After the shakeouts in the parties in recent years, with the loss of many liberal Republicans in the northeast, the parties in Congress have become even more cohesive.

There cannot be the slightest doubt as to which party stands now as the pro-life party in our politics or which party is committed, with high cohesion, to resist a national takeover of medical care. But when Sean Hannity railed against the Republican party, he was railing against the county chairmen who had chosen Scozzofava. What he apparently had not noticed was it was the Republican party, the conservative party, that had surged in the district and come close to electing Doug Hoffman. What he apparently had failed to notice was that those conservative voters, rallying and coming forth so strongly – they were the Republican party. To use another expression, they were the body, the living body of the conservative party in politics.

Now one might think that this was a point more likely to be noticed by someone who had heard, since childhood, of the “body of the Church.” It is something felt at any Mass by anyone who can see the often staggering variety of people collected there and yet so evidently connected in their communion. They are often the body of the Church that stands constant even at times when the bishops are less than clear in their leadership.

But then let us connect to another scene: It is McLean, Virginia, just a couple of weeks ago, and I had gone to St. John’s to see the service directed by the son of good friends who had taken now the firmest, and most artful, hold on his vocation as a priest. The Rev. Paul Scalia focused, in his homily, on the moment when Pontius Pilate confronted Jesus: Did he affect really to be the King of the Jews? Jesus would not affirm that account rendered by another. He answered obliquely, that his kingdom was not “of this world,” that he had come to “bear witness to the truth.” To which Pilate responded, of course, “What is truth?”

Fr. Scalia took Pilate to reflect the current of relativism in our own day: the eroding conviction that reason could grasp moral truths, because we increasingly doubted our faculty for knowing truths of any kind. But in the moral domain, the erosion was devastating: Held back in doubt, people would recede from judgment – and from facing their responsibility to judge. And doubt soon would beget cowardice, as it begot, in Pilate, the willingness to wash his hands and let the responsibility for judging fall to someone else.

But then, as Fr. Scalia completed the story: It fell now to the “body of the Church,” for those assembled here, and in the vast reach of this communion, to stand in place of Jesus in taking on the mission. The body of the Church would bear “witness to the truth.” What truth? In our own day, most pressingly, the truth about marriage, set against the wave moving toward same-sex marriage, and the truth of “the human person,” set against the culture of death and the denigration of life, nascent and aged. There will be, in this season, many splendid homilies, but I know my friends among the priests will not be offended if I say that I’m not likely to hear a lesson more telling than this one, now or in the seasons to come.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
No Time for Truth
written by Willie, December 07, 2009
Unfortunately many, embroiled in their busy shopping schedules, will brush off this story of truth as just another seasonal tale. But this season is about the birth of Truth. One truth that seems certain to any rational mind is the existence of evil. A look at 911 and the millions of exterminations of the last century should be convincing. If there is evil there must be good. Liberal relativism seems naked in view of reality. To recognize evil admits to truth. Evil cannot be non-evil. Can it?
The Great Silence
written by Ars Artium, December 07, 2009
Prof. Arkes was privileged to hear such a homily. For those of us who are dwelling in the Catholic wilderness where the silence on abortion and marriage is profound, it would be a great good to have those homilies available - perhaps on line? Does Father Scalia have a web site or, if he does not, could he be pursuaded to establish one?
GOP Not Pro-Life Either
written by blue8064, December 07, 2009
The Republicans are not pro-life either. The main reason for that is their support for a policy denying an increase in welfare payments to unmarried welfare mothers who have more children while on welfare (the family cap). Such a policy implicitly tells welfare mothers to abort their babies instead of allowing them to be born, and is therefore pro-abortion. On the other hand, working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them with raising children.
written by William H. Phelan, December 07, 2009
Thank you, Dr. Arkes. In the same vein, I often cite the fact that I have 5,670 years of Judaeo-Catholic teaching on my side in these "social issues" discussions until I realize my "opponents" have no idea what Judaism or Catholicism teach. They live in a world of "feeling rather than thought..changing religion into poetry and therapy..banish(ed) intellectual distinctions...truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more quote Flannery O'Connor.
The Pilate Poll
written by Joseph, December 07, 2009
Pilate, conducting the first opinion poll, put it to the crowd and they shouted, "Give us Barabbas!" Today, polls in a democracy seems to hold similar sway and alarmingly the public appears to favor same-sex marriage almost 50-50 despite the fact that only a small fraction of the population is homosexual. It would seem that the tyranny of a tiny minority, supported by a politically correct mass corporate media, will wind up giving us the thief instead of the saviour once again.
written by Joe, December 07, 2009
"Mr. Sean Hannity, of the Fox Network, one of my favorite commentators, fell into a comparable mistake in one of his political commentaries. And though the subject was political, it was curious that nothing in Hannity’s Catholic background alerted him to what he was apparently failing to see."
-- You havent been listening to him for very long, have you.
written by H Koczur, December 07, 2009
Many of our fellow Catholics think it is old fashion to live up to the beliefs of the Church. If you buck the tide, you are called a 'fuddy duddy'. In response to an argument, I often hear, "After all there are more important issues than abortion". I congratulate the Republicans and conservatives who almost pulled it off in New York.
Sean v. Tom
written by William H. Phelan, December 07, 2009
Dr. Arkes: A footnote on Mr. Hannity. He was challenged by Fr. Thomas Euteneuer who is, as you know, the Director of Human Life International (HLI). because Sean was telling his audience that contraception was the lesser evil vis a vis abortion and therefore permissable. Euteneuer wanted to speak to Sean privately, but he was invited to be on a TV hookup wherein he told Sean he would not give him the Eucharist because of his obstinacy (in my opinion-lack of knowledge) on the subject.
Skeptical on Hannity
written by OPNY, December 07, 2009
Mr. Hannity humiliated himself and caused great scandal when he berated Father Tom Eutuenuer about contraception a couple of years ago. I hope and pray he has gone to confession and come around to Church teaching since then. It has caused me to take everything he says under caution.
written by Gretchen, January 29, 2010
I am assujming that the good Hadley Arkes is either not Catholic or that as one doesn't know that you do NOT refer to the Mass as a "service". "I had gone to St. John’s to see the service directed by the son".
Fr. Scalia is an excellent homilist.

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