For several decades now, Catholic thinkers influenced by the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar have been arguing that beauty can be a window into the true and the good. Postmodernity affirms “your truth” and “my truth” but is profoundly nervous about “the truth.” Postmoderns break out in hives at the claim that the good is embedded in reality, not inside my head. Yet a profound encounter with the beautiful in art, architecture, music, or literature can make even the deepest skeptic and the most assiduous relativist consider the possibility that some things simply are, well, true and good. That Mozart’s Ave verum corpus and Fra Angelico’s Annunciation are beautiful, and that the chord these beautiful things touch in us is noble, isn’t a matter of my opinion or your opinion; it’s just true, just as the experience of true beauty is undeniably good.
This same dynamic works in reverse, for the ugly often illuminates what is base and ignoble. If a sane person didn’t know anything else about Communism and its effects on the lives of individuals and communities, a first encounter with the crudity, the sheer unloveliness, of socialist-realist architecture or painting would set off alarm bells: Something is seriously wrong here.
The ignoble and the base come in many forms. Two episodes of profound ugliness in the endgame of the 2012 campaign shed light on the character of some of those who would lead us for the next four years, and those who design their campaigns.
The vice president of the United States, for example, is not just a man whose natural exuberance makes him prone to gaffes. He is a national embarrassment, and from the point of view of his fellow Catholics he is an ecclesial embarrassment. Biden’s moral incoherence during the VP debate was a disservice to both church and state. For he not only misrepresented the sources of Catholic teaching on the inalienable right to life by suggesting that this conviction was some sort of weird Catholic hocus-pocus; he also distorted the public-policy debate by claiming that moral judgments could not be “imposed” on a pluralistic society (a nonsensical claim that is flatly contradicted by his defense of Obamacare).
Worse, Biden either lied or exhibited grotesque misunderstanding of the policy of the administration of which he is the putative second-in-command — and he surely boggled Paul Ryan’s mind (and the mind of any Catholic who has been paying attention for the past ten months) — when he claimed that the HHS “contraceptive mandate” did not require Catholic institutions to include coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs in the health-care benefits they provide their employees. The next morning, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying flatly that the vice president was wrong — a point underscored the previous night by Congressman Ryan, who quite rightly asked the clueless (or mendacious) Biden why he thought more than 40 Catholic institutions and employers were suing the administration over the HHS mandate.
But the worst was yet to come. At a recent memorial service for former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., the vice president of the United States, in what the elder Woods described as “an extremely loud and boisterous voice,” asked Woods’s grieving father, Charles, “Did your son always have balls the size of cue balls?” Yet another gaffe, the latest in the administration’s post-Benghazi thrashing? No. Ugliness, of the sort that illustrates the truth about a man’s character, or lack thereof.
At about the same time that Biden, who is a heartbeat from the Oval Office and whom the president proposes to keep there, was setting a lowest-of-the-low benchmark for personal boorishness, the Obama campaign unrolled a TV ad that might have been scripted by Larry Flynt. In it, Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO’s smutty Girls, offers advice to seemingly innocent young women and other onlookers. The 26-year-old star, who has the look and mannerisms of a 13-year-old, channels her inner Lolita and coos the following:
Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy. It should be with a guy . . . who really cares about and understands women.
A guy who cares about whether you get health insurance, and specifically whether you get birth control. The consequences are huge. You want to do it with a guy who brought the troops out of Iraq. You don’t want a guy who says ‘Oh, hey, I’m at the library studying,’ when he’s really out not signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Or who thinks that gay people should never have beautiful, complicated weddings of the kind we see on Bravo or TLC all the time . . .
Think about how you want to spend those four years. In college-age time, that’s 150 years. Also, it’s super uncool to be out and about and someone says, ‘Did you vote?’ and ‘No, I didn’t vote, I wasn’t ready.’ My first time voting was amazing. It was this line in the sand. Before I was a girl. Now I was a woman. I went to the polling station and pulled back the curtain. I voted for Barack Obama.
Voting as analogy to recreational sex underwritten financially by tax dollars: That’s what the Obama campaign imagines to be a winning strategy in fighting what it is pleased to call the “War against Women.” Showcasing Sandra Fluke at the Democratic National Convention was not, as the Marxists used to say, an accident: This is an administration that seems to imagine that America is a nation of Sandra Flukes (and their gigolos), and that this is a Good Thing.
Even attempting to parse this kind of vulgarity seems demeaning, although it’s clear enough that the administration is committed to an ideology of lifestyle libertinism that it is eager to “impose on a pluralistic society” (as the vice president would not put it). So let’s just say that the Lolita ad is ugly, coarse, breathtakingly stupid, and profoundly anti-woman — which tells us something about the character of the people who create and authorize such ads, even as it further clarifies their vision of the American future.
Beauty is a window into what is true and good and life-giving. Ugliness helps us understand what is base, ignoble, and dehumanizing. That’s worth keeping in mind when entering the voting booth.
The Nonexistent “Catholic Vote”
The polling in recent weeks confirms what close observers of the U.S. Catholic scene have known for decades: There is no such thing as “the Catholic vote.” Rather, Catholics tend to vote like other non-black or non-Hispanic Christians: Frequent churchgoers skew heavily Republican; rare churchgoers skew heavily Democratic; and the scale slides steadily between those two poles, such that the more you go to church, the more you incline Republican. In that sense, at least, Catholics have become thoroughly Americanized.