Archive for March 2009

One old Irishman to another

March 23, 2009

Swift’s epitaph at St. Patrick’s is in Latin. Yeats rendered it in English:

Swift has sailed into his rest.
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller.
He served human liberty.

I ponder these words much these days.


Semi, Pelagian

March 13, 2009

Had I stepped off the curb two seconds earlier, I would have been hit by a speeding motorcoach that ran the red light. “Jesus Saves,” it proclaimed on its front.

Grace is powerful, but sometimes you have to get off the sidewalk.

Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, by Stephen Breyer

March 13, 2009

This is a short book; basically a standard law review article in book form. It’s 135 pages, including big margins and a number of blank pages between chapters.

Justice Breyer draws on Benjamin Constant in defining “active liberty” as the citizen’s right and responsibility to participate in government and lawmaking. Active liberty is distinct from “civil liberty” or “true modern liberty,” which Breyer defines as “the individual’s freedom to pursue his own interests and desires free of improper government interference.”

Breyer then gives several examples of how active liberty guided the Court’s majority or dissenters in deciding cases in the areas of speech, federalism, privacy, affirmative action, statutory interpretation, and administrative law. There is a short response to “A Serious Objection” at the end of the book, the objection being originalism/textualism, which Breyer rejects.

Basically, Breyer uses active liberty as a cover for reaching results that he likes as a matter of public policy. There is no serious discussion of the implications of his theory for relations with the other two branches of the federal government or with the states. Nor does he attempt to show how his search for the meaning that is demanded by active liberty is constrained by neutral principles, rather than his own policy preferences.

He rejects appeals to history with the comment, “How does reliance upon history bring about certainty or objectivity in such a case?” (discussing Stogner v. California, 539 U.S. 607 (2003)). Perhaps he should have read a law review note titled, “Philosophy, History, and Judging,” 30 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 181 (1988). Hmmm . . . .

In the end, he concludes that textualism is not such a problem, because “those strongly committed to textualist or literalist views–those whom I am almost bound not to convince–are fairly small in number.” Let’s see–Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito . . . that’s 4/9 on the Court–not exactly “small in number”! Breyer does not try to engage Scalia at all, and only quotes one paragraph from Thomas (in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003)).

Breyer is civil throughout, however, and admirably keeps to his quixotic vision of avoiding textual notes.

He may not convince, but the effort to lay out a theory for his way of judging is worth attention.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, by Joseph Ratzinger

March 11, 2009

Good introduction to the political thought of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. It’s a short (167-page) collection of 10 separate essays/lectures. The best are “Conscience and Truth” (from 1992, around the time of Veritatis Splendor, and echoing its themes) and “Europe’s Identity: Its Intellectual Foundations Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” (from 2004, on the importance of faith and reason for Europe’s identity and future).

What American bishops come close to Ratzinger for seriousness of purpose and clarity of thought? Cardinal George, sometimes.

The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain, by B. Netanyahu

March 11, 2009

This is a very long book–over 1080 pages before you get to the appendices. Why do I pick up these books? Because they’re there–the Everest and K2 of books. (I think I need an oxygen mask!)

As the title says, this is about the origins of the Spanish Inquisition, not the proceedings of the Inquisition itself. The author, father of the Israeli politician and a professor at Cornell, begins actually in ancient Egypt with a prologue on antisemitism, then moves quickly through first millennium Spain and into the 15th century. There is a tremendous amount of detail; the book is really an encyclopedia, with long passages on all sorts of participating figures. There is great, depressing detail on the repeated pogroms against the Jews in the centuries leading up to the Inquisition. Out of these pogroms developed the mass conversions of many Jews to Christianity as a way of escaping persecution.

Netanyahu is not out to get anyone or absolve anyone here. He states his sympathies clearly at the beginning, but notes that his research led him to a conclusion different from what he thought at first. The victims of the Spanish Inquisition, he concludes, were not, as he had thought, outwardly converted Jews who had secretly held on to their Jewish religion and were persecuted for it; instead, they were genuine Christian converts from Judaism who were persecuted for being ethnically/racially Jews. He waits till the last chapters to draw the obvious comparison to Nazi Germany.

(Actually, he does spend quite a bit of time showing how the conversos really were not ritually murdering children, desecrating consecrated Hosts, or poisoning wells, as supposedly was being done according to Jewish ritual. This hardly seems necessary to explain, but you can’t fault him for not being thorough enough.)

He makes clear that the racist persecution of the conversos was not called for by official Church doctrine and policy, but also shows that there was enough antisemitic teaching to give the racists cover. Popes clashed with the Spanish hierarchy but did not do enough to stop the destruction. Could they have done more?

Grim stuff, but worth reading, especially in recent weeks when antisemites have caused such pain for the Church.