The Sign of Contradiction: A Response to Mr. Urban Hannon

The source of disagreement between the integralists, as represented by Mr. Urban Hannon, and Dr. Russell Hittinger is at root Christological. If God in fact achieved the separation of his Kingdom from temporal politics in the person of Jesus—as St. Augustine, Pope St. John Paul II, and Ratzinger claim—then Hittinger’s lecture is not only correct, but also profound. Recognizing such separation really would be the beginning of wisdom.

Dr. Russell Hittinger, who is widely renowned as a leading scholar of Catholic social teaching and political philosophy, recently gave the First Annual Catholic Political Thought Lecture for the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America, where he serves as Senior Fellow. In his lecture, which was titled “How to Inherit a Kingdom: Reflections on the Situation of Catholic Political Thought,” Hittinger stated that he is a “separationist.” By separationist, Hittinger means nothing more or less than that Jesus Christ inaugurated a supernatural kingdom not of this world (cf. Jn 18) and that because he did so, we should conclude with Pope Leo XIII that “it cannot be doubted, under safeguard of the faith, that the governance of souls was committed to the Church alone, in such wise that powers of the political order have no share whatever in it.” (Sapientiae Christianae, 1890, §27). As Pope Benedict XVI says, “Jesus had actually achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world: this is what truly marks the essence of his new path. . . . [T]his separation—essential to Jesus’ message—of politics from faith, of God’s people from politics, was ultimately possible only through the Cross.” Because Jesus has achieved this separation through his cross and resurrection, only his Mystical Body the Church has care for the supernatural life of her children.

Hittinger’s claims have prompted animated responses from some of the so-called “integralists,” including one from Mr. Urban Hannon published in The Lamp. In this essay, I wish to show that Hannon’s arguments are fundamentally flawed for three reasons. First, Hannon bases his response on a complete misunderstanding of Hittinger’s distinction between contradiction and contrariness, and thus his response is simply not to the point. Second, even though this fundamental misunderstanding of Hittinger’s use of contradiction means that his reflections are akin to an attempt to answer the wrong question, what Hannon does offer is incoherent in numerous ways. Third, I will show that Hannon remains silent on issues of central importance and that these silences speak perhaps more loudly than do his confused words.


Contrary or Contradictory?

Let us move to the first point. Hannon’s essay relies on Aristotelian logic in order to show that Hittinger’s use of the words “contradiction” and “contrary” is mistaken. Hittinger claimed that sin, and the reign of sin and death generally, contradicts Christ and his Church. However, earthly, temporal political authority, in and of itself, does not contradict the Church—instead, political authority is merely contrary to the Church. That is, such authority is not inherently opposed to the Church as is the reign of sin and death, but neither is it an integral part of her supernatural life.

Based on his use of Aristotle’s Categories, Hannon claims in response that “the kingdom of God and ‘the reign of sin and death’ . . . are contraries, whereas the spiritual power and the temporal power, if they are opposed at all, are correlatives.” Hannon’s entire argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Hittinger’s use of the terms “contradictory” and “contrary.” Hittinger did not cite Aristotle, nor did he allude to the philosopher. After declaring himself to be a “separationist,” Hittinger clarified that this principle of separation is not juridical. He said that he “learned it from St. Thomas and St. Augustine, who learned it by studying the New Testament.” In that Testament, the second chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel recounts the scene of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple, in which the Holy Spirit moves the righteous and devout Simeon to utter his beautiful canticle that the Church repeats at the close of each day. Taking Jesus into his arms, Simeon says:

“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled; my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and as a sign of contradiction, and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

This biblical text, not Aristotle Categories, is the ultimate source of Hittinger’s use of the term “contradictory” and thus of his distinction between what is contradictory and what is contrary to the Church.

The proper question for Hannon to ask would therefore be something akin to the following: What does the Gospel mean by Jesus’ being a sign of contradiction, and how can that meaning shed light on what is not contradictory but merely “contrary”? Hittinger himself answered this question clearly in his lecture. The “reign of sin and death” is contradictory because it is directly opposed to Christ and his Church, while that which is contrary is simply not an “integral” part of Christ and his Mystical Body. This meaning of contradictory is traditional and well articulated by Pope St. John Paul II in his aptly titled reflections, Sign of Contradiction.

At the beginning of these Lenten sermons, Wojtyła quotes the passage from Luke’s gospel that we have highlighted and prays that the light of Christ will “give us strength and make us capable of accepting and loving the whole truth about Christ, of loving it all the more as the world all the more contradicts it.” The “world” is, of course, meant in the biblical sense that Hittinger identified: it is the reign of sin and death, and it contradicts Christ and his Church by opposing itself to the truth and by attacking it. As important and true as they are, we are simply not speaking of Aristotle’s four modes of opposition.

Later in these Lenten reflections, Wojtyła contrasts human political life with the Kingdom of Christ. He says, “Christ’s entry into the world reveals an economy altogether sui generis, proper to God alone. It is a divine economy, with its source in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He describes the difference between our current economic and political life, on the one hand, and Christian life, on the other hand, in the following way:

[M]an cannot remain oblivious of the great threat posed by . . . the veritable imperialisms which vie endlessly with one another, but which cannot ultimately claim to have at heart the good of the real happiness of mankind. Indeed the reverse is true: for these powers, those imperialisms, see in man—in man’s freedom and inner truth—the biggest of all threats to themselves. The coming of Jesus of Nazareth into the world, the incarnation of the Word, is the revelation of a completely different economy. . . . Present-day political economy has fully mastered the techniques of buttressing the power of this world. By contrast Christ could say in all truth—not just once before Pilate but again before every power or political system in existence today—“My kingdom is not of this world.”

One can say that “these powers, those imperialisms” contradict Christ and his Church because they oppose themselves to the Truth Incarnate. By revealing and initiating “a completely different economy” and by inaugurating a Kingdom not of this world, Jesus also becomes the sign of contradiction. He is now the target, although certainly not the source, of the world’s hatred and opposition. This is the meaning of contradiction, while contrariness, in this sense, means that which is not opposed but will not be taken up directly into the final realization of the Kingdom of Christ, such as marriage (cf. Mt 22:23–33). It is worth noting that this text immediately follows Jesus’ admonition to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

Near the end of these Lenten reflections, Wojtyła returns once again to our biblical passage. He says, “Jesus ‘is set for the fall and the rising of many in Israel, and as a sign of contradiction’ (Lk 2:34). Nearly two thousand years have passed, but the words then spoken have lost none of their validity or relevance. It is becoming more and more evident that those words sum up most felicitously the whole truth about Jesus Christ, his mission and his Church.” Jesus is both the light and the sign of contradiction, and it is precisely because Jesus is the light that he provokes the furious opposition that is the deepest meaning of his being a sign of contradiction.

It is this sense of contradiction, as opposition to Christ, that also reveals the depth of the mission of the Church in her pilgrimage. We can conclude that, precisely because Jesus reveals and initiates a society that is separate—that is sui generis, a Kingdom not of this world, founded on the grace flowing from Jesus’s death and resurrection—that he also functions as a sign of contradiction, as the target of the furious opposition and hatred that pulsates through the reign of sin and death. Clearly, this sense of contradictory and contrary neither rejects nor violates Aristotle’s logic; it is simply beyond such considerations because it uses those words with a different, fuller theological sense. Hannon’s fixation on the Categories stems from his failure to see these fundamental theological insights.


Let us now move to our second point. Although Hannon’s “logic lesson” fails to understand Hittinger’s argument and thus is neither here nor there, let us enter into it and evaluate his conclusions. In his use of Aristotle’s logic to attempt to elucidate the proper relationship between the Church and the temporal political authority, Hannon lands in utter incoherence. By incoherence, I do not mean that his sentences fail in their grammatical structure, nor do I claim that the formal structure of his arguments is somehow invalid. I mean rather that the content of his conclusions simply does not and cannot disclose the reality that they are meant to reveal. To use a simple distinction somewhat loosely, his arguments might be valid, but they are certainly not sound.

First, Hannon argues that the Church and the reign of sin and death ought to be understood as contraries in Aristotle’s sense, and not as contradictories. Hannon acknowledges that contraries drive each other out, but he says that contraries “still share something significant since by necessity they have to belong to the same genus. In other words, they have to be the same kind of thing. Contraries are the extremes of a genus, which puts them maximally far apart from each other within that genus, but still guarantees they will have the genus in common.” In response, I wish to ask a simple question: which genus do the Church and the reign of sin and death share? Certainly, it cannot be being, which cannot be a genus. Could it possibly be correct to say that the Kingdom of grace and the reign of sin and death are “the same kind of thing”? Hannon says, “The Church and the world, in this sense, both pertain to ultimate commitments, to final ends, to that in which intelligent creatures could set their happiness—and then they point in diametrically opposed directions, one toward heaven and the other toward hell. This is the behavior not of contradictories, but of contraries.” I suppose that according to Hannon the genus containing the Church and the reign of sin and death is “final ends in which intelligent creatures could set their happiness.”

In response, it is altogether better, because true, to say with Wojtyła that Christ’s divine economy and kingdom are “altogether sui generis, proper to God alone. It is a divine economy, with its source in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Hannon’s argument fails to recognize this unique transcendence of God and his Church. The Church is properly sui generis, but Hannon’s use of Aristotle’s logic leads him to place grace and sin, not even grace and nature, in the same genus. However, if we are forced to speak very loosely of the “genus” of the Church as a graced, supernatural society, then we do well to follow Fr. Benoit-Dominique de la Soujeole, OP, who is one of the leading ecclesiologists of our day. He says that the “sacramentality of the Church . . . gives us, as it were, the genus to which the Church belongs.” He repeats this point: “To say that the Church is a sacrament is to specify, as it were, the larger ‘genus’ to which she belongs.” Clearly, Fr. de la Soujeole is using “genus” in a quite extended sense. Even so, Hannon’s position would have us conclude that the Church and the reign of sin and death are species of the genus sacrament. Such a position amounts to a theological absurdity. Hannon has failed to identify the proper “genus” of the Church, and this failure lands him in theological incoherence.

The second error concerns Hannon’s claim that the Church and the political society are correlatives. He says that correlatives “have to exist together. The mention of one immediately calls to mind the other.” As examples, Hannon offers husband and wife, and double and half. He says that “the spiritual authority and temporal authority” do not “divide a genus, since they are ordered to two entirely distinct ends: our supernatural end and our connatural end respectively.” He concludes that “if we want to admit any opposition between the spiritual and temporal powers, we will not find it in contrariety . . . but in correlation.” Are we to understand therefore that there can be no temporal political society without the Church, and no Church without a temporal political society, just as there cannot be a husband without a wife, or a wife without a husband? Are we unable to think of the Church or the state without “immediately calling to mind the other”? Would not history itself show this argument to be false, since political societies existed before the Church’s birth on the cross and at the descent of the Holy Spirit? Does not the eschaton also show this to be false, for I take it that there will not be earthly, temporal political society in heaven? Although Pope Leo XIII uses the term “correlation” to describe the proper relation between the ecclesiastical and civil powers, it is more than a stretch to claim, as Hannon does, that he means “correlation” in precisely the limited sense in which Hannon uses that word.

However, the third logical incoherence is the most puzzling. If we integrate the first two, then we arrive at the following conclusion. Hannon seems to be committed to the position that the Church and the reign of sin and death are somehow closer than are the Church and the temporal power. The Church and the reign of sin and death “split a genus,” but the Church and the legitimate temporal authority do not divide a genus precisely because “they are ordered to two entirely distinct ends: our supernatural end and our connatural end respectively.” Are we to understand that our supernatural and connatural ends, respectively, are somehow “farther apart” than are our supernatural end and the end of the reign of sin and death? Could such a thing possibly be true? And would it make sense for an integralist to claim that the end of the reign of sin and death is actually closer, logically, to the end of the Kingdom of Christ than is the end of the temporal power? In sum, these three conclusions, considered individually or taken together, constitute something of a reductio ad absurdum.

Separation and Christology

Finally, let us turn to Hannon’s silences, which I maintain disclose essential shortcomings in his presentation. Of course, one cannot be expected to say everything in a brief online post. However, three of Hannon’s silences are important and revealing. First, he says that Hittinger’s “initial explanation of ‘separation’ was eschatological and totally unobjectionable, focusing on the holiness or ‘set-apartness’ of the Church, [but] at a certain point he pivoted. Somewhere along the way in both lectures, Hittinger began to use this word ‘separation’ as a synonym for some sort of indifferentism, which would have the Church remain aloof from temporal politics and vice versa” (emphasis added).

As we have seen, Hannon misunderstands and mistakenly attacks Hittinger’s distinction between contradictory and contrary, and it is clear that he did so because he thinks that “Hittinger’s argument for the aloofness that he thinks ought to exist between the spiritual and temporal powers hinges on” this distinction. Now, Hannon tells us that “at a certain point” Hittinger pivoted to some sort of indifferentism and that “somewhere along the way” Hittinger began to claim that the Church must “remain aloof from temporal politics and vice versa.” We ought to note that Hannon does not say at which point this pivot happened, nor does he tell us precisely where along the way this shift took place, and there is good reason for this silence. There is no point at which such a pivot to indifferentism occurred, no place where Hittinger fell into a conclusion of aloofness. Such turning points do not exist, for Hittinger stayed with the eschatological meaning of separation throughout the entire lecture. He was at pains to make it clear that he was not speaking of juridical separation, nor was he commenting on the Church’s practical involvement (or lack thereof) with a concrete, temporal society. He was making a theological point about the separation between all earthly societies and the heavenly kingdom that God himself had achieved in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Further, Hittinger claimed that “paradoxically perhaps, if Christians are to fecundate the world, it cannot come by being united to the state, nor by becoming one with the reign of sin and death.” Hittinger’s eschatological principle of separation does not lead to aloofness or indifferentism toward politics, but toward the proper mode of Christians enriching the world. As Cardinal Ratzinger says, “It is . . . by pursuing her own finality that the Church sheds the light of the Gospel on earthly realities in order that human beings may be healed of their miseries and raised in dignity.” For his part, Hittinger concludes his lecture by claiming that separation theologically and eschatologically understood is “the beginning of wisdom” concerning the modes in which Christian life can renew society. Thus, it was not Hittinger who pivoted, but Hannon who did so at the beginning of his response. Once we see the fact that Hittinger stayed with the eschatological meaning of separation through the entire lecture, the very basis of Hannon’s disagreement disappears.


The second silence concerns the meaning of separation articulated by Hittinger. Hannon correctly quotes Hittinger as saying: “‘To have no share whatever’ is precisely what I mean by separation.” It is true that Hittinger said those words, but although he encloses the phrase to have no share whatever in single quotation marks to indicate that Hittinger himself is engaged in quotation, Hannon is silent about the fact that Hittinger is quoting Pope Leo XIII. Hittinger’s full statement is more interesting. After discussing Augustine, he said, “For his part, Leo XIII insisted centuries later: ‘It cannot be doubted, under safeguard of the faith, that the governance of souls was committed to the Church alone, in such wise that powers of the political order have no share whatever in it.’ (Sapientiae Christianae, 1890, §27). To have ‘no share whatever’ is precisely what I mean by separation.” As his use of the quotes from Leo’s Immortale Dei show, Hannon attempts to claim that his position is identical to that of Leo XIII. However, Leo’s teaching on the proper relationship between the Church and the temporal political authority is both more nuanced and more interesting.

The third and final silence is the most revealing. In his response, Hannon does not say the name of Jesus Christ. In highlighting this privation, I am not waving a pious finger at Hannon, but rather pointing at what I take to be the fundamental locus of disagreement. It seems to me that the real divergence ultimately concerns the person and achievement of Jesus Christ. The source of disagreement between the integralists, as represented by Hannon, and Hittinger is at root Christological. If God in fact achieved the separation of his Kingdom from temporal politics in the person of Jesus—as St. Augustine, Pope St. John Paul II, and Ratzinger claim—then Hittinger’s lecture is not only correct, but also profound. If God has achieved this separation in Christ, then there is simply nothing we can do about it but be grateful for it and attempt, with the help of grace and prudence, to live in accordance with it. Recognizing such separation really would be the beginning of wisdom.

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