Unwritten rules and the Great Compromise

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Oct 15, 2018

The encounter of the rich young man with Jesus reveals the contrast and connection between written and unwritten rules. The rich young man had observed all of the Commandments since his youth. But Jesus calls him to a higher state of generosity by going beyond the Law of Moses. It is helpful for us also to be attentive to unwritten rules of generosity.

The purpose of God’s law is to bring everlasting peace and tranquility. Natural law is man’s “participation in the eternal law” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa, I-II.91.2). Everyone who has the use of reason understands (or should understand) the foundational self-evident principle of natural law: do good and avoid evil. The Ten Commandments bring natural law into clearer focus. The obligation to worship God is reasonable and natural to man. So is the obligation to respect just authority. A reasonable man should also recognize the evil of murder, adultery, theft, and lies.

Some precepts of natural law are not as self-evident as the Ten Commandments. The evil of contraceptive acts, for example, can be demonstrated by a reasonable moral analysis, but tuning in to the reasonableness of the precept may require help. This is why we need the authoritative guidance of traditional Church teaching.

But there are certain unwritten rules based on the experience of history that also carry prudential force. These unwritten rules derive from time-honored attitudes and compromises grounded in a generous spirit that help hold a society and a nation together. These principles and precepts may be invoked, albeit with more or less historically conditioned authority, and generally honored for purposes of serving the common good. Such unwritten rules should not be dismissed lightly.

The aftermath of the American Civil War offers a case study of one such unwritten rule. In a 1994 C-Span interview, historian and novelist Shelby Foote, prominent in Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War series, defined the post-war Great Compromise:

[After the] Civil War, there is a Great Compromise…. It consists of Southerners admitting freely that it’s probably best that the Union wasn’t divided, and the North admits rather freely that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed… We are now able to look at the war with some coolness, which we couldn’t do before now, and, incidentally, I very much doubt whether a history such as mine [Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War] could have been written much before 100 years had elapsed. It took all that time for things to cool down.

The Great Compromise cooled tempers and began to overcome racial tensions:

When I was a grade school boy in Mississippi, I knew obscene doggerel about Abraham Lincoln, left over from my parents and grandparents. Yankees were despised. When one of them was so unfortunate as to move to Greenville, Mississippi, he was despised. All that stopped [due to the long-term effects of the] Great Compromise….

Foote also noted and lamented an emerging cultural pathology that violates the Great Compromise. He argues that the Jews revisit their past—the slavery in Egypt and the Holocaust—without shame and confidence: “They say, ‘We came out of it. We conquered it.’” But Foote laments that African Americans do not want to be reminded of history and he very much regrets the tendency to fear history.

In 1994, Foote clearly saw the evil associated with denying history:

The Illinois senator [Carol Moseley-Braun] who didn’t want the Daughters of the Confederacy at Richmond to have a Confederate symbol—not the battle flag; just a Confederate symbol—on their stationery, got her fellow senators to disallow it. I do not understand that. That’s a violation of the Compromise, for example, and it’s an arousal of bitterness. But she, along with a great many others, do not want to be reminded.

Foote concluded with this sharp indictment:

[The Illinois senator] has every right to want to hide from history if she wants to, but it seems to me she’s trying to hide history from us, and that’s a mistake.

Unfortunately, hiding from American history is becoming more common. The impulse for burning books to rid history of unpleasantries takes many forms.

After months of debate, the Staunton, Virginia School Board decided to strip Robert E. Lee High School of the name it was given in 1914 because Lee was a slaveholder. The School Board overlooks the fact that Lee believed in gradual emancipation, had no slaves of his own, and freed every slave he inherited from his father-in-law’s estate. It’s not likely the members of the School Board who voted to delete the memory of Robert E. Lee are aware of their egregious violation of the Great Compromise.

The human condition ensures that history will always include an intertwining of good and evil. (Even the lineage of Jesus in the Gospel of Mathew includes several scoundrels!) Hence, we have an obligation to respect the truth of history as an expression of God’s providence, but we also have an obligation to honor the lessons of history in a fallen world.

This attempt to cleanse history of all vestiges of evil—real or imagined—is futile and dangerous. It is futile because all men are sinners. No town-square statue of a great man henceforth will be safe. And it is dangerous because the School Board, in violating the unwritten rule of the Great Compromise, risks stirring the bitterness and hatreds that always lie dormant in the human heart. Ultimately, the action of the School Board lacks a generous spirit.

The Great Compromise is an unwritten code of conduct, protecting and encouraging post-war tranquility. Like many unwritten rules in many nations, it retains the force of law by mutual understanding, prudence, and goodwill.

The unwritten rule of the Great Compromise is worth invoking “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” (Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln).

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. Father Pokorsky also serves as a director and treasurer of Human Life International.
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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 19, 2018 11:02 PM ET USA

    Thank you Father. The truth (accuracy and validity in anything) requires patience. Seems we have so little of this these days. I am very concerned about the "erasing" of history based on judgements made with "today's values". If ever there was a recipe for history repeating, ...this is it.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 16, 2018 11:52 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Father. Very interesting look at the past Sunday's Gospel. There is a significant contrast between the wealthy young man's reaction to the Lord's calling and the Apostles' who had instantly left their fishing nests, or custom's post and followed Jesus. It cannot happen without a vocation supported by God's grace. Keeping the Commandments is for everyone, but literally leaving all behind to follow Jesus is a religious and priestly vocation.

  • Posted by: FredC - Oct. 16, 2018 9:54 PM ET USA

    Although a northerner, I have had this vague feeling that the statues of Confederate heroes should not be destroyed. I was probably influenced by a biography of J.E.B. Stewart that I read as a teenager. Thanks to Father Pokorsky, I now have a logical, reasoned basis for my feelings.