Monday, 15 January 2018
Coercing Jews: the Mortara Case
A recent book review in First Things has prompted turbulence on Twitter. The review concerned the Mortara Case in which a Jewish child, secretly baptised against the wishes of his parents, was taken away from his Jewish family and brought up a Catholic. (The Wikipedia article gives an extended and, so far as I can see, fair account of the case.)
Although I'm not sure that it's quite fair to say that the author of the review (a Dominican priest) endorsed the Church's actions, he is certainly sympathetic to them. This unsurprisingly provoked some angry responses including one by Rod Dreher.
The Catholic philosopher Joseph Shaw gives a good analysis of why he thinks Pius IX acted wrongly; however, his main point (that the Church acted inconsistently (and anti-Semitically) in taking away Edgardo whilst ignoring the plight of Catholic children who were not being brought up in the Faith by nominally Catholic parents) is vulnerable to arguments that a) the jeopardy of a child's eternal felicity in a household not even nominally Catholic is factually greater than of a child in a nominally Catholic family; and b) that the Church should have intervened more elsewhere is not an argument that it was wrong to intervene here.
The philosophical problem here is that all (most?) societies acknowledge that, at some point, the welfare of children might require a child to be protected or removed from its parents. More generally, all societies acknowledge that force is sometimes required to prevent wrongs. If (as here) the welfare is a matter of eternal felicity, the reasons for exercising coercion seem pretty strong. Now clearly, secularists will regard this belief of Catholics that baptism and bringing up in the faith are matters of the highest importance to the welfare of children as absurd; but they too will countenance removal of children in the face of abuse (which, at least according to some, will include worshipping sky fairies and circumcision).
So I don't think that the general problem of coercion and removal is a specifically Catholic one, and, given this, it is inevitable that there will be hard cases and, as in all hard cases, the probability that sometimes the wrong decision will be made. (And even where the right decision is made, considerable suffering may result.) But there is undoubtedly something utterly terrible about this case, whatever may need to be said about other cases.
Let's try a slightly different tack. Wisdom literature is full of injunctions to silence and reticence in judgment. For example,
Proverbs 17:28 Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.
Proverbs 10:19 Transgression is at work where people talk too much, but anyone who holds his tongue is prudent.
Moreover, I'd suggest that more generally, the contrast between the folk image of a wise person and that of a merely rational person rests primarily in gravitas: the wise person is reluctant to speak and give judgment unnecessarily; the rationalist has a tendency to (in Russell Kirk's words) to be a chirping sectary (think Richard Dawkins). (As an aside, part of the comic value of Polonius may be that he tries to be both grave and chatty.) So wisdom involves a greater tendency to silence and reticence than the normal run of humanity will display. (And perhaps it is not irrelevant that the wisest of the wise, Solomon, displayed his wisdom most obviously in a child custody case by refusing to make his own judgment.)
Moreover, in the face of the past, we should often feel a particular perplexity in offering moral judgment. It is quite obvious that both the Roman practice of fighting in the arena and the Western practice of the Atlantic slave trade were foul: a society without these things is a better society ceteris paribus. But what really is one to say about those virtuous figures who lived in those societies and lived and prospered sometimes because of those practices? Are they wicked men? (And yet, if one refuses to condemn them because times were different, are we falling into a cultural relativism?) The wise person will, I'd suggest, simply admit the perplexity: there is no need to pretend to a certainty of speech we do not possess and of which we have no need.)
This thought is relevant to a lot of the 'decolonising' activities that seem to be sweeping much of the West. We should find, for example, it perplexing to know precisely what to say about figures such as General Lee with his support of the slave owning South or Washington with his slaves. We can examine and describe their actions and their failings, but to try to come to some sort of final moral decision about their characters or their place in history is both rash and unnecessary. Unlike a judge who does have to come to some sort of decison in the midst of moral complexity, unlike any agent who has to decide what to do in the face of a real moral dilemma, we have absolutely no reason to come to a decision on whether Pius IX acted rightly or wrongly: indeed, it would be wise not to.
(I leave this point resting on the simple observation that wisdom, as commonly understood, involves reticence and the avoidance of unnecessary judgment. As to why this is so, I might offer two strategies. The first is a strong strategy: this might be a justification based a) on the Wittgensteinian thought that language is rooted in a form of life beyond which it 'goes on holiday' and b) the Aristotelian thought that the aim of moral philosophy is ethical improvement, leading to the conclusion that, while reflecting on the ethics of the past is a good thing, it is rash to go from that reflection to a judgment that is, by nature of its being directed at the past, useless. If such a strategy works, there is, in principle, an impossibility of reassessing completely the actions of (especially) the long or very foreign past. The second is a weak strategy: this would be what I take to the commonsense observation that judgments about the past tend, in practice, to be quite difficult to recreate in complete detail, coupled with the thought that they tend to be rather pointless. Such a strategy would not entirely rule out making judgments on the past, but it would strongly discourage it in practice.)
One of the reasons that current discussion of the case involves high emotion is that it seems to have consequences for something that is a live issue: anti-Semitism in Catholicism. I think Joseph Shaw is right that there is indeed more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in the decisions of the Mortara case; I think it is clear that there is still a problem with anti-Semitism in the West, quite apart from specifically in some parts of the Church. Even assuming some form of Catholic Integralism max, where all the decision making powers of the State were thoroughly Catholic, it would still be to the point to reflect on whether those decisions were informed by anti-Semitism, or by wisdom and by virtuous application of Catholic principles. That is of course no guarantee that such a state wouldn't perform something like the Mortara case again. But equally, there is no guarantee that a liberal state wouldn't abduct Jewish children to prevent circumcision or to enforce one-or-other of the modern shibboleths of sexual liberation contrary to Orthodox Jewish belief. A key point here is that, following both Plato and Aristotle, the role of practical wisdom in politics tends to be emphasised in Catholic thought over that of principles: at the very least, practical wisdom is required to apply principles well. That practical wisdom (prudentia) cannot be replaced simply by articulated rules, and thus it is difficult to step back into a long past, very foreign situation and come to judgment: as Aristotle notes, it depends on the perception of the wise person, and, moreover, (as I will add) that perception is essentially embodied and present and not distanced from the situation of judgment by time, space and culture.
I don't particularly want to turn this into another screed on the virtues of conservatism, but it does strike me that a refusal to avoid perplexity, a refusal to express unnecessary judgment whether about the past or fantastic futures is indeed a very wise and thoroughly conservative thing. And it's a habit that social media with its constant demand for verbal responses and constant temptation to imitate the role of the public judge that most of us actually are not will of course regard as cowardice. There is no particular reason to think that we can say anything very sensible about whether a decision made in very different circumstances from ours was the right one, even if we can, carefully, reflectively, tease out some of the ethical background from which those decisions emerge. The real task for Catholics from this case is to learn lessons about the sneaking pervasiveness of anti-Semitism, the sacredness of the family and the impossibility of ever getting any institution that always works properly.
And that will of course sound to many like a cop out. But that's because they are children of modernity (or perhaps more exactly here Kant), who believe that there exists an entirely rational ethics of principle, smoothly applicable at least in theory by human beings across all times and cultures without the need for the virtue of prudentia, while I believe the only panopticon exists in the mind of God, whose vision we glimpse only sporadically and partially. And moreover I believe both that we should refrain from judgment where we can and also that, where we cannot, we should exercise it with fear and trembling and in the knowledge that we are scurrying creatures on sacred ground.
I am conscious in arguing this that it might sound, particularly to a Jewish audience, that this is a typical attempt to avoid the admission of guilt, a tendency typical of Western anti-Semitism in general and a general Catholic inclination to preserve an illusion of infallibility. Perhaps. But the constant demand to revisit the past and to exact precise judgment on it seems to be a very modern, very western habit, one fuelled in large part by recent changes in technology. Moreover the de-sacralization of judgment, the viewing of it as an everyday activity to which all of us are called all the time, is again of fairly recent and geographically limited occurrence. So while there is a constant temptation, particularly if one has a shared identity with a victim group in a particular case, to feel the urgency of just this event, of the exceptional call to judgment here, I would simply ask someone feeling this whether you are sure that the general practice, of which this is merely just one example, is so obviously a good or possible thing that you will set aside more general worries about it in the face of the urgency of just this one case?