Catholics and Postmodernity

National Review Online | Published on October 28, 2013

By George Weigel

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Editor’s note: The following address was given at a gathering of the St. Thomas More Society of the Diocese of Green Bay on October 24.

Let me begin by thanking my friend Judge Bill Griesbach for describing me here in Titletown U.S.A. as “the Aaron Rodgers of Catholic public intellectuals.” As a native of Baltimore with a long memory, I’ll be happy to accept that accolade if the good people of Green Bay will finally admit that Don Chandler shanked that field goal in the 1965 Colts/Packers playoff game.

Tonight, I want to violate the canons of after-dinner remarks, skip the requisite joke-every-two-paragraphs, and get right down to the business at hand: to drill beneath the surface of American public life in order to explore what’s going on down there; to examine how what’s going on down there shapes the controversies and arguments of the day; and to suggest how that bears on Catholics and other men and women whose consciences are formed by Great Tradition Christianity in these United States in the early 21st century.

But as an introduction to that heavy lifting, I’d like to begin on more familiar terrain, with the hymn we sang at the end of Mass this evening. Why? Because one of the less frequently sung verses of “America the Beautiful” strikes me with some force as an appropriate way to get into our topic:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

A Catholic knowledgeable about Christian history has to be struck by the irony of Catholics singing this stanza with gusto. For those “pilgrim feet” in the wilderness of the New World were running as far from Rome as possible; indeed, as one embodiment of what scholars call the “Radical Reformation,” the Pilgrims were running as far and as fast as they could from what they regarded as “Romanizing” forms of Protestantism. And when those who trod the wilderness on “pilgrim feet” got political power, they and their heirs often used it in ways that made life difficult for Catholics — as they did in my native Maryland, where the English colonies’ first experiment in religious toleration was ended by an influx of belligerent Virginia Protestants of a Cromwellian cast of mind.

Yet here Catholics are, singing about and celebrating the accomplishments of those who trod on pilgrim feet across the New World wilderness — and rightly so. For the linkages drawn by America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forebears between liberty and law, freedom and moral self-possession, freedom and moral nobility, all commend themselves to an authentically Catholic sensibility.

The great Jesuit theorist of the American democratic experiment, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., caught this in 1960 when, in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, he wrote that “Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of this consensus — the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law — approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue.”

Today, though, Americans — or, at the very least, America’s cultural and political elites — seem to be speaking a different language.

The character of that change was brilliantly caught by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his seminal book, After Virtue, which begins with an arresting thought experiment.

Imagine, MacIntyre writes, that a series of natural catastrophes have been blamed on scientists, who are then persecuted, even executed, by followers of a Know-Nothing political movement that seeks to destroy, not only scientists, but also their books and instruments. Science teaching is banned in schools and a great forgetting takes place. Later, when people calm down, an attempt is made to revive science — but those making the attempt don’t know what “science” is. All they have is fragments of books, charred pages of articles, broken instruments, and reports of experiments, none of which is any longer embedded in the context in which they made sense. Nevertheless, people pick up these fragments of a lost heritage and talk about “physics,” “biology,” and “chemistry,” arguing about the “theory of evolution” and the “theory of relativity” while their children learn bits and pieces of the periodic table of the elements and recite Euclidean theorems as chants. Very few people realize that none of this is “science” in any proper sense. They use the terms of science — “mass,” “specific gravity,” “neutrino,” and so forth — but in ways unrelated to the beliefs those expressions once presupposed. So there would seem to be a certain arbitrariness, even an element of “choice,” in the use of these terms. Various underlying and incommensurable premises that could not be demonstrated would multiply; some would propose subjectivist theories of science while others would argue that there is no computability between “science” and subjectivism. Looking at such a world, we, on the other hand, would say that, while the language of natural science is being used, it is gravely disordered.

And there, MacIntyre concluded 30 years ago, is the rub: “In the actual world we inhabit, the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess . . . are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”

My friend Rémi Brague, a distinguished French philosopher and recent winner of the Ratzinger Prize, would likely agree with Alasdair MacIntyre. But he would drive the analysis of our current discontents deeper. Thus in 2006, Brague made a suggestive proposal for periodizing modern Western political history.

The 19th century, he argued, was a period focused on Good-and-Evil: The “social question” — raised by the industrial revolution, urbanization, mass education, and the demise of traditional society — shaped the public landscape.

As for the 20th century, it was the century of True-and-False: The totalitarian ideologies, built on the foundations of desperately wrong-headed ideas of human beings and their origins, communities, and destiny, defined the contest for the human future that drove history from the aftermath of World War I (the event that began “the 20th century” as an epoch) through the Soviet crackup of 1991 (the event that ended “the 20th century” as a distinct political-historical period).

And the 21st century? That, Rémi Brague proposed, would be the century of Being-and-Nothingness — the epoch of the metaphysical question. It might seem, in comparison to Brague’s description of the 19th and 20th centuries, a rather abstract proposal. Yet Brague, in his French way, was being very practical, very concrete, in defining our times in those terms. For if there is nothing received and cherished by our culture that might be called the “grammar of the human,” if there are no Things As They Are, if everything is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by human willfulness, then everything is up for grabs, cacophony drowns out intelligent public debate, and politics is merely the will to power.

Having spent decades immersed in the study of Islamic philosophy and law, Rémi Brague is hardly unaware of the threat posed to the West by jihadism, both externally and internally. But in 2006, he insisted that there was a prior enemy-within-the-gates of our own making. It was nihilism: a kind of soured cynicism about the very mystery of Being and its goodness. Such cynicism drained life of meaning, foreshortened horizons of expectation, and rendered sacrifices for the common good risible. Brague found postmodern nihilism foreshadowed in the Enlightenment intellectual (left unnamed) who said that he did not have children because begetting children was a criminal act, a matter of condemning another human being to death. A similar nihilism may be found lurking today beneath the decline of the marriage culture in America (and indeed throughout the West), in the treatment of children as lifestyle accessories, in the trivialization of sexuality in advertising and entertainment, and in so many other expressions of the sexual revolution and the Gnostic ideology of Gender.

That is a non-hysterical, entirely plausible reading of American culture today. And if it feels slightly uncomfortable and unfamiliar to be a serious Catholic in America today, that is because the ambient public culture often denies the four fundamental truths on which, according to John Courtney Murray, America was built, truths that Catholics readily and happily affirmed even when Protestant bigots were questioning whether Catholics could be good citizens of the American democracy.

Americans once understood that God had inscribed moral truths into the world and into us, truths that could be known by reason. Today, the nation’s principal political newspaper, the Washington Post, editorially describes an appeal to those truths as an example of a new “language of racism, bias, and intolerance” — and does so in aid of the claim that government should recognize that Adam can “marry” Steve.

Americans once understood that our “rights” had to be tethered to a higher moral law, that just government was by the consent of the governed, and that democratic decision-making should, except in very rare circumstances, be made in legislative bodies by the people’s elected representatives. Today, we are increasingly governed by unelected Supreme Court justices and unaccountable regulators, many of whom seem to take their concept of freedom and human rights from that great moral philosopher, Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way.”

Americans once understood that the state existed to serve society, not the other way around. Today, we are governed by a federal administration that seems determined to shrink the size of civil society and vastly enlarge the sphere of state power, as it has done in the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient/sterilization mandate.

Americans once understood that, as Father Murray put it, “only a virtuous people can be free.” Today, freedom is too often reduced to a mantra of “choice,” and the urgent moral question “Choose what?” is rarely engaged; in fact, it is assiduously avoided by the pro-choice lobby in the aftermath of the Gosnell trial, and it was simply ignored by the president of the United States in a 2013 speech to Planned Parenthood.

All of this, and more, makes for an unfamiliar America for Catholics. It also makes for a great about-face in the consideration of Catholic history, and of the Catholic present and future, in the United States.

For decades, the classic historians of American Catholicism — John Gilmary Shea, Peter Guilday, Thomas McAvoy, John Tracy Ellis — framed the story of Catholicism in America around the issues of assimilation and acceptance — the question posed by those who, striding on “pilgrim feet” across the new republic, often made things difficult for Catholics. And, to be sure, reading the history of the Catholic Church in the United States as a centuries-long struggle for assimilation and acceptance sheds light on one dynamic in the development of the Church in America. Yet holding too tight a focus on the question “Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?” is to play on the other guy’s turf. Once, the “other guy” challenging Catholics’ patriotic credentials was militant Protestantism; now, the “other guy” is militant secularism. But in either case, to play on the other guy’s turf is to concede at the outset that he sets the terms of debate: “We [militant Protestants/militant secularists] know what it means to be a good American; you [Catholics] have to prove yourselves to us.”

That’s not the game, however. It wasn’t even really the game from 1776 through the 1960 presidential campaign — when militant Protestantism was the aggressor — and it certainly isn’t the game today, when militant secularism is the aggressor. The real game involves different, deeper questions: “Who best understands the nature of the American experiment in ordered liberty? Who can best give a persuasive defense of the first freedom, which is religious freedom?”

The 19th-century U.S. bishops and Catholic intellectuals — whose enthusiasm for American democracy went over the top on occasion — did get one crucial point right: The American Founders “built better than they knew”; i.e., the Founders designed a democratic republic for which they couldn’t provide a durable moral and philosophical defense. But the long-despised (and now-despised-again) Catholics could: Catholics could (and can) give a robust, compelling account of American democracy and its commitments to human dignity, human rights, and ordered liberty.

Mid-20th-century Catholic scholars like John Courtney Murray and the historian Theodore Maynard picked up this theme and made it central to their reading of U.S. Catholic history. Murray presciently warned that, if Catholicism didn’t fill the cultural vacuum being created by a dying mainline Protestantism, the “noble, many-storeyed mansion of democracy [may] be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.”

That is the argument the U.S. bishops have mounted in their challenge to the Obama administration’s deconstruction of civil society through the HHS mandate on contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization: What is the nature of American democracy and the fundamental freedoms government exists to protect? Who are the true patriots, the men and women who can give an account of freedom’s moral character, an account capable of sustaining a genuine democracy against a rising dictatorship of relativism “in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged”?

The argument today isn’t about assimilation. The argument today is about who “gets” America: who understands the true character of America and the nature of freedom. And that puts Catholics — and those allies in the Evangelical Protestant, Mormon, and traditional Jewish worlds who, with serious Catholics, still hold to Murray’s four foundational truths of American democracy — in a challenging position. For the challenge now is to give America a new birth of freedom rightly understood as built upon those four truths; a new birth of freedom re-cemented to a foundation of transcendent moral truths about the human person, to the principle of government-by-consent, to a recognition of the priority of civil society over the state, and to an existential affirmation of the linkage between personal and civic virtue and liberty lived nobly.

This challenge will not be met by Catholic Lite. Indeed, one of the most powerful indicators that the Catholic Lite project is finished has been the uselessness of “progressive” Catholicism in the battle for religious freedom this past year and a half, a battle the stakes in which most Catholic “progressives” manifestly have not grasped.

The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.

The challenge can be met only by a robustly evangelical Catholicism that can boldly proclaim Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life, and can do so because conversion has been deepened by effective preaching, catechesis, and formation. That challenge can be met only by a demanding, full-time, and evangelically passionate Catholicism that models communities of compassion and nobility, communities whose lives pose a sharp contrast to the radical individualism and loneliness of postmodernity, so poignantly described in recent months by Pope Francis. That challenge can be met only by a public Catholicism that articulates in a compelling way the truths on which any civilized society rests, such as the truth of the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death, the truth about marriage, the truth that religious freedom is the first freedom, and the truth that each of us is bound to live our freedom in ways that serve the common good and the least of the Lord’s brethren.

That kind of evangelical Catholicism can help revivify civil society in America. That kind of evangelical Catholicism can help 21st-century America give a positive answer to Francis Scott Key’s 1814 question, as to whether the star-spangled banner still waves over a land of freedom and a home of bravery. Or to return to where we began:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears! . . .

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.