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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Reflection on Duty

I just read an article in Chronicles, one of my favorite magazines, and was shocked by it because of the audience the author was addressing. I'm not easily shocked I might add. But Jeff Minick described teaching a seminar for homeschoolers on the Civil War. They were discussing Robert E. Lee and he brought up Lee's commitment to duty. "For Lee duty was a sort of eighth virtue," he told the young people. They responded by expressing their dislike of the word for being "harsh" and "heavy" and "old fashioned." Minick was surprised by their antipathy, but says he missed a teaching moment by not pursuing the discussion. He went on to describe how the word duty has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, replaced by the word "responsibility" which has a different connation. Duty implies control from the outside; responsibility implies personal acceptance. Minarick believes the "semantic shift has consequences," not positive ones, both for individuals and the culture.

Minarick is a college professor. He tells us that "In my 25 years of teaching, I have never once heard anyone explain to students that learning is a duty. Parents and teachers extol the value of study...but to tell students they have the duty to study, just as soldiers have the duty of defendingt their country, never enters the discussion." And he goes on to describe how he is incorporating the idea of duty into his classes including Emerson's poem:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can!

On reflection, I'm not all that surprised at the antipathy our modern society has toward duty. My generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II. Our fathers and uncles and neighbors had responded to the call to duty and fought at great personal cost. In a Catholic family, I often heard about our obligation to "do the duties of our state in life." And I told my husband I should have this epitaph on my gravestone. "She did her duty with gritted teeth."

Perhaps that explains why our entitlement culture would rather not think about duty. It's hard and sometimes even unpleasant. They would rather apply it to others than themselves. The government, in particular, has a duty to provide for them from cradle to grave. They, on the other hand, have no duties, only rights. Certainly, the Occupy movement reflects that as the spoiled kids with their I-phones, I-pods, and I-pads (Did you ever notice the narcissistic emphasis of those names?) call society to pour out more goodies into their open arms and mouths. In one humorous discussion on YouTube, a reporter asks a young man if he will share his I-pad with others and he says, no because it's his personal property. When she points out that he is demanding that others share their property, he goes through hoops justifying his inconsistent position. Greed, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Recognizing and doing one's duty takes grownups. Is it any wonder that a dependent generation of adolescent crybabies hates the word?

Reflecting on duty seems to me to be a good Advent preparation. Our Lord spoke to Sr. Lucy of Fatima in 1943 saying, The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My Law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.” We would do well to listen and obey Our Lord. What are the duties of your state in life? Are you fulfilling them to the best of your ability? We would all do well to examine our consciences this Advent on what God expects of us. We have moral duties and, like it or not, we will answer for the way we fulfill or  fail to fulfill them. Let us try to instill in our children and grandchildren the sense that doing your duty is a question of honor. Emerson's poem goes well with the final lines of Richard Lovelace's poem To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Lov'd I not honour more.

Duty and honor are closely linked and both are pretty much ignored by our narcissistic culture that puts personal pleasure above all. A truly Catholic world view, however, values both, seeking to live a virtuous life where faithfulness to duty helps define an individual's honor and integrity. One would expect homeschoolers to get this even if the larger culture doesn't. But, like the plant growing in an acid soil, students, even homeschoolers, are impacted by the cultural soil. In view of that, one important duty of Catholic parents is to emphasize and instill a sense of duty in their children: duty to God, to family, and to our neighbor. It isn't just a responsibility but a sacred duty. God help us if we fail to perform it.


Alice Doyle said...

Great post. If you think about it--it makes sense that some home schoolers aren't learning about duty. People who home school out of a disdain for an immoral government run the risk of setting themselves up as small gods of their own universes feeling themselves duty-bound to no one. I have met home schoolers who have cut their kids off from extended family feeling their cousins are "bad influences". There is no sense of duty toward nieces, nephews, extended family. Unless something extreme occurred, I do not understand that position. Another puzzling thing I've run into is a lack of understanding that families must sacrifice for the good of others just as individuals do. Again--the "family as an island" mentality says "we do what is good for us, we decide what is acceptable for us, in short, we come first--an attitude that is the antithesis of duty.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't find the article on Chronicles, but I wonder if the homeschoolers were reacting with disdain to the character the teacher had chosen for the students to model - Robert E. Lee. This man has had such a voluptuous amount of sentimental honor dripped on his memory, but the fact remains he led his country through a sustained abortion of hundreds of thousands of lives (some suicides out of the horrors of war, like the Wilderness), and millions more disabled and disfigured for ...what? If Lee hadn't stepped up for the South, if he had volunteered for the Union, we would have still emancipated the slaves with much less bloodletting. He only surrendered when his back was against the wall and his soldiers were starving. The fact is, he had the *duty* to stand up for the inalienable rights of the slave at a critical juncture...and he bungled it.

I do agree with the rest of your essay, and the first commenter...duty is important.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Do you really think you're being fair to Lee? The states were sovereign. They had a right to secede. Did you know that Virginia's constitution had the right to secession specifically enumerated? Virginia would not have ratified the Constitution without it.

Lee did not want Virginia to secede, but once she did, he felt morally bound to defend her.

As for slavery, that is only one element in leading up to the war and one that Lincoln didn't care about. On numerous occasions he said that if he could preserve the union with slavery intact he would do it. On the one occasion where he litigated in a slavery case he defended the slave owner. The vision of the Great Emancipator is nonsense. He didn't free a single slave and only "freed" those in the Confederate states where he had no power. It was a war tactic to encourage a slave revolt that failed.

There were many slaves in the deep south but very few, for example, where I live in the Shenandoah Valley. The south was not all cotton plantations. There were blue collar mill towns where the workers were mostly white. Do you really think men who never even saw a slave were fighting over slavery? Are you aware that the Industrial North was economically raping the agricultural south with tariff legislation? There was no income tax then and the south was paying a disproportionate share of the taxes, certainly unjust.

Most of the battles were fought in the south, 40% in Virginia. People of that time saw themselves as citizens of their states first and members of a united federation of states second. If you saw your homeland being invaded in what you considered an unjust attack would you stand up and fight?

History, as they say, is written by the winners. Lincoln precipitated the war by the forced resupply of Fort Sumter. (The only casualty there was a dead mule.) There did not need to be a war -- certainly not over slavery. It was on the way out because of technological advances that made it economically unfeasible. Everywhere else slavery ended through compensated emancipation.

Lincoln forced the war believing the north would win quickly, and when he couldn't win it through "just war" tactics he authorized an all out war against the civilian population of the South including women, children, and old men. I've read the diaries of several women and diaries and stories of soldiers on both sides. The burning and looting by the northern army is notorious. On one of his few sorties into the North, Lee's army burnt Chambersburg in retaliation for the burning of the Shenandoah Valley when the city didn't pay a demanded a ransom of reparation. Wrong yes, but certainly understandable after what was done in Virginia. War unleashes hell and Lincoln must get major credit for starting it.

We've all been fed the holy north and evil south myth. The reality was much more complicated. A good book on this is The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo, a professor of economics at Loyola University of Maryland. And there is an excellent article about the Catholic Church and the war at

As for Lee, he was an honorable man living in challenging times who does not deserve your condemnation.

rohrbachs said...

The statement of Causes of the Seceding States, here should put to rest any doubt that it was about slavery. There was a good deal of revisionism that happened in subsequent decades, to try to expunge the "peculiar institution" as a cause of the war - that's probably what confuses most people today, and what accounts for the apotheosis of RE Lee.

I am not making any inference about Lincoln's virtue - certainly he made mistakes and did not appear to go into the war to free the slaves. Some say that was a political stance to make it possible to get to the later stage of emancipation - maybe that's true, maybe not. But he certainly wasn't fighting to *defend* slavery!

But the real heroes were abolitionists and underground railroaders, as well as the soldiers who fought in blue. They were the ones who "did their duty".

Restore-DC-Catholicism said...

The concept of duty does grate upon the sensibilities of the "if it feels good do it" generation.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Didn't the boys in gray do their duty as well?

Ray Schneider said...

To do your duty you must first recognize that there is such a thing. Duty is derived from moral principles. The first and foundational moral principle is to do good and avoid evil.

Another fundamental principle is the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (i.e. Love your neighbor as yourself.)

This and loving God summarizes the whole law said Jesus. But we live in an age that is morally bankrupt. It cannot see duty because it is hedonistic and sees good only as gratification of the self. The West Point motto is "Duty, Honor, Country." I think the first two have been rendered unintelligible to the young and the last is being so rendered by statism. Societies cannot long endure without shared values and to share anything you have to acknowledge the other.

As for Lee, he followed his duty as he saw it. Lincoln did the same and transformed the view of the Union. Before Lincoln it was a voluntary union of equal states and after Lincoln it was a union forged in centralized power. Things have been going downhill since. We are at the tipping point. "Go and tell the Spartans ..."

S. Petersen said...

Dear Mary Ann: I've received a sollicitation to contribute to a fund to get leniency for Corey Clagett. In view of your sound Catholic beliefs, your military connections and your political conservatism, I'm hoping you might have a way to point me in the direction of charity and patriotism in deciding how to respond to the request for help. In checking on the internet, the support for Clagett seemed to be centered in what I think of as the "conspiracy theory" bloggers (9/11 was orchestrated by the US, e. g.) or by one or two groups specifically formed to respond to the Abu Gharib and Iron Triangle prosecutions. Has anyone with sound Catholic or military credentials gone on record pro Clagett? There is one ret. military man heading up the appeal, but finding out about him would be simply a different, but equally difficult search. Thanks, S. Petersen

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

I don't know enough about this situation to comment about contributing money. After looking briefly on the net, however, I'm sad for this young soldier and his family. We take boys and train them to kill and to obey orders, then put them in these tense combat situations.

What Corey did in killing two Iraqi prisoners was wrong and he's admitted that, but the disparity in his treatment compared to the officer who ordered the killing and the other two soldiers involved is clearly unjust.

I'm going to write to him in prison and if anyone else wants to join me his address is Corey Clagett 82477, 1300 N. Warehouse Rd., Ft. Leavenworth, KS 66027.

There is more information about Corey's case, including videos of the clemency hearing, at

Alice Doyle said...

You know, this discussion of duty is very relevant to the situation at Penn State. There has been a lot of discussion about it on facebook and there are many people who honestly think Joe Paterno is being set up as a fall guy and had no responsibility. The argument seems to be that because he couldn't fire Sandusky himself, there was nothing for him to do.
As a mom, that kind of thinking makes me want to scream. Talk about duty. Anyone who knew--or had a hint--of what was going on and continued to work day in and day out with Sandusky did not do his duty. If it had been me, I would have refused to work with him, raised hell, gone to the press, whatever had to be done. If people don't see that that is what should have happened--in such an extreme situation where children were being scarred for life--well, I fear it's hopeless. But of course, we do love our football....

Tom said...

In answer to your question about the boys in grey... they can only be seen as doing their duty in as much as they were fighting an unjust war. There can be no doubt that the Civil War in our nation was fought to perpetuate a way of life sustained by the enslavement of a race of people. Perhaps the average foot soldier of the south (many of whom did not own slaves) did not knowingly intend to fight for such an immoral "cause." So, they were doing their duty for home and country in the same way that perhaps many German soldiers were doing so in WW2. Not everyone involved in an evil cause is evil, and not everyone involved in a just cause is just.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

I think there is another perspective, Tom. The injustice was not all on the part of the South. The North was pursuing an economic policy of stealing from the agricultural South to subsidize the manufacturing North. The 1828 "Tarriff of Abominations" certainly created an ongoing resentment because the South, which had a booming trade with Europe, was forced to buy from the North because the tarriff made foreign goods too expensive.

There were many southerners who wanted to see slavery end, Stonewall Jackson among them. But how do you end an institution like that overnight? Lincoln wanted to ship them all back to Africa and stated on many occasions that they were not equal to the white race.

What precipitated the shooting was the northern invasion of the south. So the southern soldiers were protecting their homeland. I think that is a just cause. The South attempted to leave peacefully through secession. There wasn't anything sacrosanct about the union. It was the agreement of sovereign states to join together for their mutual benefit. Why shouldn't they have the right to leave? After the war the North avoided a criminal trial of Jefferson Davis for treason because they feared he would make the legal case for secession.

The victory of the North, as Ray said, gave us the monster federal government we have today which has perpetrated all kinds of immoral and unjust policies -- policies that are even worse than slavery. At least slaves had their lives and the chance to escape slavery, unlike abortion which has murdered millions of innocents who had no chance at all.

Had the south successfully seceeded, we would likely not have abortion today because there would have been no mandate from a central authority that overturned every state law. Abortion was on the way out after only a few years. Even New York overturned their permissive law and it only survived because of Nelson Rockefeller's veto.

I think there were many unintended consequences of making "the union" an idol. We are still dealing with them today. And I think it is too simplistic to say the North was fighting for a just cause and the South was fighting for an evil one.

Alice Doyle said...

It's interesting--from accounts I've read, many slaves voluntarily stayed with their white families even after being freed. That tells me that the issues of "freedom" and "slavery" are more complex than the history books like to portray them. And isn't dependency on the welfare state just another--more insidious--form of slavery? The government is in many ways a harsher master in its conditions that destroy the family and strip people of pride.
I also have to put a plug in for Stonewall Jackson. A more moral man you would be hard pressed to find. He disciplined himself pretty harshly--not drinking at all because he was afraid he'd like it too much, not sending mail on a day when the carrier would have to ride on Sunday and his did his duty despite the fact that he surely would have preferred to be at home with his wife and little girl.