January 07, 2008

After church a bunch of us went out to a Vietnamese place on Mott Street, not far from Chinatown, but on the Little Italy side of Canal; with us was an accountant sort of a fellow who had something to do with National Review, who asked me about my politics. When I said I supposed I was pretty much a libertarian he pounced, just like an Assistant District Attorney on “Law and Order.” “So,” he crowed in triumph, “you are an atheist!” Which is no doubt why I had been standing for an hour and a half on tired legs chanting in a dead language. Never mind.

The late Murray Rothbard never tired of pointing out that the Austrian philosophy of economics and polity, from which the libertarian movement emerged, continues the analysis of Scholastic philosophers of the early modern period, and Catholic (paleo?) libertarianism did not end with the Scholastic philosophy. Last April The Freeman, founded by Frank Chodorov, published a lead article entitled “Antonio Rosmini: Philosopher of Property.” In it, Alberto Mingardi sums up Rosmini’s libertarian impact in this way: “A thinker of great clarity, though not endowed with a clear writing style, Rosmini belongs to the pantheon of the great classical liberals of the nineteenth century. An admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, and Jean Baptiste Say, this Catholic priest understood better than many liberals the most important problem that endangers the survival of liberty in modern societies: the uneasy marriage between property and democracy.” Indeed, Mingardi points out that Rosmini, in his (very conservative) critique of Enlightenment perfectionism, nicely anticipates Hayek’s argument against economic planning.

Now Rosmini (1797-1855), a truly great and greatly neglected philosopher of liberty, was not only a theist, a Catholic, a priest, indeed, the founder of religious orders for men and women—and, since November 18, a Blessed of the Church, but one whose principal writings were on the Index Liborum Prohibitorum as long as there was one, the case against whom was finally dropped by the Roman Inquisition, I mean the Holy Office, I mean the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2001. Then again the Cardinal Prefect, Dr. Ratzinger, now gloriously reigning as Benedict XVI, was a particular admirer of his, as was Ratzinger’s then boss and now venerable predecessor John Paul the Great, and just before him John Paul the Brief, too, for that matter, who had devoted a critical book to Rosmini’s theology and come to change his mind to a more favorable opinion. Even the Blessed John XXIII had devoted years to the study of Rosmini’s work.

But that does not explain why the Beato Pio Nono, formerly Rosmini’s friend and protector, suppressed his two seminal works, why the Jesuits obtained a posthumous condemnation, or why Rosmini was such a profound underground influence on the Church of the last century. It was surely not his metaphysics of Ontologism, which can be interpreted as a form of pantheism, but need not be, or even the fact that his last work was entitled Theosophy. It was because of his radical vision of the freedom and dignity of the human person, which threatened not so much the Church, as the State, particularly the “Enlightened” Christian monarchies which claimed a “divine right” to legislate in matters of religion and to appoint bishops to carry out their policies. His great enemy was Giocomo Antonelli, the last, or one of the last of the lay Cardinals, who had the ear of the trusting Pontiff, and accumulated enormous wealth as a secret agent of foreign monarchs.

Rosmini’s classic, The Five Wounds of the Church, was written in 1832 as a kind of manifesto for the beginning of the reforming (yes, reforming) pontificate of Pius IX; five years later Antonelli had it put on the Index, along with a book on the political condition of Italy. No explanation was ever offered, and the author gracefully retired to his home on Lago Maggiore, where he continued to write and to guide his spiritual family. The wounds in the Church which needed to be cleansed and healed were the lay folk’s not participating in the liturgy in any meaningful way, the bad education of priests, the tendency of the bishops to identify themselves with local or national elites rather than with the universal Church, the nomination of bishops by civil authorities, and government control over religious institutions. Indeed, not only did Catholic monarchs appoint their bishops, expect their obedience, and treat church property as their own, they exercised, well into the last century, a veto over the election of the Bishop of Rome. Like many liberals today, Rosmini favored the popular election of bishops, but for the opposite reason—because he wanted a hierarchy more loyal to the interests of the universal Church and less blown about by the winds of secular doctrine. Similarly, he wanted a greater emphasis on liturgy, not to make the Church more Protestant, but to make its faithful more Catholic.

Rosmini’s influence on the Catholicism of today was once seen in the documents of Vatican II, and it is there, as it is in the great encyclicals of Pius XII and his predecessors which inspired the Council Fathers to a degree that traditionalists and modernists conspire to deny. But we can see it even more clearly in the initiative—call it a crusade—of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to recover Christian reason: to present an understanding of the faith which is an open invitation to the candid intellect, and to fight for a conception and methodology of reason which is open to the questions to which faith proposes answers. John Paul’s Fides et Ratio names Rosmini among the greatest of Christian philosophers:

74. The fruitfulness of this relationship [between philosophy and the Word of God] is confirmed by the experience of great Christian theologians who also distinguished themselves as great philosophers…, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Augustine… Saint Anselm, Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas. We see the same fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more recent thinkers, among whom I gladly mention, in a Western context, figures such as John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and Edith Stein….

Not bad for guy still under suspicion—I mean Rosmini; three years later Cardinal Ratzinger was able to drop the charges against him, and last year, as Pope Benedict XVI, declared him “Venerable,” that is to say, a model of heroic virtue. In addition, beatification requires a miracle, God’s seal of approval. There was evidence of a miracle back in 1927, but it didn’t count until the question of Rosmini’s orthodoxy had been settled once and for all. Another one is required for full sainthood. Of the recent Western philosophers mentioned by John Paul, Doctor Edith Stein is already St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and Cardinal Newman is a Venerable. Pius IX, Rosmini’s friend and patron, who was turned against him by the sinister Cardinal Antonelli, had been beatified in 2000 along with Rosmini’s great admirer John XXIII. Each reflects Rosmini’s influence in his own way.

Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors was the declaration of war against the abuse of reason, freedom, and democracy by the Christopher Hitchenses of the previous century, abuses which enabled “enlightened” libertine Catholic despots to strangle the Church in the ways Rosmini so painfully described in a book that the Pope, a virtual prisoner of the Austrians, could not allow to appear. In this connection we may well read such alleged rightists as Bonald and de Maistre as afterbirths of the Enlightenment, inspirers of the Modernists, and precursors of our own neocons.

Here we must note a neglected aspect of the ideal of freedom of thought, conscience, and expression in civil society, which Rosmini’s metaphysics and epistemology of the human person do so much to support. Today we are skeptical of Jefferson’s optimism that such freedom favors the discovery and propagation of truth and we are tempted to cite the French Revolution as the classic case of what happens when freedom of expression goes too far. But the French monarchy had had one of the most efficient systems of censorship in the world, and that was part of the problem. Frenchmen who read books took the sillier propaganda of the Enlightenment as gospel truth because they had nothing to compare it with—dissenting voices were denied license to publish by the “enlightened” censors. And in the following century, nay, the following centuries, clever propagandists purveyed (and purvey) the same nonsense, only this time passing it off as Christian and conservative.

An ideology of reason, of science, of freedom which chokes off the questioning of the human spirit is a travesty. And so is the ersatz faith that walls itself off from the urgent quest of reason. This was the burden of Benedict’s Regensburg address, aimed not so much at those who follow Muhammad openly, but at those who call themselves Christians, but are to all intents and purposes Muslims. And this initiative did not start with Benedict, or even at Vatican II. It was, remember, Vatican I which formally anathematized all who claim that belief in God is a leap of faith rather than a reasoned conviction.

It is claimed that our age is a time of conflict of civilizations, as if all civilizations are fundamentally equal. Some who speak this way are ignorant, but many are dishonest. Ours is a time, like any other, of constant warfare between Christendom and barbarism within and without. Barbarians are those who advance an inhuman humanism, a rationalism which is irrational because kills the freedom of intellectual inquiry by forbidding our most fundamental searchings. Barbarians are those who advance a faithless fideism which refuses to see the intelligible universe as the creation of the intelligent Word, or to revere the mind of man as the living icon of the Word of the Father, or to celebrate the civilization of Christendom as the continuing incarnation of the Word in Christ and His Church, or to see the other great civilizations as built on intimations of the pre-incarnate Word, their peoples groaning for the Gospel of the Incarnation.

Historians of the distant future will look back on the papacy of Benedict XVI, growing out of that of John Paul II, as the beginning of the great renewal of Christendom, one which all the genius of the Renaissance, all the fervor of Reformation and Counterreformation, adumbrated but failed to achieve. And they will see the quiet, humble, loving, erudite Antonio Rosmini as a true Father of the Church of the Third Millennium. It is a privilege to live in the times that he blesses.


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