Monday, April 30, 2012

The proof of Catholic social theory is : Does it work at a practical level?

As an architect, I spend my days transforming the sublime into concrete practical reality, because at the end of the day the art must produce a product that's both buildable and afterward usable.

Human life is lived in three dimensional Euclidean space with architecture needing to answer a plethora of different requirements. With every requirement having its own standards to satisfy. Which in turn makes architecture the art of hierarchical compromise because conflicts between requirements require solutions.

Architecture is three dimensional puzzle problem solving where the solution is finally ordered to human life lived at a practical level.

Architecture is problem solving. People come to me with a problem and pay me to solve it. Medical doctors are likewise problem solvers, as are engineers, farmers and blacksmiths. People need to eat, farmers provide the solution to that problem.

Catholic social theoreticians are likewise problem solvers, or at least they should be problem solvers. Because if they're not solving the problem at hand, then they're only pretending to practice their art.

Someone once asked my father, an attorney, if he ever lost, he replied, "my clients didn't pay me to lose." Nor does a client pay an engineer to not solve his problem and so forth with all problem solvers. Catholic social theoretician should be held to the same standard.

I listened to a lecture on lying yesterday partly because of a blog's effusive recomendation to wit : "I. . . was absolutely moved to tears by its beauty and persuasive power. I urge you, gentle reader: listen to that lecture; it is Moral Theology as it should be."

It sounded promising.

The lecture was long on the sublime and very short on transforming the sublime into concrete practical reality. Most of the practical solutions were for problems only the scrupulous suffer from. And there was only one brief mention of married life with a solution more fitting of angels than women.

The lecture spent a fair while examining unintentional lying such as acting in a play. And not one second on the intentional lies we commonly say but never consider confessing and would never resolve not to do again. Not one second on common intentional lies such as our folk tradition of telling our children about the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa Claus down the chimney, Huguenots coming in the dead of night to carry away and eat naughty children, and similar other lies that help form the fabric of our social lives.

Nor did the lecture address the other common intentional lies that make up everyday life and common courtesy? Such as when a mother says to her toddler, “where’s Mary, I can’t find her”; or the guest who says to his host that he enjoyed the dinner when he did no such thing?

I know hard cases are not the best place to start at when working out a solution to a theoretical problem, but eventually those hard cases do need to be addressed. Conflicts between requirements require solutions. What is needed are solutions to the everyday problems we actually face.

I should note, the lecture is actually far better than most by the Catholic intellectual class for whom conformity to concrete reality is a mark invariably missed.

The problem with lectures like this is that the approach to the subject is only from one direction. The lecture is an exercise in forcing concrete reality to conform to a platonic disembodied standard. It's an approach foreign to architects, engineers, and every other artisan because for those artisans it's understood that the final end of their art is practical human life lived.

The Catholic intellectual class has a propensity to concentrate their attention on the form while ignoring the matter. As opposed to the proper approach that instead sees a holistic unity between form and matter. The form doesn't exist apart from the matter, nor matter apart from the form. The form requires proper matter which in turn means that it must take the matter as it finds it as long as it is sufficiently suitable.

Transforming sublime Catholic moral theology into concrete practical reality means that the concrete also forms the solution. the solution is not solely from the top downward, but also from the bottom upward as well.

Catholic society is grounded in practical experience, which in turn means that Catholic social theoreticians must approach their subjects according to human scale. A human scale that includes not only the sublime, but a human scale that likewise includes the matter, i.e. common life as it's actually lived.

As is often the case when a conflict doesn't seem resolvable, the first step in the solution is change of perspective. In architecture this can mean a very literal change such as rotating the plan drawing, or rotating the 3D image in one's imagination. Or it can mean looking at the problem according to the more theoretical such as changing the building from being a number of additive elements to that of a whole where parts are subtracted.

Changing perspective is sometime referred to as thinking outside the box.

Similarly, granting the concrete existence of atoms made of energy in a void is incompatible with substantial change because the change in atoms cannot be other than accidental. But yet we know both that substantial change is true, along with empirical evidence that appears as atoms of energy in a void.

The common understanding of relationship between substantial change and that of atoms in a void is that the atoms reflect concrete reality and substantial change is a poetic interpretation or sign. But if we step back and reverse the relationship of the objects so that atoms are understood as as signs the incompatibility ceases to exits and atoms in a void and substantial change can both be seen as true and explained.

It's a solution that is also at human scale because it explains the empirical as we see it with our unaided senses. Our unaided senses are part of common life as it's actually lived. It's the human scale most basic to us. Just as our folk traditions including the intentional lies we tell our children such as Santa Claus coming down the chimney are most basic to us.

What the Catholic intellectual class, including the Catholic social theoreticians need to likewise do is step back and change their approach and understanding of the relation between the sublime and concrete reality seeing both as formative to the solution, as opposed to their current top downward approach which leaves unexplainable conflicts.

Catholic social theoreticians need to problem solve their science in the same manner as other practical arts artisans problem solve there own respective sciences. They need to see their science as practical problem solving where the proof is : does it work at a practical level?


As I've written elsewhere concerning the annulment scandal, this top down approach that doesn't include common life as it's actually lived when formulating a practical solution is an all to common occurrence.

In times past all children born to a mother where considered legitimate even when to the casual observer it was rather obvious that the husband was not the father. This was a practical response which protected the family and protected the children. In times past marriages also stayed together and priests told wives to remain with their husband for the good of the family and the good of the children, which was also good practical advice.

Which is what is in turn missing today, i.e. good practical responses and good practical advice to actual affairs. What we are missing is prudence. What we have instead is ideological purity. The same ideological purity St. Thomas argues against whether it be red light districts, or theft where he argues that a man can take a loaf of bread from a bakery window ledge without payment for it depending on circumstance.

In this regard there’s nothing unusual about the current annulment process which treats men as disembodied spirits removed from original sin where only angels can contract marriage. The same disregard for the practical in favor of the ideological is a common occurrence found among the Catholic intellectual class whose solutions are invariably impractical.

Their incompetency to devise practical solutions to the task they set before themselves to solve is I suspect most commonly due to lack of experience. It’s not that a priest must be married to understand marriage, but he must at the least have some previous experience of normal family life living in community or some similar experience from which to apply principle.

(or in the above lecture's case, probably not so much lack of experience, as disregard of that experience in formulating a solution)

Similarly, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, when ever I read articles by intellectual class agrarian types what is immediately obvious is their incompetency, because what they praise as practical and desirable are blatantly obviously neither practical or desirable to anyone with practical experience.

Intellectual class agrarian types are akin to a girl who has never sewn before who places her stitches too far apart. To anyone who has practical experience the sewing error is all too obvious, but not to the poor girl who considers herself well adept. What they have is an a ideological solution without practical knowledge of how to implement it.

Another way this ideological separation from the practical shows up is when the intellectual class discuss issues such as the common good where they describe the common good in Platonic terms such as saying the common good is justice. A description completely disembodied from the practical reality that Justice, like Virtue, or Evil do not exist in themselves but must exist in a subject. So that finally the common good exists in society as subject according to subsidiarity as method of application. But what matters here is how the common good was approached, because as opposed to approaching it from a common sense practical angle, it was instead approached from a disembodied angle.

How we approach a problem has much to do with what solution is finally devised. From good beginnings come good results such as the aforementioned solution to marriage infidelity by recognizing all offspring as legitimate. And from bad beginnings such as ideological purity come bad results.

As an aside. This same ideological purity extends beyond the Catholic intellectual class, because while most people think we live in an age of compromise where anything goes, it is to the contrary quite the opposite. Just think of the new expressions such as ‘tolerance’. Tolerance as used today signifies rigid conformity to modernist ideology.


  1. That lecture on lying was received with very mixed feelings at TAC. I think many of us think it/his general attitude towards knowledge is sketch. Just didn't want you to think we are all of one mind over here. - a senior

  2. Thank you for your reply.

    You write : "his general attitude towards knowledge is sketch"

    What in particular was the issue, or issues?