Where some Catholics may see the Dobbs decision as a victory for human rights and the dignity of the individual, others may argue that human rights ideology and the individualism it presupposes are themselves the root of abortion project, as well as of many other modern pathologies. This latter view is the one pretty clearly implied in Properties of Blood: The Reign of Love, a new volume by classicist Thomas Fleming.
Delving into the etymology of the word individual, Fleming notes that the Latin individuum formerly called to mind much more technical and metaphysical concepts, such as “the Trinity, as an indissoluble and undivided entity,” and “it was not until the 18th century that it began to be used as a colloquial substitute for person.” Lest the reader think he is merely quibbling, Fleming explains the issue at stake in the language:
It would lead to less confusion if we began to speak of persons, rather than of individuals. The word ‘person’ does not imply radical independence or complete self sufficiency. If such creatures as liberal individuals ever existed, they would be entirely powerless, incapable of banding together to resist the growing power of the despotic state. Statists and collectivists understand this reality, which is one of the reasons they make war on the family and the Church, which are independent sources of authority capable of protecting the interests of the members.
In contrast to the self-contained individuum, which is independent of everything else, the relationship-oriented term persona suggests a finite role in some bigger narrative – as in the “personae” of a dramatic presentation. Emphasis upon the individual undermines human-scale associations, fraternal societies, and above all, families, each of which are indispensable for resisting the encroachments of centralized government power. In the long run, then, the politics of individualism only benefits those bureaucrats who – consciously or no – pursue a policy of Divide et impera.
The decay of language must be examined even further, however, as it may also be misleading to say that the family can provide us shelter from the consolidated superstate. Even among Catholic conservatives, the word “family” usually only refers to the nuclear family. As Fleming points out, most human cultures for millennia have deemed the family to be a much larger, more extended network of relationships. It is only relatively recently that family’s embrace has shrunk to include only parents and children.
And it is worth noting how that shrinkage has tracked alongside radical changes in attitude vis-a-vis religion, politics, and sexuality. Perhaps human consciousness itself has been somewhat starved or stunted by the unraveling of extended familial bonds. “Before drawing up plans to strengthen the family, conservative social reformers should divert their attention from the past two centuries, when the family has been in decline, and look instead to the formative periods of our history, when the organic bonds of kinship were stronger than the mechanical apparatus of the government.”
Here it is worth mentioning that in some Catholic circles it has become almost fashionable to downplay the importance of kinship. Sometimes this marginalizing of blood-ties is rooted in the desire to mitigate the dangers of nepotism and unjust discrimination, while on other occasions it aims at celebrating the merits of adoption. (On this latter point, in their commendable zeal for adoption, otherwise very thoughtful Catholics often gloss over the fact that it is indeed regrettable for biological parents to be unable or unwilling to care for their own offspring.)
Fleming deems the contempt for natural relationships to be well-meaning but misguided at best, and a perversion of the Gospel at worst. Setting aside the overwhelming spirit of tribalism pervading the Old Testament, even the New is filled with specific examples of how organic human connections are foundational for the Apostle Paul, the Twelve, and Christ Himself.
Having highlighted various particular counterexamples, Fleming explains that grace does not abolish nature but rather builds upon it, and then deftly sums up his case against abstract, bloodless faith by observing that “Christianity, so far from repudiating the demands of kinship, used the language and values of kinship as the metaphor for the Church.” Moving away from theological discourse to the common sense of the street, “it remains to be seen whether we can learn to treat our fellow citizens – much less all men – as brothers if we do not know how to treat our literal brothers and cousins.”
For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with the author, it must be said that Dr. Fleming has long since proven his prescience as a dissident voice. Indeed, a case can be made that many of today’s celebrity pundits are merely appropriating themes the Rockford-based philologist addressed long ago and more deeply. For example, Fleming had already testified at length and repeatedly about the importance of national borders and local communities back when Victor Davis Hanson and Rod Dreher were still preoccupied with promoting neoconservative wars in the Middle East.
In any event, Properties of Blood is exactly what one would expect from an experienced scholar with a sharp wit and whose reading ranges far and wide. From the ethical vision of Sir Walter Scott and Saint Augustine’s reflections upon Roman civilization, to Aristotle’s theory of friendship and Thomas Jefferson’s policies regarding inheritance, the author’s deft prose keeps the reader engaged. At least as important for those concerned about the future of the family, we would be hard-pressed to find more profound arguments against the ideology of individualism – and for the person.
Properties of Blood: The Reign of Love
By Thomas Fleming
Fleming Foundation, 2022
Paperback, 322 pages
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