The Long View 2004-05-17: Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment

I always enjoy John's articles on law. He was a lawyer by education and trade, he mostly worked as a legal editor, helping to compile the vast tomes in which our laws are codified. I enjoy them, but I try not to have too firm of an opinion about them; I have learned at least some of my limits.

In principle, legal reasoning makes sense to me, I simply lack the appropriate subject matter knowledge. Given that common law is a development of the Scholastic tradition, I don't find this too surprising: the methodology shows. But, this is a field where amateurs are punished, so I mind my business.

While I am also an amateur regarding sacred architecture, I feel more free to voice my opinions. Much of the current inventory of Catholic chapels in the United States is probably has harmful to the soul as it is offensive to the eyes, but I do note that the Diocese of Orange bought the much maligned Crystal Cathedral, and is in the process of turning it into an actual cathedral.

Los Angeles Cathedral

Los Angeles Cathedral

The current trend is toward far-more traditional styles, although modern materials and engineering make the spaces in chapels far more vast than anything you can find in any older style. This is a trend to encourage.


Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment

 

Today is the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which forbade the states from operating racially segregated school systems. That case was well within the Court's power to decide, and the decision was correct on the merits. However, as Stephen Carter noted in The Dissent of the Governed (I have a discussion of the book here, but you have to scroll down), Brown began the long deformation of constitutional jurisprudence. After that decision, the Supreme Court began to believe that, quite literally, it could do no wrong. This belief has had many bad consequences. The Court today is not just arrogant; it's sloppy.

Consider, for instance, the Op Ed piece by Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, which appeared in today's New York Times, under the title Brown v. Board of Education A Decision That Changed America Also Changed the Court. The piece is quite short, but dense with error.

Maybe I am picking a historical nit, but it is dismaying to see a member of the Court write this for publication:

As a member of the Supreme Court, I am going to Topeka today to represent that court; not nine individual justices, but the institution itself -- an institution as old as the Republic, charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution of the United States.

The republic began in 1776. The Supreme Court is a feature of the Constitution drafted in 1787; it started functioning several years after that. More important is the justice's misstatement of constitutional theory:

Before May 17, the court read the 14th Amendment's words "equal protection of the laws," as if they protected only the members of the majority race.

The Brown decision was about whether the interests of minorities could be secured through maintaining parallel institutions for them. The 14th Amendment was drafted to protect minorities. The suggestion that the Court ever read it not to apply to minorities is breathtaking. The Court never said any such thing; it often said the opposite.

Then we get to the part where faulty syntax dovetails with faulty thought:

[Brown] forced Americans to ask themselves whether they believed in a rule of law -- a rule of law that President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced in 1957 when he sent federal paratroopers to Arkansas to take black schoolchildren by the hand and walk them safely through that schoolhouse door. We now accept that rule of law...

The justice was probably trying to say "the rule of law," which in this case means the duty of citizens to obey the decisions of courts acting under color of law. That is quite different from whether citizens may disagree with a judicial decision and seek to change it. As I remarked, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown is almost certainly correct, but good-faith arguments can be made on the other side; in fact, in recent years the Court has moved away from the principle of strict racial neutrality that Brown was once thought to represent. The disturbing thing about these few sentences in the editorial is that the justice seems to conflate the duty to follow peaceful legal procedures with a duty to accept whatever the Supreme Court says. That's not just un-American. That's stupid.

I hesitated to make these harsh points about a mere anniversary editorial, especially since many members of the Court are elderly and should have retired years ago. However, when I checked, I found that Breyer was born in 1938. He's young enough to know better.

* * *

People familiar with Catholic traditionalism will have run across the name "Michael Rose." He is the author, among other books, of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again. I have not read that one, but I'm in sympathy with its thesis. "Gutted" is not too strong a word for the condition of old Catholic church buildings after the liturgists get a hold of them; the new layouts seem designed by people who are terrified of the thought that someome who enters the buildings might be tempted to pray. As for the newer buildings, I would say that too many of them look like Darth Vader's helmet, except I liked Star Wars.

Despite my sympathy for the principle, I have to take issue with critique Rose published in the April-May issue of Adoremus Bulletin about the chapel that the new Ave Maria University plans to build at its Florida campus. Cannon Design of New York is doing the chapel along with the rest of the campus. The chapel will be huge, laid out like a traditional basilica. It will be 150 feet tall, 60k square feet, with seating for 3,300; that will make it the largest Roman Catholic church building in the United States.

One can argue that this is substantially more than Ave Maria needs at this point, but Rose's objections go chiefly to the materials. The chapel will be glass and steel, like the Crystal Cathedral, but laid out with the orthodox Catholic liturgy in mind. The experiment may turn out badly, but I say "go for it." Just such a structure, built all of glass and light, was the ideal toward which the Gothic and some forms of Romanesque strove. That trajectory was abandoned, however, in part because stone and leaded glass were just not up to the demands of the vision. The 20th century provided the materials; now let us get on with it.

This is what I mean by "The Perfection of the West." I also mean this, of course.

 

* * *

Speaking of old ideas in new guises, I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again when it appeared on network television last week. I like that movie, though I have not been following the series. I suspect that, had I been of the prime demographic for the book when it appeared, I would have made a point of despising it. My tolerance for pure fantasy was very low when I was a child. Tolkien's books broke through that prejudice only by being impure fantasy, by pretending to be history. Maybe if I had read The Hobbit first I would not have troubled with The Lord of the Rings.

In any case, a few things struck me about Hogwart's School when I saw the film again. The kids have no computers. They did, however, use magic to do what computers do: find information, create illusions, animate non-living things and make them talk. There are no magical computers at Hogwart's, because the term "magical computer" is redundant.

What would a magical computer look like, anyway? Probably like the computers in Brazil (the movie, not the country). Certainly they would run on steam.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site