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Living Well at the End of a World

Perhaps the greatest lesson Plenty Coups has to offer us is this: prudence and courage in the face of an unknown future make sense if they are grounded on God’s greater love for us and the promise of his abiding care. Hope impels us to hand on our religious and cultural inheritance even as many reject it. It encourages us to build new institutions as old ones fall apart.
It’s not just that many have been taught that the wrong things make them happy, and that their deliberation leads to choices that make them miserable—though that does happen in many cases. Far too often, they have not been given enough tools for moral thinking and acting at all.
For the most significant choices of our lives, we only learn what the decision entails after we make it. This creates something of a dilemma. We only get the information needed to make a well-informed decision after we have committed to a particular choice. We are confronted with choices whose outcomes, potential goods, and impact on our lives we cannot fully anticipate.
Perhaps our longing for Christmas past reminds us that here we have no lasting city—not even a lasting home. In this way, our celebration of Christ’s coming points us toward what it makes possible: our coming to him in heaven, when our longing will be fully satisfied, when we will truly come home.
During your time in college and for the rest of your life, you will encounter many people who have been wounded by lies and sin and are desperate for the truth, even if they don’t know it. Study well so that you can tend to them like the Good Samaritan did to the man by the side of the road.
The past half century has seen the breakdown of institutional Christianity on which Jacques Maritain’s political project relied. Nonetheless, the limits of his thought do not vitiate the valuable insights Maritain offers for Christian politics in the twenty-first century. He reminds us that politics is about how to order our life together, not just creating ideals or defeating our enemies. He teaches us that we can order a society toward the temporal truths of Christianity, but that the temporal power of the state is no substitute for the spiritual power of the faith.
When Christianity enters a society, it provides an understanding of inherent and equal human dignity that lifts up those whom that society has considered unworthy. But what happens when Christianity recedes? Christian human dignity is not founded on maximizing fairness or autonomy, but on the fact that all human beings are made free and in the image of God. If it becomes detached from that principle, then human dignity no longer makes sense.
Many readers will find it easy to accept Helen Andrews’s claim that the boomers left the world worse than they found it. Yet the biographies Andrews has written are evidence less for the special guilt of the boomers and more for the limits of human finitude, the persistence of sin, and naïveté in the face of evil.
I would venture to say that Europeans and Americans are confronting a spiritual conundrum. How does an immense civilization examine its conscience? How do nations and societies confess and atone for their sins?
Catholic citizens can hope for a society where the faith is more broadly shared, but we cannot escape the responsibility of political deliberation about our society as it is—riddled with its pluralism and confusion—not as we would have it be. A healthily secular society can acknowledge the freedom of the Church and a positive role for the Church in society, understanding that the state is rightly focused on natural norms and goods, not supernatural ones.
In their new book, Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley provide a rousing exhortation for Catholics to unapologetically live out their faith. Unfortunately, the book contains too many generalizations, overstatements, and imprecisions to be a thoughtful guide to Catholic politics. Any serious Catholic politics must recognize that the problem of pluralism cannot be solved by dominating non-Catholics and imposing our view of the good on them.
The humanities matter because human life matters. Rightly lived, the intellectual life is an ascetic one that calls for renunciation and sacrifice. Most of all, seriousness demands that we continue to pursue the truths of human existence and align our lives with them.
“Virtue politics” is modeled on the phrase “virtue ethics,” an approach to moral philosophy inspired by Aristotle and elaborated by the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. “Virtue politics” describes the central concerns of Renaissance political philosophy. Like the ancient Greeks, the Renaissance humanists had a richer understanding of what the state has to do in order to encourage virtue.
Faith and Reason, Saint John Henry Newman argues, are not opposed mental actions, but a similar intellectual act operating on different grounds. Faith reasons not from direct empirical evidence placed before us, nor from principles that the intellect has grasped on its own, but from grounds of trust or probability based on inclinations and dispositions of the heart.
The rise in numbers of people with no religious affiliation reflects the emergence of a new faith rather than a loss of faith altogether. As America’s religious norm changes from Christianity to therapeutic deism and spiritualized progressivism, we will find more people challenging longstanding protections of human dignity and religious liberty.
In his new book, Letter to a Suffering Church, Bishop Robert Barron provides a necessary mixture of teaching and empathetic rage. Barron is right: we should refuse to be mollified by pathetic excuses and baseless claims that everything is fixed. Yes, we need to pray and pursue holiness, to safeguard those parts of the vineyard that are in blossom. But we also need to root out the vermin and destroy their lairs.
Humanitarianism has become the implicit faith of our time. In his new book, Daniel Mahoney offers a sharp indictment of its fatal flaws: its denial of transcendence, its inability to confront the reality of evil, and its refusal to acknowledge that human beings’ attachment to the particular is precisely what enables them to access and understand the objective moral order.
As our public debate coarsens and weakens, Public Discourse will continue to publish respectful, rigorous arguments. We will continue to stand up for the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of society.
The Church’s own history teaches us that her theology matters more than her politics. Now as in the past, those who make robust arguments that coherently develop our understanding of Christ and his message will endure, while those whose arguments diminish the meaning of the cross and resurrection are likely to pass away.
A recent conference on Christianity and liberalism brought together high-profile Catholic scholars who strongly disagree about whether Catholicism is compatible with liberalism in general and the American version of it in particular.
We need not parrot old arguments, but we should avoid giving countenance to dangerous and unproductive ones. Being novel, contrarian, and clever is no substitute for the politics of prudence and the sober pursuit of truth.
If the Benedict Option is just Christianity, it is neither inherently Benedictine nor is it optional. If it is a feeling and an intuition, it needs to be guided by careful thought.
The leaders of organizations that have shaped a generation of young conservatives are now endorsing Donald Trump, a man who is the antithesis of the values held by each of these institutions.
Those who would follow in Father Richard John Neuhaus’s footsteps would do well to note these lessons of his life. Religion and vocation matter more deeply than political wrangling, and we must continue to build intellectual families that combine conviviality with fighting for the greatest causes.