I don’t care for an attitude that is purely reactionary. Not necessarily because some things need to be strongly reacted against, but because I’ve seen so many people fall into error in the attempt to avoid error. Or at least, if not into error, into an equally oversimplistic view of things.
To give an example, I do think (as mentioned in my last conversion post) that the Enlightenment ultimately founded itself on a false view of humans and the cosmos, and that we are living with the bad consequences of those mistakes today. And I do also think that Medieval Scholasticism constitutes an intellectual high point for our culture. But I don’t think that the solution consists of rewinding the clock back to the 13th century, because genuine goods did emerge out of those intellectual and cultural upheavals.
I’ve seen so many arguments along the lines of, “nothing good can come out of something that is false.” But I don’t really think that’s a particularly Catholic position to take. The paganism of antiquity was false, and produced real depravities. But that doesn’t discount the real goods found in Greco-Roman philosophy and literature. Christendom did a really good job of pruning away the bad and preserving the good.
I’ve recently been reading some of Laura McAlister’s blog (now blogroll’d) and find myself sympathetic towards her attempts to wrest the goods that have come out of feminism from the evils. Typically, I dislike the idea being a little bit too free with the modifiers we use, since you inevitably wind up having to attach a little asterisk to that modifier in order to explain that “don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not for X, Y and Z”, which can get kind of cumbersome.
I, like her, am a Catholic, and don’t see patriarchy as an intrinsically evil institution, and think that sexual difference is fundamental to our identities. But I also, like her, agree that the treatment of women by men has, historically, and continues to be, pretty crappy. As she puts it here:
And that’s where feminism comes in. Feminism challenges the abuses of men’s authority, whether in marriage or the parliament. It demands legal, social, and cultural rights for women because these rights should have been guaranteed anyway. Feminism is a stop-gap because those who should have been the strongest protectors of the dignity and well-being of women failed. On both an individual and societal level, men abused the sacred authority entrusted to them by Almighty God.
To be clear, I’m not blaming all men for this, or even most. In some cases, men were and are personally culpable. But much of the time, the universal human inclination to sin distorted patriarchy. It’s just that men had more authority to start with and so they had more to abuse.
Thus, in some sense, I am a feminist because sin exists.
Feminism errs insofar as it follows Rousseau in seeing moral problems as essentially institutional problems, and that if we can only tweak the institutions, we can fix things. That isn’t to say that there are no institutions that really are seriously problematic; it’s just that failure to grapple with the fact that humans are kind of messed up has consequences.
I do have one criticism, though, with regard to her quotation of Gaudium et Spes in relation to human rights. I’ll quote the full paragraph here:
All women and men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God’s image; they have the same nature and origin, and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny; there is here a basic equality between all and it must be accorded ever greater recognition.
Undoubtedly not all people are alike as regards physical capacity and intellectual and moral powers. But any kind of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design. It is deeply to be deplored that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere, as is the case with women who are denied the chance freely to choose a husband, or a state of life, or to have access to the same educational and cultural benefits as are available to men.
Furthermore, while there are just differences between people, their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.
It is for public and private organizations to be at the service of the dignity and destiny of humanity; let them spare no effort to banish every vestige of social and political slavery and to safeguard basic human rights under every political system. And even if it takes a considerable time to arrive at the desired goal, these organizations should gradually align themselves with spiritual realities, which are the most sublime of all.
I’d like to note that the document doesn’t spell out a particular political/social programme for achieving this goal. And I am wary when movements immediately grasp for a statist solution to a moral/social problem, even when I agree with the diagnosis. The Church has been guilty of this in the past (which is part of why I think Dignitatis Humanae is a good thing), although these days it’s more of a cultural left thing.
Every positive right that is legislated diminishes our negative rights, which I believe are more fundamental and important. So as a rule I think there should be a defeasible presumption against a particular positive right – the benefit has to be worth the loss of liberty. And this, I think, works nicely with the oft forgotten Catholic principle of subsidiarity, where we try to address issues on the most local level possible.
I have to admit, in spite of my lack of any particular love for balls-to-the-wall capitalism, I am so frigging cynical of our political
overlords leaders right now. I’d much rather they’d be less involved in our lives. Actually, this is a pretty big tension in my thought that I don’t think I’ve resolved in a way that satisfies me yet.
It is not, for instance, the case that I think that women shouldn’t get educated; it is rather that I am doubting whether I can rationally hope for there to be a non-stupid form of public education. I think that it is immoral to pay someone less for a job just because she is a woman, but I also seriously doubt the wisdom of wage laws in general.
I guess to pull myself back from this mini-rant, my point is that I don’t think we can instantly make the jump from Gaudium et Spes to drawing up a particular list of positive rights for the state to enforce; we can disagree over the best manner of achieving its goals.