Lessons of the Season, Seen and Unseen

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 Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.