We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.
In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.
In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.
This post marks the first of a new occasional series, “Last Week in Virtue.”
“But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another; it is a double life, a double life. A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money…’ A double life. And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard – all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere – ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal. You destroy. You beat down. And this happens every day, it’s enough to see the news on TV, or to read the papers. In the papers there are so many scandals, and there is also the great publicity of the scandals. And with the scandals there is destruction.” –Pope Francis homily, February 23, 2017 (Link)
On February 23 Pope Francis gave a homily that received widespread media attention, not so much for its message—a fairly traditional one about the sin of hypocrisy—but because the media seized on the Pope’s assertion that even an atheist was better than an observant Catholic leading a “double,” or hypocritical, life. Daniel Burke’s headline, at CNN, promptly declared, “Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian.” Burke discussed the Pope’s idea of scandal, noting that scandal is a particularly sensitive word for the Catholic Church. But the headline to his article shows the Pope’s notion of scandal eclipsed here by what the news media saw as a shout out to virtuous atheists.
In emphasizing the atheism story, the media in many ways replicated the very sense of scandal that the Pope decried in his homily, with headlines repeating over and over that the Pope would rather have a world full of good atheists than vicious Catholics. Looking closely at the Pope’s words shows that his concern in this case is as much on the shame of the public spectacle of Catholic hypocrisy as it is on celebrating virtuous nonbelievers: “How many times have we heard—all of us, around the neighborhood and elsewhere—‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’”
The news clearly liked the second part of his sentence better than the first part, but the emphasis in his speech is not on the virtue of atheism, but the terrible destructiveness of the scandal of hypocrisy, and how this kind of publicity, this kind of circulation of these images of Christians as vile hypocrites, destroys trust and faith. “You destroy. You beat down.”
We all know whenever one of these stories about Christian hypocrisy circulates, he says, that everybody looks at it and says, Better to be an atheist than one of “those” hypocritical Christians. We all understand, he is saying, that hypocrisy is a terrible sin, and we all would agree that an atheist without hypocrisy is better than a so-called believer who claims to believe in Christian charity while acting in a way that harms and exploits vulnerable people. The stress here is on the harm caused by the hypocrite, and on the news stories that emphasize that these kinds of so-called Christians—powerful Catholics who pretend to have generosity while actually treating others with great cruelty– are everywhere.
In one sense, then, the Pope wants to remind the hypocrite to return to a virtuous life by pointing out that their salvation is anything but assured. He wants to confront the sinner squarely with the sin—the fault of scandal lies with the hypocrite, not the news. He expands on the dishonesty of hypocrisy to show that it also includes the destructiveness of bad example and public scandal. At the same time, he uses the example of the atheist to remind listeners that good actions matter more than identity. A virtuous life might make a good person—even an earnest atheist—more fit for salvation than a person who goes to church regularly but steals wages from their employees.
Why is this notion of the virtuous atheist so attractive?
The virtuous atheist here seems a lot like the old trope of the virtuous pagan, whose fate preoccupied medieval scholars concerned with the salvation of those outside the Church, especially the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers they admired. Traditionally virtuous pagans fell roughly into two categories: those who had been offered Christian salvation and turned it down, and those who never had the opportunity to convert because of factors like chronology or geography.  To medieval scholars, it seemed patently unfair that the eminent philosophers, poets, and Old Testament scholars and patriarchs they studied should be automatically damned. They dreamed up various solutions, such as Christ descending to hell to baptize good people who had somehow ended up there, Limbos that resembled Paradise where good pagans might be housed until the Last Judgment, and the idea, championed by Thomas Aquinas and others, that following a virtuous life might lead a good person—even an atheist—to faith and salvation.
It may be that some journalists mistakenly believed that the Pope was acknowledging that a good life and afterlife could be had completely and forever outside the Church, which he wasn’t. The virtuous pagan doesn’t get to remain outside the Church forever, but at some point is expected to be led by virtue to Catholic conversion. This belief was seen last week in Vatican news sources that stressed this aspect of the Pope’s homily, such as Vatican Radio’s “Pope: Don’t put off conversion, give up a double life.”
However, it is not a stretch to say the Pope remains more concerned with doing good in the world than he is with the particulars of Church affiliation. According to Catholic Online, Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
In this diverse and secular age, there is something particularly appealing about the idea that it is the virtuous life that matters most, that it reveals its own truth regardless of religious faith. The Pope’s example of the virtuous atheist as better than the sinful Catholic appealed to the media last week because it emphasized that cultivating virtue is more important than membership, association, or influence. Not all of us can be powerful, rich, or politically well-connected, but each of us can try to be good. The stamp of religious membership might indicate that a good person stands before you, but it also might be true that the person who sets themselves up as a Christian paragon is a liar. By suggesting that virtuous action matters more than religious affiliation, wealth, or political power, the Pope appealed to a public weary of moral posturing and hungry for more discussion of how we all might cultivate genuine character, real compassion, and true moral direction by striving to be good in the world.
 Cindy L. Vitto, The Virtuous Pagan In Middle English Literature, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 79, No. 5 (1989), pp. 1-100; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1006545
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Founded in 1997 by Catholic Scholars at the University of Chicago, The Lumen Christi Institute brings together thoughtful Catholics and others interested in the Catholic tradition and makes available to them the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual, intellectual, and cultural heritage. Lumen Christi is a partner with our project and we’re pleased to share their upcoming events for Spring 2017.
Gavin House: 1220 E 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
Open to graduate and undergraduate students, including non-University of Chicago students. Space is limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Copies of the readings will be made available online to all participants.
Our scholar and theologian Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks about about Aquinas’ views of the transcendentals: being, unity, truth, goodness, beauty, and how they relate to more ultimate questions about the existence of God, in this Soundcloud shared by one of our partners, the Thomistic Institute.
This lecture is part 2 of a 3-part series on an introduction to metaphysics.
Our scholar and theologian Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks about about Aristotelian conception of substance and how it might be related to the perspectives of the modern sciences in this Soundcloud shared by one of our partners, the Thomistic Institute. This lecture is part 1 of a 3-part series on an introduction to metaphysics.
Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18 – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.
Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.
Fr. Stephen L. Brockis Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (T&T Clark, 1998).
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture. He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).
Candace Vogleris the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.
For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.