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When critics need criticism

Talking about what people should and shouldn’t do is a sticky business. Pascal was obviously right when he said that it’s difficult to speak humbly of humility or chastely of chastity, and it’s conventional to accuse obtrusively pious and moral people of hypocrisy. During my unfortunate stay in the Episcopal Church I noticed that people who talk about openness and community are mostly self-willed tyrants, and those who tell stories about their own honesty shouldn’t be trusted. So it’s not surprising that academia and the media, who constantly lecture us about ignorance and bigotry, harbor and even honor ignorant bigots. For a detailed account of how that played out in one particularly outrageous situation, see Charlotte Allen’s Weekly Standard piece on Duke’s Tenured Vigilantes: The scandalous rush to judgment in the lacrosse “rape” case. There are a lot of people out there with really unsavory fantasies about white male privilege, rich preppy lacrosse players, and what not else, and they are able to claim intellectual and moral authority for those fantasies.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is not a question that has an easy answer. “Decide for yourself” is good advice in many ways, but it has its limits. There really are people and institutions who are more reliable than we are on many issues. Why isn’t it better to recognize them as authorities? Since this is a Catholic weblog, I suppose I should give what I take to be a Catholic view of the matter: it’s best to have a highest institutional moral authority, because otherwise morality will lose social reality as an objective standard and will assimilate as a practical matter to some combination of rhetoric and personal or institutional self-interest, self-will and fantasy. To keep the institutional moral authority somewhat honest, it should be deprived of direct means of coercion, and to keep it from being captured by particular interest groups it should be international, its headquarters should be exempt from the direct authority of any government, and its members deprived as much as possible of the ordinary human interests (like family and property) that incline most of us to get along by going along. Then it should be defined as authoritative, but made stable and cautious by depriving it of continuing charismatic authority and forcing it to justify its actions by reference to unchanging doctrines and authorities. It should also have a strong principle of tradition, so that the possibilities of arbitrariness are further reduced and it can mostly run itself at the local and regional level with as little central bureaucracy as possible.

Sound familiar? Admittedly there’s been a trend away from tradition and toward bureaucracy since Vatican II, and there was a tendency to promote charismatic papal authority during the reign of JP II, but I’m traddish and we traddish types don’t approve of those tendencies. The current pope says he doesn’t like bureaucracy and centralization, he’s less likely to appeal to charisma than his predecessor, and there’s even talk of an opening to tradition, in the form of the classical Tridentine Mass. So what, compared with the alternatives, is there in the basic organization of Catholicism that is not to like?

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