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    PloughCast 47: Technologizing Babies, Forging Nations

    Generations, Part 5

    By Matthew Lee Anderson, Edmund Waldstein, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    February 14, 2023
    • David John Magee

      A very helpful introduction to the ethical issues inherent in IVF. Here in England, since the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown in 1978, there has arisen a practical issue which helps drive demand for IVF. Gynaecologists in particular have become deskilled and disinterested in diligent investigation and appropriate treatment of women with sub fertility. IVF is a most lucrative procedure in the UK yet demands less skill than does much restorative gynaecology. Restorative gynaecology also has the ‘disadvantage’ of potentially resulting in a number of successful pregnancies over years, while IVF requires costly interventions each time pregnancy is desired.

    About This Episode

    The hosts talk with Matthew Lee Anderson about his piece on whether there is a right to have children. How does your relationship to your children change if you regard them as products rather than gifts?

    Then they discuss the specific ethical issues of in vitro fertilization, and reflect on the technologization of fertility through the lens of C. S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength.

    Then, Susannah speaks with Pater Edmund Waldstein about the role of monasteries in Christendom, and how their witness to the supernatural life of the church complements the life of the natural family.

    They go on to discuss questions of political order: since grace perfects but does not destroy nature, how should we think about polity? Is an ethnostate the only “natural” polity? Should we be trying to restore the Holy Roman Empire? Pater and Susannah solve all these problems definitively.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Matthew Lee Anderson: No Right to Children

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to The PloughCast! This is the fifth episode in our new series, covering our Generations issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, we will be talking with Matthew Lee Anderson about IVF, and with Pater Edmund Waldstein about generations in a monastery, the question of ethnonationalism, and how Christians should think about the political communities they belong to other than the church.

    Peter Mommsen: Now, we’ll be speaking with Matthew Lee Anderson. Matthew is an assistant research professor of ethics and theology at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and the associate director of Baylor in Washington. He’s also Susannah’s husband’s podcast cohost on Mere Fidelity, which you should also be listening to. Welcome Matthew!

    You’ve written a piece for us for our Generations issue called “Is There a Right to Have Children?” Which is a provocative title. Do you want to talk about what your argument in that piece is and what its genesis was?

    Matthew Lee Anderson: I’ve written about this issue so many different times and for whatever reason it just keeps coming, it haunts me. The concern that I have throughout the essay, what I tried to do is describe the language of the right to have children, which is increasingly prevalent in popular discourse around in vitro fertilization and other artificial reproductive technologies, and is being used to justify using those technologies for lots of non-traditional family formations.

    So two members of the same sex having children have a right to have children just like a husband and wife have a right to have a child. And so it’s being construed as a positive right, not just the sort of right where a couple would be protected from interference by the government. It’s being regarded as a positive right, as something that people have a real claim to. And so that’s the launching off point.

    But really the underlying dynamic of the essay is trying to think through why it is, how it is that Christians have regarded procreation, the ways in which we’re entangled in broader social dynamics with respect to procreation, and ultimately how we can reconceive the household so that we can affirm the good of procreation without being bound to it as a kind of natural idolatry.

    So one side of the essay is addressing concerns that I have on the right where people are defending procreation, but doing it in ways that I’m really nervous about. They’re defending procreation on sort of naturalistic terms, in ways that don’t fully acknowledge or honor the ways in which the New Testament destabilizes or disturbs procreative impulses. And so the essay is basically trying to wrestle through all of those threads.

    Peter Mommsen: And just to be clear, this idea that there could be a positive right to be able to have kids only makes sense if there are technologies that enable that, right? Where that doesn’t happen.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: That’s right. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Just through the birds and bees method.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: That’s right. You have to have some sort of means of producing children for people who don’t have the reproductive capabilities just intrinsically and internally within the relationship. And so the right to have children is itself embedded in a kind of technological imagination and discourse. And it’s interesting because one of the things that I went and did was look up where some of the language originally came from, because it is funny to think about having a right to have a child. And it turns out that in the ’60s, as in vitro fertilization was starting to take hold in the United Kingdom, the language of a right to have children was one way in which doctors pitched in vitro fertilization. They really tapped into the language of rights, which of course was massively potent, politically potent on lots of issues, but it really did sort of drive social acceptance of in vitro fertilization as a practice for ordinary, different sex couples.

    Peter Mommsen: And so in vitro fertilization, IVF really has a pretty significant fan base, ironically, among some social conservative Christians. Is that overstating things?

    Matthew Lee Anderson: When I talk to Christians banging the anti IVF drum, that makes me beloved. People, they just adore me for it. It’s one of the … it’s funny because, it’s one of the most controversial positions that I think that I have. And among Christians, what you have are a lot of people who have used it in a way that, they’ve used it very prayerfully and deliberately. And so this is the line that I get a lot when I talk with Christians about IVF. I’ll raise concerns and I’ll hear from people and they’ll say, “We felt those concerns. We really acknowledge that there are complications here. We proceeded very prayerfully, very deliberately, and we decided to do it.” And I don’t doubt that they proceeded very deliberately and prayerfully about it, but there’s a way in which that’s insufficient justification from my standpoint. I was reminded there was a theological ethicist who talked about exceptions to abortion, a different sort of case.

    But one of the things that the language of exceptions implies, or the way in which it gets used, is that the exceptions have to have sufficient reasons. So if there’s a sufficiently grave problem, then we can have an exception, we can have an abortion. And this theological ethicist once quipped that really what that bottomed out as was, abortion on demand with tears, which I think is a great line and it haunts me, because the idea that people can approach these issues deliberately while you’re going to have tears about it, but really effectively what it’s going to bottom out in is you doing something that I think is actually probably morally dubious, if not fully wrong.

    Peter Mommsen: We’ve been beating in Plough a bit of a pro-baby drum for a while, and it seems like super necessary to do that in a culture where, you look at the statistics on certain studies of younger folks saying they don’t want to have kids because of the climate or whatever, factually low birth rates are a problem. I was seeing on Twitter yesterday, a very interesting exchange between a bunch of people who were comparing notes when they last held a baby. So there was a real sort of Children of Men problem that we have as society. And we at Plough, and I know you too, right, are for babies, kids are a good thing, we support the having of them. But like you said, not at all costs. And so I just wanted to put that out there for our listeners at the beginning. This is not an anti-baby argument we’re making here. This is coming from a point of view of yeah, babies are really, really great …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Aggressive pronatalism, almost obnoxious pronatalism.

    Peter Mommsen: The reason we asked you to do the piece was, a bit as of corrective to say from a Christian point of view specifically, yeah, children are a great good. They’re not the greatest good.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, I really appreciate you saying that. I am aggressively pro babies. There’s a corner of Twitter that thinks, that has gotten it in their heads for some reason I just do not understand, that thinks that I’m anti babies. There’s one person in particular who has said that on the internet and it’s just …

    Susannah Black Roberts: They also think you’re a Marxist.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: It’s so bizarre to me. My dissertation is a defense of having children, because I went to a talk where the person argued that we don’t have a right to have more than one or two children, and that that right is not grounded in the constitution. And I sat in the back of the talk and I was struggling with my prior dissertation topic, and all I thought was “NEIN, no, I’ve met the enemy. I’ve got to defend having babies in this world.” But the problem from my standpoint is the reassertion of the good of children on its own terms is insufficient. You have to, I think about this with nature, and Susannah reminded me of That Hideous Strength. And one of the things that’s really fascinating about That Hideous Strength is Merlin comes back, and you have …

    Peter Mommsen: This is by … the novel by C. S. Lewis.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: The novel by C. S. Lewis. And Merlin really wants to use nature to defeat the enemies and wants to recall the glory of the woods and the rivers and thinks that he can do it. And Ransom, who’s the sort of mouthpiece of Lewis, I take him to be a little bit in this moment, is basically like, no, nature just on its own terms is not going to be sufficient to defeat the forces of That Hideous Strength. You need something that’s beyond nature to defend nature when people have turned against it. This is why I’ve got a forthcoming essay on Robert George’s Natural Law Theory, which I’m very sympathetic to, but one of my deep questions is when people have turned against the natural, how do you defend the natural on its own terms? It seems like you need something beyond nature to do it. And so you have to be unremittingly theological, and that complicates accounts of procreation in ways that provide room for people who don’t have children for whatever reason.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I mean, I think that one way to think about this is that, if you try to grasp hold of nature, so you’re in a position where you see nature being attacked from a kind of the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength place of anti natural people who want to pave over all the paradise and put up a parking lot and also be trans humanist and also accidentally be monkeying around with demons and all these horrible things, including a lot of stuff that has to do with reproductive technology. And you have this instinct of being like, no, “We need to grasp hold of nature. Nature is good.” And there’s a real, if you grasp hold of nature on any terms, you’ll lose even nature, let alone the things that are beyond nature, i.e. the supernatural and God’s purposes for us.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, that’s right. Chesterton makes this point. I think it’s in his biography of Francis, it might be, talks about the way in which Rome embraced nature and ended up turning against nature because that was all it had. And I think that that principle, it really worries me about pronatalist movements in the States. I think that, the lead proponents of pronatalism are very careful about the sort of thing, and I would not implicate them in this, certainly at the policy level, names that I think you’ve had write for you, I really admire and I really respect the work that they’re doing and I’m fully supportive of it.

    But there’s what happens at the policy level, and then there’s how that gets filtered out, down into the world of Twitter and then beyond. And if you look at eugenics movements historically, there are pronatalist dimensions to them, like pronatalism does have deep undercurrents that can be really pernicious, if they are defended on exclusively naturalistic terms. And I’m worried about that, so I want my pronatalism to be sufficiently, properly, fully unmitigatedly theological.

    Section II: Matthew Lee Anderson: Technologizing Fertility

    Peter Mommsen: Right. I mean, yeah, there were those Nazi breeding colonies. I mean, there’s all kinds of crazy wormholes people have gone down. We should get into the arguments of your piece though, because you’ve said, you see IVF as dubious or even wrong, that’s in your piece. And we should say straight out, I’m sure among our listeners too, there are people who are going to find that really hard to understand. There are couples, and we all probably know folks in this situation who feel immense pain that they are not able to have children. And then here’s this technology that seems like it might provide a way out. And so you said jokingly at the beginning, this makes you very unpopular to question whether this is a good path, but there are obviously some big human cost we’re talking about here, so we should acknowledge that and get into why is it that we shouldn’t try to have kids at any cost as much as that may rip us up.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, so there’s lots of variations of the argument, and I fully recognize the cost that this puts on various types of couples. I think within our churches we have to acknowledge the ways in which those who are childless can bear unique witness to the virtue of hope. So there is a real tragedy to childlessness that has to be honored and acknowledged. But I think when it comes to in vitro fertilization, my concerns about it are both particular to the couple and what they are doing, and particular to the process of in vitro fertilization, and systemic for thinking about medicine and reproductive health more broadly.

    One of the things that I really think is objectionable about it is that it entails that childlessness is inherently pathological, that childlessness is itself intrinsically a diseased condition for a male and a female when they come together to conceive. Because you can imagine there’s an element of luck in bringing life into the world. Fundamentally, we think that life is a gift from God, and God withholds that gift within his own providence for all sorts of reasons. And so you can very easily imagine a couple who are perfectly healthy, who come together on a regular basis, who do not conceive, because that element of luck never works out in their favor. And from that standpoint, procreation has a particular sort of valence or meaning, that IVF absolutely destroys. What IVF means is that their experience is inherently pathological, that they are diseased and broken, and that’s intrinsic to the structure of in vitro fertilization.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There’s also, of course, the actual sort of process itself and some versions of IVF, not all, most versions of IVF, not all, entail creating extra embryos who are then... We can say either what or who, and I would say who, are then either discarded or frozen for future reference to do something with maybe later. And depending on what your anthropology is, what you think those embryos are, or who you think they are, that’s obviously a big deal.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Right. And there are other problems too. I mean, you have additional burdens on women in the process. Women are, newsflash, already disproportionately burdened when it comes to the process of making human life. The male’s role is relatively easy. But one of the things that in vitro fertilization does is it takes that already disproportionate burden and it intensifies it on women such that women have to undergo fairly invasive procedures including hormonal regiments, needles being stuck into them, et cetera, for the process to work. The male’s part in the role is by and large as easy as it usually is, but the males part in IVF classically or traditionally involves acts that have been regarded as morally wrong by Christians. So you have those sorts of reasons. And there are others too. I mean, it’s an extremely fraught practice that I think any Christian who’s approaching it, once you start looking at it from all the different angles, I think it’s impossible to justify. I cannot see my way towards affirming it.

    Peter Mommsen: So some Catholic listeners probably right about now are saying, we have this nice way of talking about things in the catechism that draws on natural law. You don’t really do that in your essay. You could imagine that technology, medical technology would reach a point where, for instance, the moral problem of these unwanted embryos wouldn’t present itself. Why would that also be a problem and why, if we’re not applying a kind of Catholic natural law way of reasoning about this?

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah. So the world where we don’t have extra embryos in the process of in vitro fertilization, that’s already this world. You can do natural cycle in vitro fertilization where you only create one embryo per cycle, and you don’t have spare ones. And that’s increasingly popular in certain circles. I think in those sorts of cases, I still have questions about what it means to detach the making of human life from the face-to-face encounter between male and female, and the introduction of third parties into the making of human life.

    I mean, extreme genetic screening, that’s only the outer tip. Every embryo is graded, whether they do genetic screening or not. They’re graded for viability. So if they create eight embryos, they’re going to grade them, give them scores, and they’re going to use the highest graded embryos first, because those are the most likely to be successful. And we should think about that grading process intrinsically, which is intrinsic to the process. What does it mean that we are marking off some embryos as more viable than others? And do those ostensibly, exclusively medical designations stay quarantined to the medical, or do they lend themselves towards other types of assessments of the value of human life? And this is where intrinsic to the process is our conceptions of efficiency that invariably prioritize some members of the species over other members of the species.

    Peter Mommsen: Have we done enough thorny stuff, Susannah? Because we could get back to C. S. Lewis’s, That Hideous Strength, which I know …

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think we should.

    Peter Mommsen: Both of you are really, really eager to do. And Matthew’s essay ends with a beautiful exploration of that book and how it kind of … well, you say how does that fit with this? There’s not a lot of IVF in C. S. Lewis.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: No, there’s not. But it does get mentioned actually. He talks about those who are creating life within the lab. I forget exactly what the line is, but he’s alive to this possibility. And the Tolkien, I begin with an example from Tolkien in The Lay of Aotrou and Itron, where it’s astonishing how cognizant Tolkien seems to be that these types of issues are coming even when he is writing right in the shadow of World War II. The vision of the household that it gives, I think is just terrific and unparalleled within literature. Susannah, you’ve read this, you’ve thought about this a lot.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I’ve thought about this obsessively. So one of the interesting things, and we should also say that Pete’s sister is also one of our interlocutors here who takes us to task on Twitter when we misread things or forget about key things.

    Peter Mommsen: Right, or haven’t read That Hideous Strength every two years.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, or haven’t for your entire life as she apparently has. That Hideous Strength is about procreation and about, it’s about a billion different things, but one of the things that it’s about is procreation, and also about fruitfulness in general. One of the key things that’s going on is that, there are these contrasting households or contrasting communities, one of which is the fake kind of infernal community of the college, the university that Mark Studdock is involved with, and specifically the N.I.C.E, which is this sort of hyper trans humanist. If you …

    Peter Mommsen: It’s a scary acronym for …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, it’s the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments is I believe what it stands for. And then in contrast to where they’re doing all kinds of IVF-y kinds of things. And in contrast to that, there is a community called St. Anne’s on the Hill, which is just this … The household is the household of Ransom, who’s the main character more or less, but the couple who are the house parents of the household are the Dimbles. And Mother Dimble is … she’s called Mother Dimble. She doesn’t have any children. They were just naturally infertile. They couldn’t have children. They were very clearly not contracepting as opposed to Jane and Mark who were contracepting. And there’s this vision of this household as the place where fertility happens and fruitfulness happens for the good of the world. And Mother Dimble is the mother of this household, even though she doesn’t have any children.

    And that kind of vision of fruitfulness, even in the absence of natural children is I think really striking and really interesting, especially if you think about C. S. Lewis’s own life. He married very late in life. He didn’t have any children of his own, ended up adopting his wife’s two children. It’s just a beautiful … it’s one of the most attractive households in all of literature that I can think of. And it just has this … everyone in the world, at some point, every Christian nerd in the world is like, I want to live in St Anne’s and grow winter vegetables and have a bear, and fight evil in that way. And it’s this very kind of Tasha Tudor-like crunchy, wonderful, natural, fruitful place. And Mother Dimble is the mother of it, even though she doesn’t have children and that’s just wonderful.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: I think that’s exactly right, Susannah. It’s one of the reasons why I love the book so much. I mean, “matrimony” is the opening word. That’s where C. S. Lewis begins. And one of the things that I think it’s important to say about the household is that it is a household that has marriage at the center. One of the things that we see these days is attempts to reclaim household conceptions that don’t have marriage at the center. So you have – David Brooks wrote a long essay, I think at the Atlantic last year on, or maybe it was the year before on intergenerational communities that are popping up as replacements for traditional nuclear family homes.

    And while I’m sympathetic to that sort of thing as a social remedy I do think it’s important to still have marriage and fruitfulness at the center. And it’s significant that Mother Dimble is Mother Dimble, that the language, the grammar of the household is fully intertwined with marriage and procreation. But the fruitfulness is, it’s transposed, to use a favorite image of C. S. Lewis from another essay, it’s transposed into another key. And I think that that’s what’s so wonderful about it. It’s an affirmation of all the goods of marriage and procreation, but in a way that shows their deepest and truest basis.

    There is not a work that I think displays an alternate to the social pathologies or that diagnoses the social pathologies that beset twenty-first century America better. It’s really an extraordinary work, and I just love how theological it is. I love that, while it’s a work of social, political, philosophical criticism in one respect, the takeaway is that you need something beyond nature to have these fights.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I think we’ve now got you on record, Matthew, saying something that won’t get you in trouble. C. S. Lewis is good and dear listeners, whether or not you immediately agreed with our discussion, I urge you to read Matthew’s piece. It’s very thoughtful, very sensitive, and I think it’s an important issue that’s going to only become more important as medical technology becomes ever more invasive and ever more powerful. And thanks a lot for coming on and being willing to incur the anger.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Well, it’s funny.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, or at least the disappointment of folks who were hoping to hear a different message.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Well, I appreciate that, and I’m grateful to have the chance to talk with you guys, and I’m thankful that you think the piece is sensitive. I do try to be sensitive on some of these issues. It may not seem like that once I get into a polemical mode, but I do acknowledge that these are questions and issues that strike very close to the core of who we are. And in one respect, the tragedy of childlessness is absolutely unequivocally real, and you have to drink the cup of childlessness to its last drop. And I think that one of the things that I have found is that those who are involuntarily childless are often willing to do that, but it’s very hard, and there’s just nothing easy about this world.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you so much and look forward to having you back on one of these days.

    Matthew Lee Anderson: Thanks immensely for having me.

    Section III: Pater Edmund Waldstein: The Generations of a Monastery

    Susannah Black Roberts: And now, we’ll be hearing from Pater Edmund [who] is a regular Plough contributor, friend of the pod, and a monk at Heiligenkreuz Abbey just outside Vienna. Welcome Pater! Thank you once again, Pater Edmund, for letting me hassle you into doing something for me.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Well, I’m very glad to come on the podcast.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s not going to be the last time.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: I remember with fondness my visit to the Bruderhof in Fox Hill, and since then, I’ve also visited the Bruderhof here in Austria. So, I’m always glad to come in your podcast.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yup. You’ve been a good friend to the two new communities outside Vienna. one of the things that I feel like you’d be in a particularly good position to talk about is how do we think within a kind of Christian context about how generations work? Because obviously, you’re part of a monastery and Heiligenkreuz has been going for a thousand years or so, which is many, many generations, but you guys don’t generate because you’re celibate. So, how do generations work within something like a monastery? Yeah. How does that work?

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: It is kind of a peculiarity of the New Testament that it switches from a focus on natural generation, which you have very strong in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, you get kind of a new vision in the prologue of John already that the children of God are born not of blood, not of the desire of man, not of the will of man, but of God, not of the will of the flesh and so on.

    And celibacy is sort of a very clear sign of that that our life in Christ is a supernatural life that’s not given by natural generation, but that’s given to us by Christ through baptism. And the monastery is a way of sort of living out the grace of baptism.

    But there is something analogous to generations in the monastery as you already hinted, namely you have old monks and you have young monks. And the young monks are supposed to honor the old monks and the old monks are supposed to love the young monks, Saint Benedict says. So, we do our best with that the old monks have a lot of wisdom to impart to the younger monks.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And as you kind of hinted, there’s a role that it seems to me that something like a monastery plays or I guess not, there’s not really anything like a monastery, that a monastery plays within the kind of broader structure of Christendom or of a Christian society, which is, it’s like this kind of while natural family and natural generation is good and God loves it and God bless it. It’s almost as though the monastery is this perpetual reminder of the supernatural engine that’s above and beneath the natural good of family. Does that make sense?

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yes, yes. That’s very much the intention. Well, in a way that the monastery is a sign to the rest of the world is in a way kind of a secondary intention or ought to be for the monks themselves at least that is the monastic movement begins with people wanting and continues in every reform of monastic system like is, the primary motivation is you yourself want to serve God as wholeheartedly as possible.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just live out the Sermon on the Mount completely.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yeah, yeah. And so, initially the idea of being a sign to the rest of the world is not sort of in the foreground, but it should be then the result of that that you are a sign also to the rest of the world that God is real. It’s worth living entirely for him.

    In the middle of the monastery, there’s a garden that’s locked on all sides, but open upwards towards heaven. Obviously, it’s the Paradisus Claustralis, the Paradise of the Cloister, also called the Hortus Conclusus, the Locked Garden. And that is clearly a reference to the Song of Songs. And the song of songs, the bride is called the Locked Garden and the Sealed Fountain, and that’s a sign of virginity.

    But here, it’s a sign of virginity as specifically as concentrating everything on God. So, if you watch a movie, the happy ending is always when the boy and the girl get together at the end. And this is a sign that the ultimate happy end is something beyond that, it’s our union with God, which isn’t fully consummated in this life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It is. I am sure I didn’t invent this, but the idea of is the history of the world a comedy or a tragedy. And the sort of definitive answer is that it’s a comedy specifically because it ends in marriage.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yes, yeah, very good. This is often one of the justifications given for Dante’s Divine Comedy being called “The Comedy.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: I was wondering about that.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, I guess the other thing that all of these questions circle around is there’s this idea that grace and the Christian life does not destroy nature but perfects it. And I mean, that seems obviously true, but it also seems like it’s more complicated than that because grace is not just enabling us to live our best pagan lives as we ought to have lived them.

    There is a kind of thoroughly from outside reordering of loves, and that does interrupt the logic of the pagan family as the one source of the location of worship, as Fustel de Coulanges describes, and of the source of hope for the future because your children, grandchildren are the ones who are going to keep up the worship of the household gods and hopefully your memory won’t be lost because of their glory.

    Christianity is not saying you haven’t been able to do that well because of original sin. We’re going to heal your original sin so that you can then do the pagan household perfectly and everything will be great. So, what does Christianity say about grace and nature? We have ten minutes. Just kidding.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Very good. But maybe kind of prologue before getting to Christianity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We have more than ten minutes, by the way. Yeah.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: That’s good. But as you know, even within paganism itself, there’s a kind of transcendence of the pagan household. So, you have in Aristotle’s Politics especially much more than even than in Plato, you have a clear distinction between the household and the city. In some passages, I mean, it’s hard to tell with Plato because Socrates is famously ironic, so you never know what he is saying. But there’re passages where it seems like he wants the city to just be one giant family in a way.

    Whereas Aristotle is much clearer in distinguishing the good of the family and the good of the city. And in saying the good of the city is kind of a higher and more universal good that is not opposed to the good of the family, but in some way transcends the good of the family. And it’s not enough to just be a good family man. You have to also kind of transcend the circle of the family and seek the more universal common good that’s based on a political life rather than on a family life that often cities do have some kind of blood relation that they initially start out as kind of an extension of family relations with tribes and so on like that.

    But for Aristotle, it’s very clear that that’s ultimately not what holds a city together. It’s not blood relations. What holds a city ultimately together is a life of political virtue that can only be had in the city. So, what Christianity does is in a way something analogous to that, but supernatural that it’s calling us the new people that Christ founds, the new Israel that he founds when he gathers the twelve apostles, sort of the heads of the new twelve tribes of Israel.

    It’s an Israel that’s not based on family ties, unlike Israel was up until then based on, although you had of course the God-fearing among the nations and so on, and you had proselytes. It was kind of a marginal phenomenon. Basically, Israel is about bodily dissent from Abraham, and you receive the membership in the covenant through circumcision, which is given to those who are born of the household of God. Israel is basically a family.

    But what Christ does is in a way transcends the limits of that family by founding this new Israel that’s based not on bodily generation, but on grace. And grace as it’s described in the Gospel of John and as it’s developed in the Christian theological tradition, not just the Gospel of John, also of course the epistles of St. Paul and of St. Peter, St. Peter who talks about grace as being participation in divine nature, which comes to be the main way of understanding grace. That is grace is a way for human beings to participate in divine life, to have a life that’s more than human, that’s supernatural in the sense that it’s above human nature.

    Susannah Black Roberts: When you were describing the sort of Aristotle’s vision for community based on political virtue as opposed to community based on blood, the sort of example from history that I think illustrates this most is the or the not most, one of the examples is Cicero’s discussion of this with Atticus in his family house in Arpinum where he’s sort of saying, “This is where I come from. This is my blood and soil. These are my lares and penates.” Atticus is obviously Roman by birth, Cicero is not. Rome, which is Cicero’s home of choice and polity of choice because it’s distinct from Arpinum, is this sort of vision of the transcendent, essentially the cosmopolis, which then itself kind of becomes a typological pointer towards the universal cosmopolis of the church it seems to me.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yes. Very much so. Yeah. You see this in, I mean, in the New Testament, the attitude towards Rome is mostly negative for good reasons, that’s the killer of Christ and persecutor of the church and so on. But there’s some hints that Rome does in a way also foreshadow the universality of the community that Christ has founded.

    So, for example, the words of our Lord to Saint Peter that “On this rock, I will found my church,” they’re spoken on the shores of the lake of Tiberius near Caesarea. So, you have all these names of Roman emperors are alluded to. And I think that Matthew there is hinting at a kind of parallel between the universality of the Roman Empire and the universality of the church.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And obviously also the division of Daniel kind of has Rome as the final bad empire, but then Christ’s empire that comes after that, it’s not totally different in kind and it also does seem to grow out of it in some way. So, given that, how do we think about the good of political communities that are not universal now?

    Could you make the argument that, OK, this is all true, but it has to do with the church? It’s supernatural, and therefore when we’re talking about politics, we can focus entirely again on something that’s more biological, that’s sort of like a kinship based vision of politics. Do you think that’s legitimate or are there reasons other than … how do you think about that?

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Well, I think that human beings are rational animals. So, they have both bodily sensual animal side and also a spiritual side as it were. Rationality is a spiritual power. And so, you want to have those two in harmony, not war with each other. So, just as in a virtuous human being, reason is guiding and governing the central passions and so on.

    So, in a good human politics, I think kinship relationships have a role. It’s not that they should be excluded entirely from human politics, but they need to be ordered by reason and reason is able to understand more universal goods than the goods of kinship networks.

    And to understand that we can have a good that we share with people that we’re not related to at least, I mean, I think we’re related to all human beings ultimately, but by blood relations. But the relation is so remote that we can’t trace it anymore. Still, we share a common nature and a common rational nature, which means that we can have communion in rational goods, in common goods, which are sharable without being divided or diminished.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Obviously, the category of political virtue is the primary way to think about how one goes about sharing those goods across kinship groups. But friendship also seems to me to be a major basis of politics, both primarily in classical authors, but also through the Christian tradition. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yes. I think that’s very true what you said. Aristotle says, the legislator looks more to promoting friendship even than to promoting justice. And I mean, friendship is kind of the privileged locus of human beings sharing together in a good. And so, in friendship, in the highest sense, the good of human beings as such, is virtue. The friendship of virtue is sharing together in the best human activities, virtuous activities. And ultimately, the very highest human activity is contemplation of the truth. And that is what ultimately the deepest kinds of friendship are going to be founded on.

    But as a kind of necessary prelude to that, they have to be founded on sharing in moral virtue that is in virtue of activity of doing good. And that’s what enables human beings to have a truly political life, to have a true common good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The other category that I think also falls into this, let’s complexify what human society is made up of is adoption. Just recently, because I went on this kind of weird obsessive Dream of Scipio tear. What I found out on my little obsessive detour a couple of weeks ago was that Scipio Africanus Minor, who’s the one who had the dream, and I’m not going to recap, everyone, just Google it, whatever.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: There’s a great discussion of it, by the way, C. S. Lewis’s book, The Discarded Image. He talks about the image of the world that you got in the Somnium Scipionis.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think that might be … OK, so I feel like that’s probably where I first heard of it. And then when I took this Chaucer class in college, my professor made me memorize the entire section of The Dream of Scipio section in the “Parlement of Foules.”

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Oh, excellent.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So, I can still do that, but I’m not going to do that on this podcast because it would be self-indulgent. Anyway. But Scipio Africanus Minor, what I did not realize until a couple weeks ago was not actually the biological grandson of Scipio Africanus Major, who’s the one who, he has this kind of vague …

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: I didn’t even know that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. He was adopted into that gens. So Scipio Africanus Minor was adopted into Scipio Africanus Major’s family. And that adoption was so powerful apparently, that his dead grandfather, his dead grandfather by adoption, supernaturally recognized him as his grandson and heir. And that was the basis on which he brought him up to see Rome as this speck on the surface of the globe and told him about his destiny, and then told him that his destiny was not enough and he needed to look beyond, et cetera. It’s all great stuff.

    But anyway, so adoption is a kind of powerful social force. Even before the Christian sort of theological concept of adoption builds on, it does not invent from whole cloth.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yes, yeah. I think that’s very true. There’s something analogous to this in the monastic tradition, namely the institution of Oblates. But I’m a Cistercian, and one of the differentiating marks of the Cistercians is that we’re very much against this, so we don’t do this.

    But in the rule of Saint Benedict, you can read about this, and this was done by Benedictine monasteries up until early modern times. The oblate thing, a family would bring basically a young child, a little boy to the monastery and offer him to the monastery. They’d wrap his hands in the altar cloth. There’s this whole thing that they did. And the parents had to sign this sort of contract that they were renouncing all their authority over their child, and they could never have any more claims on him. And then basically, he would just be raised as a monk. He didn’t really have much choice in the matter.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, what you’re telling me is that the Cistercians approach to this is the Anabaptist version of monastic living where you have to have an adult call to it.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Basically, yes, yes.

    Section IV: Pater Edmund: Ethnonationalism 

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right. So, all that being said, given all of what we’ve said about how social life is ordered and how are we really going to do this in twenty minutes, this is going to be like a, I don’t know, political …

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s go for it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … society 101. All right. So, given that everything that we’ve said about how political life is ordered and all the ingredients that go into making a human society, and also how that is relativized by and beefed up by and made better by, and also put in its place by grace, what can we hope for in terms of political community, like non-eternal, non-church, non-city of God political community on earth and what should it be based on, and how do we make our communities better? Do we need to be ethnonationalists? Should we be Holy Roman Empire restorationists, et cetera?

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Yeah. A very important question, and my answer is typically weasely Catholic priest Jesuitical answer. Namely, it’s kind of a both-and thing. I’ve actually been writing something about the Book of Revelation with respect to this, namely about the way in which the vision of the heavenly city that Saint John gives us in the Book of Revelation is a vision that sort of unites all kinds of political perfections.

    So, everything that’s good and all kinds of different political situations, they’re somehow united in that city. So, on one hand, you have kind of the ambition of the great cities of the ancient orient, of Babylon and Nineveh and so on, of being sort of this universal thing, the king of Babylon is ruling the entire world and so on. And clearly, that is realized in the heavenly city. You have God and the Lamb who are ruling the entire New Heaven and New Earth and so on this universality.

    But you also have, Saint John is writing of course, to the churches of Asia Minor to Greek-speaking Christians who are living in Greek cities who have this Greek civic tradition of participatory politics where the citizens, at least which were kind of a privileged class, we think of citizens as being everyone.  But they were kind of a privileged class. But nevertheless, they participated in deliberating about the common good of the city and so on.

    And you get that in the Heavenly Jerusalem too, because on the one hand, God is ruling, he’s all in all. But on the other hand, it says that the saints will rule as kings forever. So, each one is also a ruler also in some way contributing to the common good of that city. So, you have all these different perfections, imperial, royal, aristocratic, democratic. They all come together.

    And so, looking at earthly cities and states and nations and all kinds of political arrangements, I think we shouldn’t deny anything that’s good about them. So, we should affirm everything that’s good about earthly political ideals and to say, “Look, Christianity is not … grace doesn’t destroy nature. And anything that’s good in a natural political community, Christianity’s not against what’s good. You can have the good things.” But what I think we should be against is setting up any particular political arrangement as sort of the only good thing.

    So, if we say Ethnonationalism is the only way to go, everyone should be, this is what nineteenth century Czech nationalists were saying in the Austrian Reichsrat. Look, nationalism is the only way to go. Self-determined nation of nations, all the Czechs should do their thing, all the Germans should do their thing, the Hungarians do their thing. Terrible idea. In Central Europe, really, really bad idea. Because everyone was living all mixed up. You had German villages next to Czech villages next to Hungarian villages, scattered all over. Nationalism: really bad idea.

    Just look at the Balkans in recent times after the breakup of Yugoslavia, if you make this sort of the only way to arrange politics, you’re going to get ethnic cleansing and a disaster. So, sure where you have strong sort of national groups with a common history, common language, and why not say affirm what’s good in that, but whatever. I can’t think of anything example …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Iceland, Iceland.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Iceland. All right. Icelanders do that thing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, my gosh. So, there’s this app that some Icelander invented that’s connected to their genetic database of all three-hundred thousand of them. And the app is called Incest Spoiler. And when two Icelandic kids are at a bar next to each other, you call up your app and then you bump your phones together and it gives you a, you’re all clear or you’re too closely related.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: That’s fantastic.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, good for them, I guess. Anyway, so carry on. Sorry.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: And then conversely, so I think in some situations, for example, in Central Europe, it makes sense to have multinational political communities where you have people of various language and nation groups. I mean … like … the Austrian Empire. Just saying …

    Susannah Black Roberts: No. You’re allowed to stan, we stand, we absolutely stan.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: And we can definitely affirm the goodness of that too. And the way in which that is sort of foreshadowing and a kind of on the natural level of the universality of the church and of the Heavenly Jerusalem. But again, I don’t think you should absolutize that and say, “OK, what we need is the UN to become the only authority in the world. And everyone else just obeys what the secretary general of the UN says. And we have this absolute universal political arrangement.” I don’t think that would be the way to go either. Affirm everything that’s good and don’t try to make anything, the one single answer type of thing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean, it almost seems to me, so my husband has been going hard on typology lately, and it almost seems to me that what we’re talking about is a kind of political typology. And so, what we have our eyes on is the Heavenly Jerusalem and the New Heavens and the New Earth. And the New Jerusalem come down to Earth and all that means, and as you say, Revelation and elsewhere in scripture, the glimpses that we have of that are incredibly complicated and weird. It’s a lot of different things.

    And then if you try to work backwards and think about what Adam was supposed to have done and what that would looked like if he hadn’t screwed it up, and then what that does look like now that Christ has done what Adam didn’t and all, it’s very complicated. And it seems to me that different political communities and different kinds of political order are – they’re little windows, or they’re facets of a gem that kind of reflect that complexity of good in different ways.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Exactly. Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. Don’t try to make one thing into another. Exactly.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And there’s a kind of aspect of practical reason that has to do with just being a good observer, like seeing well, and that’s why I think that I’m very grateful that Aristotle was kind of primarily a biologist. Because one of the things that he’s really good at is reminding us to just look carefully at what it is that we’re thinking about.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: But nevertheless, he thought that political life was only possible for Athenians.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, honestly, really, I’m such a chauvinist about New York City that I really, that’s one of the things that I love most about him. He just was a chauvinist about his city, and I really appreciate that about him.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Well, you say about his city, but he lived most of his life outside of his city.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yup, yup.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Because he was from Stagyra, Northeastern Greece. Yeah. Northeastern Greece. But he lived for many years in Athens as a metic. In other words, he wasn’t a citizen of Athens.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Citizen, right. So, I mean, many such cases, people come to New York and get really, really into New York, who aren’t necessarily New Yorkers. I feel like that’s probably all we … this is longer than we should have gone on anyway.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: That’s probably good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK. Well, I will let you go. Thank you so much, Pater. It’s so great to have you on.

    Pater Edmund Waldstein: Oh, thank you for having me on. It’s always great to talk to you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a Member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more. On our next episode, we’ll be speaking with Leah Libresco and Alexander Raikin about medically assisted suicide, and we’ll also be answering your questions!

    Contributed By MatthewLeeAnderson Matthew Lee Anderson

    Matthew Lee Anderson is an assistant research professor of ethics and theology at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and the associate director of Baylor in Washington.

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    Contributed By EdmundWaldstein Edmund Waldstein

    Pater Edmund Waldstein is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz, a Cistercian abbey in Austria.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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