I Blame Kant

Against the Grain points me to a post from Common Sense Catholicism, itself a response to a discussion over at First Things, but the post makes this point, which I've been mulling over ever since the BXVI condom conundrum, which I found truly depressing:
Many Catholic apologists in this age of social networking and the blogosphere have long ago stopped writing about actual apologetics. They feel their expertise in apologetics (an expertise earned) makes them relevant on various other matters as well, some of which aren’t even remotely religious. (One could read Mark Shea’s rants on foreign affairs and “torture” and one realizes there’s really nothing pro or anti-Catholic about them, they are simply an attempt to use alleged Church teachings to mask his political beliefs.

This trend has proven quite disastrous when many of the apologists started wading into matters where Catholics of good will could take varying prudential stances.
Yes! This is a point I return to again and again whenever Catholics in the public square have anything to say about the conduct of war, capital punishment, pro-life voting or care for the poor: four topics on which otherwise intelligent and eloquent public Catholics routinely beclown themselves (to use Tim Blair's excellent neologism) by stepping into debates in which they don't seem to be aware of the intellectual ground that's gone before them: as if political philosophy didn't exist.

He blames careerism--
If you’ve been writing apologetics at least once a week for 3 years, you’ve basically demonstrated all that is wrong with Protestantism. Yet your children still need to eat. So people start going into other areas they really have no business being in, but attempt to speak with the same level of authority. In the secular world, this is known as the mentality of “publish or perish.” 
--and also an intellectual mistake he's calling "sola intellectua."
In this mindset, the Catholic Church is simply a proposition of intellectual formations. Provided one demonstrates an intellectual belief in a given doctrine or principle, that is the height of catholicity. This is obviously wrong. As Fulton Sheen famously said, “Catholics do not submit a dogma. They submit to a person, Jesus Christ.” The intellectualism problem infects all circles of Catholicism. One can see it particularly on display in the debates surrounding Christopher West. It is practically a belief of “sola fide” in Theology of the Body, and one will be cured from all the ills of this vale of tears.
I'm not sure either criticism is fair, especially not the accusation against the Theology of the Body  folks, whose mistake might be the opposite of intellectualism. In my experience their zeal springs more from having been so "caught" by the beauty of the teaching--which points towards Beauty itself-- that they can forget the Lord lays different things on different hearts at different times, so it will not be the only means of reaching people. They are -- at least those I know, including some of the movement's major figures-- people profoundly in love with Jesus, so I flat-out absolve them on that score. And Mark Shea's rants appeared on his blog not in his professional columns, right?

I think the real problem is two related pernicious influences on modern thought that have completely infected the Christian mind in such a way as to destroy genuine moral thinking by destroying our understanding of the virtue of prudence and reducing everything into do and don't lists.

The condum conundrum was a wearily depressing example. Janet Smith got it right when she said:
[Benedict XVI] was speaking only to the question of what the intention of the agent might indicate about the possibility of moral maturation; he was saying nothing about the morality of the use of condoms by anyone for any purpose
but all over the Catholic sphere --even among "us good guys"-- everyone wanted to turn the pope's comment into a prescription: can a prostitute use a condom or not? 

Never mind the fact he explicitly said the Church "of course doesn't consider condoms either a real or moral solution," which should have been an end on that score.

The Pope's remarks were inherently evangelizing. As he always does, he engages "the world," rather than hectoring it, trusting people to be able to be honest with themselves and think though some of these questions.  He was inviting the world which insists that an AIDS-infected male prostitute use a condom ask itself why it so insists.

A thought process that might go like this: I am going to use a condom. Why? To prevent my john from dying. And why do I care whether or not he dies? Because...he is a person with inherent value who doesn't deserve to die. And if he doesn't deserve to die, how does he deserve to be treated? Should he be used as a cheap trick? ...and so forth, until he saw that no one needs a condom who has understood what a person is.

The pope made a wise and humane observation, no doubt trying to spark for those who had ears to hear a re-thinking of progressive morality by appealing to what is obvious and true in the depths of people's consciences and their own experiences. And almost the whole Catholic world fell into the secular press' trap by immediately leaping on the topic to "correct" the "naive" pope and be sure the take-home message was, "Don't use condoms, you sinners!" Flat, flat, flat. Soul-crushingly flat. Thanks, guys.

And don't get me started on the reduction of Just War theory from a noble teaching on the value of the human person and a support for the consciences of politicians and commanders who bear the burden of the consequences of battle decisions into a list of rules we use to judge people in situations most of us are ignorant of and ill-informed about.

Servais Pinkaers, O.P., the principal author of the pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the moral life, teaches in The Sources of Christian Ethics there are two streams of Christian morality. One is authentic, and can be traced back through Aquinas to Augustine, back to the Fathers and the Apostles. It is a morality which begins from the premise that God is Father, and the fundamental moral question is, "How can I be happy?"  In this school --the authentically Christian school of morality-- the moral life is rising to higher and higher heights of human flourishing under the guidance of the Creator and Father who loves us, and the human being journeys by virtue and grace into greater and greater freedom and joy. Freedom is for excellence, and excellence brings joy.

At the beginning of the Modern Period, beginning with the nominalists and especially William of Ockham, moral theology became reduced almost entirely to a set of obligations. In this view, the question of how to be happy drops out, the fundamental moral question is, "What must I do?" and the central notion of God is that of Authority. This trend culminates in Kant, who not only ignores the question of happiness, but denounces it as itself immoral.  "To make eudomonism the foundation of virtue is to euthanize morality," he says.

He had the utilitarians, with their false notions, in mind, but didn't seem to notice that he wiped out all of Christian morality before himself in the process.

The result of this turn is a complete change in the notion of freedom. In authentic Christian morality, freedom is like a seed within us, and by virtue and grace we gradually grow in to full freedom, rather as a musician passes from a child's dull fingering exercises into the joy of creative musical expression. At first he doesn't like it, but with each new step towards mastery, he becomes happier within himself and music becomes more enjoyable. Similarly, we pass through a kind of moral infancy --based on the thou shalt nots of the commandments, which are simply a distillation of natural law and can be known from reason-- and rise gradually to the perfections of the Beatitudes step by step, in response to gentle invitations from the Lord in our consciences. As we grow, so does our joy.

What the nominalists introduce and Kant solidifies is a divorce between morality and happiness and perpetual opposition of man's will and God's. Freedom is not for excellence and joy, it's the freedom of indifference, where I negate my own happiness to do what God wants and learn to be indifferent about it. Everything is just staying within the rules. In the end that even divorces man from himself. Where the Founders invoke "self-interest, properly understood," which is at bottom a conception of the common good, Kant thinks even the slightest consideration of self-interest is impure --which has left a decidedly inhumane element in a lot of what passes for Christian morality.

This is the real problem with most debates in the Catholic media world, it seems to me. We seem to be unsettled when people think through problems in the way genuine freedom requires us to --and by answers that vary according to needs and circumstances. We want to rush to slap down a rule for everyone at all times: Breastfeed for x months; don't wear pants; you must homeschool or you mustn't; don't read Harry Potter; do "X" in warfare, never-mind if the enemy's conduct of warfare has changed completely since the last war.

Kant's categorical imperative turns out in my view to be the most self-centered morality of all, because in the effort to be "pure," what Kant actually throws out is genuine consideration for the common good. Now --no matter how high the body count that results--  we're allowed to feel smug and "right" as long as our own behavior has been "pure." Go ahead and tell the Nazi there are Jews in the attic; at least you won't have told a lie.

So we vote for "pro-life" politicians even if they are obvious kooks whose siphoning of votes will cause a virulently pro-abortion crusader to win an election. Because "God doesn't call us to win, he calls us to be faithful." And we are constantly threatening to break into tiny, pure, third parties, tolerating no weaknesses in our friends and allies --all the while feeling no obligation to learn the real distinctions between the parliamentary systems of Europe and the winner-take-all mechanism of our own political system: which makes a difference that matters where voting is concerned. And we invent rules for family life that help some folks but only lay up burdens for others, and impose our strictures mercilessly on ourselves and others. And we impose on men responsible for the lives of countless persons regulations that no human being could actually follow because "we may not do evil that good may come" -- and never mind that the rule is we may not do what is intrinsically evil that good may come. If it's not intrinsically evil, we don't know yet whether it's evil until we've examined the matter.

I deny, in other words, that it's intellectualism that causes Catholics to make these mistakes. I think we actually think too little --far too little-- about moral questions and how a person begins down the road of conversion. Hint: it usually begins with a question, not a prescription. Questions like: is this all there is? How can I be happy?

Having a rule for everything is not morality and it makes the Christian project seem small and ridiculous to people who may be off track but are genuinely seeking. In fact, Pinckaers points out, the modern Christian form of morality is only one step away from relativism, because it's so easily toppled if you can poke a hole in one little orthodoxy.

I believe this is not unrelated to the point R.R. Reno made here
In my experience, although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is cautious to a fault. Students are trained—I was trained—to believe as little as possible so that the mind can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequences: an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths, because those are the only points on which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.
I think Christian thought is not exempt from this crushing smallness in our day. If we can reduce Just War theory to a few never-to-be-traversed rules, we'll be sure of never committing error. But life --especially Christian life-- is more interesting than that, and requires leaps of faith. You're not allowed to bury your talents, you have to risk them, remember?

Prudence --whatever else it is-- is a virtue for real life and real men, who are finite and therefore sometimes thrust into situations in which no perfect act is possible. Yes, you're going to have speak an untruth to protect the Jews in your attic. If you are one of those fortunate people who can pull off a deception by saying, "Yes, of course there are Jews" in such a way that the SS thinks you're fooling, bully for you. But most people will have to make a choice at that moment between two imperfect acts. Decisions have to be made at times when information is incomplete, there can be complications unforeseen through no fault of our own, and the results are not guaranteed.  Moral reasoning is for that --for human life. Yet as far as I can see Kant all but killed it, and left us with the instinct to elevate our every prudential judgment into a moral mandate.