Catholic reflections on the endgame of 2012
For several decades now, Catholic thinkers influenced by the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar have been arguing that beauty can be a window into the true and the good. Postmodernity affirms “your truth” and “my truth” but is profoundly nervous about “the truth.” Postmoderns break out in hives at the claim that the good is embedded in reality, not inside my head. Yet a profound encounter with the beautiful in art, architecture, music, or literature can make even the deepest skeptic and the most assiduous relativist consider the possibility that some things simply are, well, true and good. That Mozart’s Ave verum corpus and Fra Angelico’s Annunciation are beautiful, and that the chord these beautiful things touch in us is noble, isn’t a matter of my opinion or your opinion; it’s just true, just as the experience of true beauty is undeniably good.
This same dynamic works in reverse, for the ugly often illuminates what is base and ignoble. If a sane person didn’t know anything else about Communism and its effects on the lives of individuals and communities, a first encounter with the crudity, the sheer unloveliness, of socialist-realist architecture or painting would set off alarm bells: Something is seriously wrong here.
The ignoble and the base come in many forms. Two episodes of profound ugliness in the endgame of the 2012 campaign shed light on the character of some of those who would lead us for the next four years, and those who design their campaigns.
The vice president of the United States, for example, is not just a man whose natural exuberance makes him prone to gaffes. He is a national embarrassment, and from the point of view of his fellow Catholics he is an ecclesial embarrassment. Biden’s moral incoherence during the VP debate was a disservice to both church and state. For he not only misrepresented the sources of Catholic teaching on the inalienable right to life by suggesting that this conviction was some sort of weird Catholic hocus-pocus; he also distorted the public-policy debate by claiming that moral judgments could not be “imposed” on a pluralistic society (a nonsensical claim that is flatly contradicted by his defense of Obamacare).
Worse, Biden either lied or exhibited grotesque misunderstanding of the policy of the administration of which he is the putative second-in-command — and he surely boggled Paul Ryan’s mind (and the mind of any Catholic who has been paying attention for the past ten months) — when he claimed that the HHS “contraceptive mandate” did not require Catholic institutions to include coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs in the health-care benefits they provide their employees. The next morning, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying flatly that the vice president was wrong — a point underscored the previous night by Congressman Ryan, who quite rightly asked the clueless (or mendacious) Biden why he thought more than 40 Catholic institutions and employers were suing the administration over the HHS mandate.
But the worst was yet to come. At a recent memorial service for former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., the vice president of the United States, in what the elder Woods described as “an extremely loud and boisterous voice,” asked Woods’s grieving father, Charles, “Did your son always have balls the size of cue balls?” Yet another gaffe, the latest in the administration’s post-Benghazi thrashing? No. Ugliness, of the sort that illustrates the truth about a man’s character, or lack thereof. [More]