President's Corner

Keynote Address at the Mazatlán Forum

By Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

When this conference was first proposed I supported the idea enthusiastically. I tend to be an optimist and I welcomed the idea of an exchange across cultures that might shed new light upon the issues that we propose to engage. I still hold that hope. But I am also aware that what have become conventional approaches to analyzing these issues will defeat my hope. One cannot place new wine in old skins and if anything new is to be said, we will need to break with convention in order to uncover it.

What convention or conventions do I have in mind? 

It has, for example, become conventional to attempt to categorize every social issue in pseudo-political terms such as “left” and “right”, “liberal” and “conservative”, “tolerant” and “intolerant”, “progressive” and “reactionary.” This has become so much the case that, if the media in the United States (I dare not speak of Mexico) were forbidden the use of these epithets they would be reduced almost to silence.

This sort of convention is obvious, even trite and relatively easy to avoid, although I have often enough caught myself speaking of certain prelates as liberal or conservative, progressive or reactionary. Categories such as these can appear to be useful for the sake of contrasting opinions and approaches. Yet their use always renders the relationships they purport to describe impersonal. Intimate relationship is not liberal or conservative; no one is progressive or reactionary in friendship or in making love. The one who would say to his beloved, with quivering voice, “I tolerate you” would strictly deserve what would likely happen next.

The convention that we must break with is, I think, more subtle. 

In 1958 Eric Voegelin delivered a paper at the University of Munich. In it he identified a “…phenomenon unknown to antiquity that permeates our modern societies so completely that its ubiquity scarcely leaves us any room to see it at all: the prohibition of questioning." Voegelin proceeded to ground this assertion philosophically, probing the systems of “…persons who know that, and why, their opinions cannot stand up under critical analysis and who therefore make the prohibition of the examination of their premises part of their dogma.”

One might contend with Voegelin that his criticism of Marx, Nietzsche, Comte and Heidegger - all of whom he accused of an intellectual swindle - might have been overdrawn. However, there is no doubt that in the Soviet regimes of the Cold War era there existed a prohibition of questions and the corresponding triumph of a party ideology, which might be characterized as an adherence according to which the explanation of any matter invariably preceded the facts. 

We inhabit a different world than did Voegelin lecturing in 1958. The Iron Curtain has fallen and we in the United States take pride in the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. In principle, there are no forbidden questions. Yet we should not too soon dismiss Voegelin's concern. I would suggest that, if there are no prohibited questions, nonetheless we have grown accustomed to an impatience with questions that can prove in practice to be tantamount to the same thing. 

If the Soviet regimes were ideologically driven, the American system was economically driven by production and markets. Victory in the Cold War accrued largely to the fact that the NATO powers overwhelmingly out-produced the Eastern bloc. But we can now begin to see that this occurred at a cost: we in the United States have grown more and more to speak of all things as if they were commodities. What impact policies will have upon the economy controls most political thinking and determines the questions that are considered to be worthy of public consideration. Even men and women are regarded as economic resources; every corporation has a "department of human resources" - a terminology that would have appalled our grandparents and that betrays a much closer affinity to Marx than most Americans would like to concede.

In a public environment that emphasizes economic considerations almost to the exclusion of all else conversation is necessarily limited. We deal with problems to be solved; even if we acknowledge that there is a realm of human activity that transcends the problematic and that cannot be adequately accounted for by means of economic measures, we relegate that realm to what is personal and esoteric. Perhaps the reason for such a clamor over individual rights in American society has much to do with the fact that, for all of the political rhetoric, individuals do not figure very much into our economic or political calculus. The dimensions of the human person that ground and determine our individuality - our personal narratives, our fidelities, our intimate relationships - are regarded as private and have little place in our public debates.

I am convinced that the poverty of our public discourse is due to a convention of focusing upon "issues" requiring resolution rather than upon persons and things in relationship. In the place of real questions we address problems; we are not prohibited from asking questions except that there is a convention according to which any question that is deserving of our common attention must practically address a problem that needs resolution. In other words, a question must have the character of a problem in order for us to address it. Here we should notice, parenthetically, that only issues can be resolved; the resolution of a relationship is the death of it. Marriage, for example, is never resolved, except in divorce.

Gabriel Marcel once offered the helpful distinction between real and ersatz questions. According to Marcel, questions are real when we do not hold the answer to them, whereas questions to which we possess the answer are merely answers in question form. Such "questions" tend to close conversation rather than to open it. Yet in our emphasis upon production and the increase of wealth most of the questions that are publicly entertained tend to have the character of answers in the form of questions in that, almost invariably, they are concerned with means and not ends.

There can be real questions concerning the best manner in which we should proceed to accomplish something; we may not yet grasp the most felicitous means at hand and we may even be invited to debate what they might be. Yet conversation concerning the means must, of necessity, presume some sort of end, even if it is so vague as "strengthening the economy." But if the end is presumed known, then at best we have a very partial question. 

For example, having posited that a certain growth rate is essential to the economy and having further estimated the rate of new immigrants according to that growth rate, we might ask how best to adjust the immigration rate in order to preserve the health of the economy. There is here a real question about the means, but with respect to the end we have, in Marcel's terms, an ersatz question, an answer in the form of a question. Questions such as these do not open conversation; they close it.

This convention of presuming the end is what, in my perception, has become ubiquitous in American society and is what defeats the posing of real questions. I cannot remember the last time I witnessed a real political question being discussed in a public political forum: a question that would concern the end to be achieved rather than the adequate means to serve an end that is already presumed and therefore hardly articulated. In the recent election rhetoric to which we were subjected in the U.S., debate concerned the integrity of the candidates and, occasionally, the means that they would institute if elected, but the ends, because presumed, were entirely vague. People should be "better off" than before; the world should be safer than it is, and so on; hardly enough to keep the mind alive. The candidates most likely to be elected are those who are convincing in their apparent sincerity, photogenic, and glib. To admit that any question touching upon the election might be real - a question to which the candidate does not have a ready answer - tends to be regarded as a sign of weakness, of incapacity to hold office or to lead.

I might add, parenthetically, that there are those who seem to hold the position that religious faith requires that there be no real questions, that to ask a real question is not merely a sign of weakness but of betrayal. I hold that there is, indeed, a revelation, which means that we have an access to knowledge about the human person that would otherwise be closed to us. But it is precisely the revelation that requires the posing of real questions - that is, questions to which we do not have an answer.  The whole project of theology is an attempt to understand God, the human person and the world in the light of what has been revealed. Not to question in the light of the revelation is to refuse to receive it.

In much contemporary conversation we tend to presume the end. There is also an attendant tendency according to which the means can replace the end altogether. So, for example, what began as an attempt to establish equality of opportunity for the sake of a greater justice in society has turned into a practical egalitarianism. So conceived, it means that no person ought to have more than one has oneself. That this might not be just - that, for example, the common good itself might require some inequality in the distribution of goods - is, in such a view, no longer considered. Equal opportunity has become egalitarian treatment: all must be treated the same, and this premise is hardly challenged.

Again, we ought to notice that any conversation about what is economical must, necessarily, be a question of means, not of ends. We can determine what is the most economical approach to public health only if we have defined what is our end, what public health might be. Again, it is not economical, for example, to put a pianist of the caliber of Vladimir Horowitz at a cheap spinet. It is economical to offer him the best concert grand piano that we can find. The end, the music of which he is capable, must determine the means. Yet we have aggregated our various financial relationships to the extent that we now speak of "the economy" as if it were a thing, an end in itself, a subject that can be treated independently of other ends. Moreover, not only is it no longer regarded as a means; rather, it is the end that determines other ends - political, social, individual.

These are, in my judgment, examples of our substituting means for ends. There has also grown up a curious habit of despairing of any agreement concerning the ends in such a way that real questions are, if not prohibited, regarded as futile. We have, instead, process as an end. So, for example, radical pluralism is now presumed in public conversation in the U.S. to the degree that it is taken as a matter of course that there cannot be agreement among citizens even upon a common world view. Each individual, according to the Supreme Court, must be free to determine his or her own reality, his or her own world view. The function of government is then to preserve a radical individual autonomy. The project is negative; it is to avoid the assertion of a common good apart from a rule of law - which has now become a process - that respects pluralism and individual prerogative. The consequences of this assumption are drastic.

For example, immigration is a problem because immigrants threaten the individual prerogatives of citizens. What an immigrant might contribute to the society cannot be seriously addressed, because there is little notion of what is a society, apart from economic cooperation for the sake of the individual. Therefore laws are enacted to protect "the economy" and immigration is then treated under the rubric of legal or illegal. The rights of citizens require limiting the rights of non-citizens lest they prove a drain on the economy or a threat to the employment of citizens, and immigration is fundamentally viewed as an intrusion. This is not entirely a new development in the U.S. The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes held that the law of the land is whatever the privileged intend it to be.

Unless we can address the confusion of means and ends, the substitution of means for ends and, to add to the mix, a despair of achieving common ends, all of which in my judgment have becomes conventional in public discourse, we will have have little to say that is new.

We here gathered have proposed to consider together a number of issues - individual rights, subsidiarity in governance, immigration, the relation of Church and state, the market economy, the impact of social media and so on; the reason for choosing these topics and not others is that there are urgent and practical problems associated with each, problems that impact both U.S. and Mexican societies. It is my hope that we will not merely attempt new solutions to these problems - that is, by addressing the means - but that we can offer new perspectives because we pose real questions to which we do not, at first, have an answer; questions that have a bearing upon the ends, not merely the means.

To do this requires, I think, certain virtues on our part.

First, we must have the humility to expect that our conversation has a real purpose, which is to say that we require the conversation in order to address questions to which we do not have a ready answer. For me the whole advantage to the conversation will be found in the fact  that others have a purchase upon the truth that I do not myself have.

Second, we must have the courage and honesty to express our own uneasiness around the premises that we ourselves will advance. If a question is real to me it means that I do not know the answer to it and that I experience an uneasiness with respect to my own approach. Often my best contribution may well be to give an account of the points upon which I am least clear, least certain. Not only will I then not prohibit questioning; rather, I will insist upon questions, careful to examine my own premises and to concede where I find them lacking. I am convinced that expertise in any subject does not imply an absence of questions; rather it is to have some insight into what the real questions are that ought to be asked.

We must also keep faith. I am convinced that there is not only supernatural faith, but also a natural disposition that ought to be called faith. To be faithful is to remain, to stay; it is to look and not look away. If I am faithful to a friend it means that I will remain in relationship, even and especially when we disagree, when to stay is only achieved at a cost. If we are to speak of such things as rights, or immigration, or social media and youth we are required to remain faithful to the experience of others as well as our own; to look and not look away. We will avoid easy generalizations and refuse to relegate their situations or circumstances to the problematic.

I am indeed hopeful for our conversations. My most specific hope is that we will surface some of the questions that have hitherto gone unasked or unexplored. There are, certainly, cultural differences between Mexico and the U.S which can serve us very well as we frame the questions that ought to be asked.

To begin our conversation I would be very interested to solicit your judgment concerning my remarks. To my colleagues in the College of Fellows: Is the situation in the U.S. as I have described it? And, if you agree at some points with my analysis, I would very much like to know from our Mexican colleagues whether there are resonances with respect to public discourse in Mexico.

Further, if you judge that there is some merit in my approach, then I would invite us to commence conversation over the next few days with a consideration of the questions that, perhaps, cause us to be uneasy, admissions of our need for conversation.

I appreciate your attention.