Maureen Dowd, fuming over the Catholic hierarchy's ill treatment of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Georgetown University on Friday, quotes Mario Cuomo:
If the church were my religion, I would have given it up a long time ago. All the mad and crazy popes we’ve had through history, decapitating the husbands of women they’d taken. All the terrible things the church has done. Christ is my religion, the church is not.
Which reminded me of Bertrand Russell's quotation of a Church historian, from 1529:
My position at the Court of several popes forced me to desire their greatness for the sake of my own interest. But, had it not been for this, I should have loved Martin Luther as myself, not in order to free myself from the laws which Christianity, as generally understood and explained, lays upon us, but in order to see this swarm of scoundrels put back into their proper place, so that they may be forced to live either without vices or without power.
And both quotes brought to mind Reinhold Niebuhr's early 1930s thesis (in Moral Man and Immoral Society) of virtuous men and women somehow surviving, even thriving, within a universe filled by what Niebuhr saw as inevitable institutional corruption. Loosely, it is possible for the "moral man" to remain good and moral, but once he begins consorting, with a view to governing, with others--some of whom may not share his natural enthusiasm for goodness--then heaven help him, and us.
In the spheres of religion and politics, we have for centuries watched in frustration the madness of institutional thought, the overreaching acts of fallen men, the bounding leaps from stifling orthodoxy to anarchic heterodoxy, and the human descents of harsh collectivisms and even harsher fascisms.
In our revolutions and reactions, we don't seem to "get it"; we seem, rather, to be doomed to some sort of mad, Nietzschean loop.
Which is why, just to bring us up to the present and to lasso some of the above vastness into a tidier and more useable form, I admire Barack Obama. Unlike so many of the witless, ill-schooled demagogues who oppose him, he's actually given real thought to this stuff. And the "truth" he's discovered, I think, is the same as noted by the public intellectual Will Durant nearly a century ago:
The truth of conservatism and radicalism is liberalism--an open mind and a cautious hand, an open hand and a cautious mind; the formation of our opinions on large issues is a decreasing oscillation between extremes.
Durant, of course, wasn't talking about the Barbara Boxer kind of liberalism: he meant the philosophical kind, the small-c catholic kind; the kind that Obama heroically persists in reintroducing to the secular sphere; and the kind whose denominational resistance Maureen Dowd laments.