Friday, January 9, 2009

Stanley Fish on Roland Burris and St. Augustine


In today's "Think Again" column, Stanley Fish refers to St. Augustine and the Donatists in arguing that Roland Burris deserves to be seated in the U.S. Senate.

Think ex opere operato, history buffs. Your priest may have been ordained by a heretic or scoundrel, but he's still a priest and the sacraments he administers are still valid. (Heave a sigh of relief, loyal Catholics.) As Fish points out,
The legitimacy of an appointment can be either a procedural or a moral matter. If it is a procedural matter, authority is conferred by the right credentials, and that’s that. If it is a moral matter – only the good can be truly authoritative (this was John Milton’s position) – authority is always precarious, and the structures of government and law are always in danger of being dissolved.

Fish does not tell the rest of the Donatists' story, however. Though St. Augustine acknowledged the validity of their appointments, he also called for civil penalties against them. The Donatists were wrong, he wrote, and if they could not be persuaded to return to the true church, they should be forced to do so. With his encouragement, churches were closed, adherents were fined, and leaders were exiled.

Presumably St. Augustine, while supporting Roland Burris's appointment, would have no objection to impeaching and imprisoning Governor Rod Blagojevich.

1 comment:

David Neff said...

Burris should be seated, since there is no hint of evidence that there was any quid pro quo in his appointment by Blago. But Fish is wrong to suggest that the morality of Blago have nothing to do with it. Our modern liberal democracies are built on the consent of the governed, and to the degree that a governor or other elected official behaves so badly as to lose the trust of the people, his actions need to be scrutinized--and if they appear to have been born of corruption, those actions need to be nullified by the courts or the legislature. Morality does indeed enter into the picture.