Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age

Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age

German theologian and philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand is pictured in a 1939 photo. (CNS photo/George Baltus, courtesy of Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project) 
Postmodern relativism and deconstruction have produced, at the popular level, what I have termed the “Meh culture,” that is to say, a culture dominated by the “whatever” attitude, a bland, detached indifferentism to the good and the true.  How often have you heard someone say, “That’s perhaps true for you but not for me,” or, “Who are you to be imposing your values on me?” or in the immortal words of the Dude in The Big Lebowski, “Well, that’s just like your opinion, man.”  Is it not a commonplace today that the only moral absolute that remains is the obligation to tolerate all points of view?  What this subjectivism has conduced toward is a society lacking in energy and focus, one that cannot rouse itself to corporate action on behalf of some universal good.  John Henry Newman said that well-defined banks are precisely what give verve and direction to a river.  Once those banks are knocked down, the river will spread out, in short order, into a large, lazy lake.  Applying the analogy, he argued that objective truths, clearly understood, are what give energy to a culture and that when those truths are compromised in the name of freedom or toleration, said culture rapidly loses its purpose and cohesiveness.  It is as though people today are floating on individual air-mattresses on Newman’s lazy lake, disconnected from one another, each locked in the isolation of his or her subjective judgments.  
The great 20th-century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the most articulate and incisive critics of the kind of relativism that has come to hold sway in our time.  Following the prompts of both Plato and St. Augustine, Hildebrand delighted in showing the self-defeating incoherence of the position:  if he is to be consistent, the relativist must hold that the claim of universal relativism is itself relative and hence not binding on anyone beside himself.  Hildebrand taught that the philosophy of relativism flowed from the failure to honor the fundamental distinction between the arena of the merely subjectively satisfying and the arena of real values.  There are many things and experiences that we seek because they please us or satisfy some basic need.  One might find a cigarette appealing or a slice of pizza tasty or a political party useful, but in all these cases, one is bending the thing in question to his subjectivity.  But there are other goods (Hildebrand’s “values”) that by their splendor, excellence, and intrinsic worth, draw the person out of himself, bending his subjectivity to them, drawing him toward self-transcendence.  
In the presence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Chartres Cathedral or Plato’s Republic or the daily work of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, one is compelled to acknowledge the preciousness of a reality that goes beyond the needs or expectation of one’s ego.  To characterize such things as merely subjectively satisfying, as though appreciating them is simply a matter of individual taste, would be simply ludicrous.  The whole point of the moral life for Hildebrand is to cultivate the appropriate response to these objective values, to channel one’s energies according to their demands.  A crucial consequence of cultivating the proper response to values is that real community increases and intensifies.  Whereas the merely subjectively satisfying correlates to the individual and his particular preferences, the objectively valuable correlates to the entire society of those drawn out of themselves and into a shared devotion.  
One might be tempted to think, “so far so abstract.”  But a new book titled My Battle Against Hitler, edited by two of the most devoted Hildebrandians on the scene today, John Crosby and his son John Henry Crosby, vividly demonstrates how Hildebrand himself lived out the principles of his moral philosophy in the face of the most vicious ideology of the last century.  In the 1920s, as the National Socialist movement was gaining ground, Hildebrand, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Munich, commenced to speak out against Hitler and his cronies.  He saw Nazism—marked by anti-Semitism, crude nationalism, cruelty, and indifference to human dignity—as a repudiation of an entire range of objective values.  Though it put his career and eventually his very life at risk, Hildebrand became, accordingly, an impassioned opponent of this political movement which had begun to attract the support even of leading intellectuals.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hildebrand was compelled to leave his beloved Munich and take up residence in Vienna.  From 1933 to 1938, he continued vocally to oppose Hitler, founding and editing an anti-Nazi journal that so infuriated Hitler that the Fuhrer referred to Hildebrand as his “number one enemy.”  When the German annexation of Austria took place, Hildebrand was aggressively sought by the Gestapo and narrowly escaped with his life, eventually settling in New York, where he became professor of philosophy at Fordham University.  
A key concomitant of the assertion of objective value is the claim that objective disvalues exist as well.  And just as we should cultivate a response of love and appreciation to value, we should cultivate a response of hatred and opposition to wickedness.  Hildebrand saw that indifference to evil is as destructive as indifference to good. In our relativistic age, when we are confronted with a whole range of disvalues in our society, Hildebrand’s is a voice we need to heed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Move Over ‘Bishop of Bling’-Here Comes the ‘Cardinal of Cash’

Move Over ‘Bishop of Bling’

Here Comes the ‘Cardinal of Cash’

By Harry Stevens
How does an elegant pied a terre in Rome sound – at $13.6 million? You’ll probably need it as a place to stay while the $2.2 million renovation is being done on your place back home. In fact, these days, you’re pretty much hip deep in construction projects because you’re building a new office to the tune of $186 million.
Who are you? A Chinese potentate? A Mexican drug lord? An American movie star?
Actually, you’re a German Cardinal of the Catholic Church.
CARDINAL’S MARX’S RIDE: Top of the line German luxury BMW.
In fact, you’re Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising –who reports a monthly income of more than $16K. The Cardinal also lives rent-free in Munich’s Palais Holnstein. Plus, his driver chauffeurs him around in a sleek new BMW 730i.

Pay the Church or Be Denied the Sacraments

Such luxury must seem incredible to the comparatively poor US cardinals and bishops. Most must eke out an existence on between US$40 and $60K a year, gleaned from parishioners who support dioceses freely.
In sharp contrast, German Catholic prelates derive their princely income from a forced church tax collection. This is because in Germany, Catholics must pay to get the Sacraments. 
So, for example, if they don’t allow the church tax to be auto-deducted from their paychecks, they’ll be denied a Christian burial – something of particular interest to the mainly-elderly congregations in this country.

A Curious Double Standard

In recent years, the Germans have been quietly raking in the euros selling luxury cars during the recent great global recession. This means that German Church coffers have swelled to gargantuan levels undreamed of in the rest of the world.
THE ‘BISHOP OF BLING’ made global headlines, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg for the big-spending German Catholic Church.
So, today we have a group of German bishops with very nice incomes who spend quite a lot of money. They have become ultra-powerful. 
Some of them have even gotten into trouble for this. Germany’s so-called ‘Bishop of Bling’ made global headlines last year; Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz van Elst reportedly spent $43 million on renovating his medieval Limburg diocesan offices and residence.(3)
But there’s a curious double standard at work, here.
While Tebartz van Elst was crucified in the media, no one said a word about Cardinal Marx’s spending sprees. He’s shelling out $186 million on his offices alone — more than four times what the ‘Bishop of Bling’ reportedly spent.2

Not About the Money

Why is this? Looking back on the Bishop of Bling’s 2013 media crucifixion, it seems somehow that it was not about the money. In fact, the money issue was all smoke and mirrors that the media latched onto — probably orchestrated by the adept publicists at the German Conference of Bishops. 
In fact, the German ecclesiastical underground says that it was about how Tebartz van Elst ‘divided’ his diocese. The young, inexperienced bishop upset the status quo in his Limburg diocese, it seems. He made career workers accountable, and people didn’t like that.
ATTACKED BY FEMEN while he was saying Mass, Cardinal Meisner was almost the only German voice to defend the hapless ‘Bishop of Bling.’
The real issue for the Bishop was that the German Conference of Bishops lost confidence in Tebartz-van Elst. Only one German Cardinal came to his defense. Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne praised the hapless bishop’s “theological depth and decidedly Catholic orientation.” (In Germany, this means that Tebartz-van Elst is actually a Christian believer.)
But, Meisner – who was subsequently attacked by a mostly-naked radical ‘femen’ while saying Mass in his own cathedral — was soon to retire.

Something’s Rotten in Deutschland

Following the money, we come to one of the principal public tormenters of the luckless Tebartz-van Elst: none other than Cardinal Marx. (Cardinal Meisner even publicly asked Marx to tone it done regarding the bishop of Limburg (4), but to no avail.)
Why did the Bishop’s crucifixion happen? Unfortunately, it seems that Tebartz-van Elst got on the wrong side of the wrong guy. There’s a puppet master of the German Conference of Bishops — Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz is the powerful 79 year old prelate who well-placed German observers say is actually ‘feared.’
THE ‘PUPPET MASTER’ – The powerful Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz
The ill-starred ‘Bishop of Bling’ made an excellent example for any cleric who might take it into his head to defy this super-wealthy, super-powerful ecclesiastical cartel. In the event, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was called to Rome and publicly humiliated on a global stage, his bishopric taken from him.
As for Marx, his star continues to rise.

Powerful in Rome

Marx has become a powerful prelate in the German Catholic Church, and clearly harbors ambitions for the global Church. In addition to being chairman of the German Bishop’s Conference, he is on the “Council of Eight” as an adviser to Pope Francis. On 8 March 2014, he was named by Pope Francis as the Cardinal-Coordinator of the Council for Economic Affairs.
Moving fast and living well, Marx is heading downstream on the Isar River fast, flowing into the Tiber –and many veteran observers say his Mainz puppet master is manipulating him, full steam ahead.
WHEN ASKED ABOUT HIS LUXURY RESIDENCE, the Cardinal ‘became annoyed.’
Recently, when asked about his lavish spending on his Roman residence, the Cardinal became annoyed. Through his spokesman Bernhard Kellner, he replied, “Who says this is a luxury accommodation for Cardinal Reinhard Marx, is completely wrong. It is a house of the meeting, the members of the cathedral chapter, employees of the Ordinariate, representatives of the laity councils, but also small groups of pilgrims should be available. (7)”
One wonders if a regular German Catholic pilgrim who pays his Church tax could really stay in the Cardinal’s digs on his once-in-a-lifetime visit to Rome?

Moving On Up

At the recent Rome synod of the family, Marx’s remarks (8) seemed to imply that he speaks for higher ups, pointing out that “Saying that the doctrine will never change is a restrictive view of things.Marx’s position (9) is that allowing communion for civilly divorced Germans may bring them back to the Church.
THE CARDINAL’S PALACE IN MUNICH is costing a cool US$2.2 million to update.
Why is this divorce thing so critical to the Germans? Well, elderly Catholics are dying off, and German Catholic baby boomers are deserting the Church in droves. 
This means that in a few years, the spigot will run dry.
Bye-bye BMWs. Arrivederci Roman palazzos.

Unpleasant Historical Facts

It was the Germans who led the charge to modernize the Church after Vatican II, but it seems they haven’t learned much. The  German obsession with acceptance from the ‘city of man’ has proven to be disastrous, seen everywhere in the empty churches of Germany.
St Augustine of Hippo had a few pertinent observations about what happens when the Church becomes too worldly. Perhaps Cardinal Marx should read City of God —  one night, while he’s enjoying an aperitivo in Roma?
  1. does 9.7 million euro sound like a lot of money for a residence in Rome (1,2)? 1.56 million euro (2) renovation to living quarters in the Palais Holnstein,
  2. Does anywhere between 42 million (3,1) and 51 million euro (4) for a chancellery construction project {not including 86 million euro spent for the land (3)}
PHOTO OF CARDINAL KARL LEHMANN © Raimond Spekking / , via Wikimedia Commons