Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Catholic Response to Utopian Modernity

Pieter Brueghel the Elder-tower-of-babel 1563
The image above entitled “The Tower of Babel” was painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1563.
The world goes its own way without much regard for the Church, because it has very little regard for truth—that is to say, for reality.
The problems go to the roots of current ways of thinking. The modern movement of thought began as an attempt to attain security and certainty by emphasizing what is practical and by imposing strict standards of evidence. That meant tossing out quite a lot: tradition, revelation, and the insight into natural forms and functions—and their connection to permanent human concerns—that lies behind our understanding of natural moral law.
People wanted to be scientific, and that meant rejecting many normal ways of thinking. They hoped the result would be knowledge that was exact, reliable, and useful, and modern natural science has indeed given us amazing advances in medicine and weaponry. Modern forms of organizing society, such as the modern state and the business corporation, have also proved immensely effective in important ways.
There have also been other results, the most notable of which is the reduction of all seriously considered human concerns to technology and desire. After all, if higher goods and ultimate truths can’t be measured or produced to order, and it seems we can get by without them by figuring out how to give people what they want, then why not simplify matters and forget about them?
That’s what’s happened in our public life. Everybody who matters is a secularist today, and the situation has far-reaching implications. One is that educated and well-placed people now believe that the institutions on which social order is based should be technically expert, economically rational, morally nonjudgmental, and universal in their reach. So the world should be ordered comprehensively by global markets and expert regulatory bureaucracies, together with subsidiary institutions such as universities, think tanks, media organizations, and various NGOs that serve or try to influence government and business. That, it is thought, is the uniquely rational way of organizing society, and whatever threatens it, or attempts to limit it or introduce other authorities, is irrational, disruptive, and a threat to humanity.
That’s why the people who run things in Europe have rejected Christianity and adopted the EU as their religion. For those committed to it, the European Union is not really a practical contrivance to be judged by its visible or likely effects. It is a supreme principle that must forever expand and deepen in its application without regard to practical considerations or the outlook or well-being of the people the governments involved supposedly represent. Anything else would violate the vision of the secular development of the human world into an ordered and beneficent cosmos. That, it is thought, would be the triumph of chaos, irrationality, and violence.
The problem is that the society aimed at has no room for man as he is. It treats him as fundamentally a careerist and consumer, with no natural particularities, and no higher aspiration or destiny than the perfection of the system that enables him and his fellows to get what they want. Any qualities that go beyond that are disruptive, and must be eradicated or neutralized by confining them to a purely private sphere where they won’t influence anything.
For that reason it has no place for the attachments that have always formed human life and to which we have always given our deepest loyalties: family, religion, specific community, particular people and culture, ultimate truth. Such things become private, sentimental matters with no special definition and therefore no serious public function. They are not permitted to make a difference, because when they do the kind of rational, transparent society at which liberal modernity aims becomes impossible. So to the extent they retain a connection to aspects of how people live, it’s a problem to be dealt with under the rubrics of equality, tolerance, and inclusion.
The vision is utopian, which means that it does violence to human nature by trying to root out things that make us human. To make matters worse, the situation can’t be discussed intelligently because the abolition of ultimate truth leads to the abolition of truth as such. Truth becomes first a matter of what is useful, then what is comfortable and pleasing, and finally what helps the teller get what he wants. Integrity disappears from commerce, politics become spin and optics, and even scholars present truth as something constructed for other purposes. When such tendencies join with the view that common sense doesn’t count, and we should only pay attention to what experts say, the result is a tendency to ignore the obvious in favor of the assertions of those who have social authority and claim special insight. For examples, consider contemporary architecture and educational theory. People hate the one, and the other notoriously doesn’t work, but nothing can be done about either.
So the problem with present-day life is that it’s short on truth and reason. Our job as Catholics is to stand for those things, so if (to pick a prominent example) the truth of marriage and the sexes is rejected, then we need to say what it is and work toward it.
But how? People sometimes say that the Church has had two ways of dealing with the modern world, the “fortress Catholicism” symbolized by Trent, and a more flexible Catholicism, symbolized by the Second Vatican Council, that, as Paul VI put it, “felt the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives.”
Both have their uses and limitations. Working for truth involves knowledge and proclamation. Knowledge is mostly a matter of understanding the teachings of the Church, as well as any relevant secular knowledge, proclamation of presenting what is known in the most effective way. In such matters flexibility is necessary, as long as we remain grounded. As an earlier Paul said, “I became all things to all men, that I might save all.”
Working for truth also involves faithful acceptance of the truth, living in it, and making it easier for others to do so. For most of us, doing all that requires, if not a fortress, then at least a Barque of Peter that is able to keep out waves, sharks, and seaweed so life can go on. We are social creatures who depend on what’s around us. It is possible to be chaste in a brothel and faithful in a world that treats faith as a danger to be suppressed—the saints have done so—but most of us are more fragile, and if Catholics want to maintain their faith and evangelize others they need a concrete way of life to offer that is backed by reliable, common understandings and generally works for people who are presently less than saintly.
To continue with our example, then, promotion of the truth about man requires, among other things, a setting where the habits, expectations, and beliefs necessary for marriage and the family to thrive can maintain a stable and reliable presence. That means that if the world becomes more actively anti-Christian, it becomes necessary for the Christian community, in important aspects of its practical everyday life, to separate itself more from the world. If we want to live in the truth, we can’t be entangled in a system based on lies and the virtual reality of propaganda, pop culture, and electronics. It is difficult, for example, if we want to teach our children the truth about the sexes, to accept the intrusion of the mass electronic media into domestic life, or to send them to schools where they will be punished for referring to a boy as a boy.
Part of the story of the Church in America has been the struggle of Catholics to achieve full inclusion in American life. The tendency of events shows that that attempt needs to be rethought. Engaging the world in hopes of gaining it is a wonderful thing, if that’s what the struggle has been about, but not at the cost of losing the faith and way of life we hoped to gain it for. We can offer the world something only if we maintain what we have to offer, and we can’t do that if we are absorbed by present-day society.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 07, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.


  1. Modernity in morals and politics begins with the Enlightenment. In the United States the most influential thinker was John Locke. Jefferson condensed his Second Treatise of Government in the Declaration of Independence, which reads (as everyone will remember): We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." So Jefferson thought humanity finally had the truth about political life. Mr. Kalb leaves all this out and insists that Modernity is "short on truth and reason." It would be more accurate to say that there are competing understandings of the truth, and that Locke's self-ownership theory of individual rights rejects by and large the Divine ownership theory of the Bible. It began as a contest of ideas and remains so.

  2. I'm sure this is well known to the author, who has a excellent comprehensive grasp of the history and implications. He is stressing ideas as the source of change. He just left out "Hobbes and Locke and the Federalist Papers." Much here to think about.