Conciliation with Liberal Modernity is Not Possible

The transcendent aspects of religion have little meaning for most educated Westerners today. They may consider religion worthy of respect or at least toleration when it relates to practical matters like willingness to help others and accept them as they are. Otherwise, it’s “fundamentalist”—strange, irrational, dangerous, oppressive, and very likely fraudulent. So when the issue comes up, they want doctrine to be subordinated to social and personal concerns or else abandoned, at least as a practical matter.

The reasons they give vary somewhat. Some think of religion as basically a way of talking about this world from a poetic or ideal perspective. Others intend to accept something like traditional doctrine, but interpret it in a way that focuses on human things understood from the simplest this-worldly point of view. Love, for example, becomes identified with accepting and celebrating people just as they are, and supporting them in whatever goals they have that seem to fit into a general system of mutual toleration and support. That is why it seems obvious to many people that if Jesus appeared on TV today he would come out in favor of “gay marriage.”

Very often the two tendencies blend, so that it’s unclear how far someone views his religion as more than a collection of inspirational stories and rituals to which he is attached. If the situation became too clear the stories and rituals might become less inspirational, so people who at bottom are committed to a wholly this-worldly perspective typically leave the question unresolved. They talk about God, but if you ask them what they mean they obfuscate and change the subject. They say that you haven’t made your question clear, that Christianity is more than a list of propositions, that there are many kinds of truth, or whatever.

The insistent tendency toward the practical and this-worldly goes deep. Ever since Descartes the ideal has been to start with our own immediate thoughts and experiences, and be very cautious about going beyond them. That extreme caution has led to pragmatism, a preference for attending to what works—what effects can be found within experience—at the expense of what is, what ultimate realities those effects point to. The result is that thought becomes ever more exclusively oriented toward practice. Theories are not about truth for most educated people today, they’re about getting results, and what matters is their cash value in practical consequences.

Nonetheless, the issue of truth can’t be avoided. A system for getting what we want, however effective, is not enough to satisfy people. To be rational is to be part of the reality-based community, so speculative thought—concern with what is simply as such—cannot be excluded from reason. For all the rhetoric of pragmatism we demand a vision of overall order that lets us know where we really are and what we’re really doing, not just what it all feels like.

Modern this-worldliness means those ultimate realities must nonetheless reduce to man and his desires and aspirations. The guiding principle of pragmatism is getting what we want, and it lets nothing transcend that. The effect is that what we want and what we can do—desire and technology—define what is most good and most real. Man thus becomes the highest of all principles, and stands in the place of God. The result is a full-fledged this-worldly religion of man in which we ourselves construct the order by which we orient ourselves. The religion isn’t called a religion, and it’s considered a matter of simple incontestable reason, but it functions as a religion and is best understood as one.

As a religion offering a comprehensive account of man and the world it tries to displace or absorb all other religions. In particular, it takes Christian ethics and eschatology and makes them wholly this-worldly and wholly divorced from any sense of man’s subordination to other realities. Man is God, and carrying out his will is the supreme good, so the Kingdom becomes a comprehensive system for giving each of us what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. True religion thus becomes a matter of utopian social betterment, with Divine Providence concretely realized in the form of social programs and the regulatory state, supported as needed by a suitably tamed market. Since solidarity means universality, the system must be universal, a world government of unlimited jurisdiction.

Politics can’t be the whole story, of course. Man is private as well as public, so religion has to do with inwardness as well as universal order. This-worldly religion reflects that as well. So the other side of the modern secular religion is religion as therapy, as a way of reconciling ourselves to life and other people through psychology, sociology, myth, and ritual. It’s also religion as gourmet moral indulgence, a way of dramatizing the spiritual aspects of our lives and lending our attitudes and doings importance in a pragmatic and terminally boring world. It shows us each how special we are: that is what it means to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Such is the religion of liberal modernity. And therein lie dangers for the Church. In recent decades she has been trying to restore her lost public role by finding common ground with the world and tailoring her message to current ways of thought. But liberal modernity has its own religion, the one just described, as indeed Bl. Pope Paul VI recognized at the end of the Second Vatican Council. The outcome of the effort has therefore been a tendency to make Catholicism sound very much like worship of the god of this world, and lead many Catholics to forget that there is a difference between that worship and our own.

Authoritative Church pronouncements can of course be justified within orthodox Catholic belief. Even so, tendencies inside and outside the Church make many Catholics nervous about current events in Rome, such as the conduct of the Synod on the Family, the forthcoming encyclical on the environment, and the welcome given luminaries such as Ban Ki-moon and Jeffrey Sachs in connection with Vatican support for projects of global governance. Many people find such events too closely allied for comfort to tendencies that are not at all orthodox, and too likely to be interpreted in line with those tendencies.

So we must ask whether it is prudent, for the sake of attracting favorable notice, supporting what is strong and therefore likely to have practical effect, and avoiding friction, incomprehension, and other forms of unpleasantness, to emphasize the similarities between the Church and the World to the point of seeming convergence. How has the project of engaging with the public thought of the modern world on its own terms worked? Has it shown those outside the Church what they lack? Strengthened the faith of those within? Plainly not. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that many of the faithful are gravely concerned, and convinced a change in pastoral strategy is urgently necessary.

Editor’s note: In the photo above is pictured (l to r) Ban Ki-moon, George Soros, and Jeffrey Sachs.

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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