Authority at the Edge of the Abyss

The corner of Twitter in which I do most of my reading and arguing has been furiously arguing over the story of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child in Bologna secretly baptized by his family’s maid, and Pope Pius IX, who removed him from his home in accordance with law forbidding a Catholic child to be raised by non-Catholic parents. Today’s argument, odd tempest in an admitted teapot, has been building for some time, but it reached its pitch with an essay in First Things defending Pius’s actions:

No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions—the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim.

People have rightly criticized the piece for its cruelly naïve handling of the role anti-Jewish oppression and bigotry played in the event. The author even points out that the Jews of Bologna led a “comfortable” life there, and that the Mortaras “ignored” a “regulation” forbidding them to hire gentile help, as if they were driving around with an expired child seat. He doesn’t mention the wider history of removing Jewish children from their homes and raising them as Christians. Plenty of validly baptized children have been reared by non-practicing and non-believing parents, and the idea that such situations would or could trigger a police action is ludicrous. Jews in Christendom were the persistent, irrefutable and barely tolerable Other; they were uniquely marked for such treatment.

The theological roots and long-developed practice of Christian anti-Semitism is a vast and unbearably painful topic, but of course that’s not the concern of this writer. His elision of the context is in service of the putative argument about the nature of baptism and the subordination of the family to Christ, even unto the sundering of father from son. And the handling of that topic gives still more scandal.

I’ve been following the emergence of these hard-edged claims, which expand fractal-like into many seemingly unrelated arguments. Normal, mild-mannered writers praise the authoritarian government of Poland, or attempt a wink-nudge rehabilitation of the proto-Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt. The common theme is an exhausted or disgusted rejection of “liberalism,” a phenomenon that in this world of discourse has grown as vast as the world economy and as viperishly conscious as the Illuminati.

It is inevitable that “liberalism,” however poorly defined, inspires reactions and discontents. They are various and unpredictable. Some are more legitimate than others. And it is maybe also inevitable that Christians will seize on the mere fact of these reactions to propose a comprehensive alternative to “liberalism,” one more complete, satisfying, and authoritative than the shuffling compromises that have been worked out in democratic, capitalist, and pluralist societies over decades. Perhaps the historical memory of Christendom proper had to fade enough to allow people today to imagine that it ever was, or could be, what it said it was. The dream of a peacefully integrated society–church guiding state, state protecting church, classes bound together by piety and mutual obligation, religious minorities deferential but unmolested–could perhaps, if we believe and act as we should, take flesh in a new form. In the service of such an alternative, perhaps the harshest claims and the edgiest defenses must be foregrounded.

For many reasons I do not feel whatever attraction is drawing people to these arguments. I’m hardly unaware that our world is aflame, that our trajectory is unsustainable, that the adjustments any religion makes to survive under its aegis are, in principle, indefensible. The scandal–more than that, a sense of dread–comes from the desire for the church assume the character of the state in response.

For example, when I read something by Thomas Pink, a professor of philosophy at King’s College in London, I feel the calm, dead-eyed lunacy of a mid-century Western Stalinist:

But the coming of Christ has fundamentally changed the nature of religion, from an essential component of the natural happiness served by the authority of the state, to serving a supernatural end that transcends nature – the attainment of the beatific vision in heaven. Christ has revealed to us the promise of an end that transcends nature – and this revelation involves a transforming reorientation of religion that profoundly affects its character. Instead of taking the form of a worship of God centred on the happiness of a natural human community served by the authority of the state, religion is now to involve a worship of God that participates in sacraments imparting supernatural grace, and that is directed to attaining the beatific vision of God in heaven. The offer of the supernatural life does not radically transform the nature of other goods, such as movement or fidelity to promises, so as completely to remove these from the authority of the state. But it does transform the good of religion, to remove religion as such from the civil order, the order involving the coercive legal direction of natural goods served by the authority of the state, and locate it in a quite separate coercive legal order of its own – an order of religion – with its own potestas or governing coercive authority, the Church.

This is a purely fabricated and fantastical account of the history of religion. On its own it would be interesting and consequential for theology and the interpretation of Scripture–and, not coincidentally, for the history of anti-Jewish thought in Christianity. But as a premise for a theory of authority it is abyssal. The metaphysically free act of faith only ushers the believer into a new, higher, infinitely more powerful version of the state, with its own power to enlist the civil state on its behalf. The mind reels trying to make this view consistent with anything Jesus says about the civil and religious authorities of his day, or about the exercise of authority among his own followers. It is undeniable that Christ calls disciples even at the price of sundering father from son. He never says, nor does it logically follow, that he deputizes any person or group of people to forcibly remove son from father. That the son should grow up well cared-for and come to identify with his captors makes no difference.

I usually admire and even envy the faith and practice of Catholic writers and friends, partly on its own account and partly in light of the defects of my own Lutheran tradition. I have become more and more inclined to foreground those hard claims intrinsic to Christianity; to refuse, as Kierkegaard put it, to smuggle Christianity into the world by dickering over the price. And I would do and believe still more. Trinity, Incarnation, Scriptures, election, grace, body and blood, heaven and hell, saints and angels, the Mother of God–believe it all, embrace it all, even at the risk of exile and estrangement from a world that believes it has become like god. But I cannot, and people should not, believe in this Hobbesian ecclesiology. There is no man or group of men, today, in 1858, or ever, who exercises absolute and final legislative and executive power over the laws of God and humanity. There is no one who may, as a proxy for Christ himself, reappropriate children for their own supposed spiritual good, just as there is no one who has the power to execute the eschatological punishments threatened by Christ here and now, with fire and sword.

There is no particular risk of the Mortara affair repeating itself, nor of heretics being burned alive or Talmuds being confiscated and destroyed, any time soon. The models for today’s illiberalism–in Poland, Turkey, India, to name a few–veer in other directions. But as we imagine a Christian future in grappling with the Christian past, we can choose either to participate in or to resist this rush for the abyss. Our own abyss, governed by our own laws to the ordering of our own spiritual goods, is the abyss all the same.

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