The Last Word: Cultural Faultlines

I recently attended a remarkable conference in San Francisco on new birth technologies, with special emphasis on in vitro fertilization. The attendees were drawn from a wide variety of professions, including philosophy, moral theology, journalism, public policy research institutes, psychiatry, genetics, neonatology, pediatrics, pro-life organizations, and law. What united this diverse group was commitment to the Catholic Church’s teaching on human procreation and particularly to the recent official Instruction on new birth technologies. We spent a week discussing how best to make the case for the Catholic view both to our fellow Catholics and to the wider culture. It would be wonderful to say that we came away equipped with arguments and methods which promised quick conversion of those who do not accept the Church’s teachings on these issues. But we did not.

In fact, what impressed me almost as much as the level of intellectual expertise represented at the conference is the chasm between those who are sympathetic to the Church’s teaching and those who are not. I have recently discussed these teachings with several persons who are not Catholic (and some who are) and who reject them. Yet it’s not simply that there is disagreement. More seriously, there is hardly any common ground between us. We confront one another as visitors from another planet. A shared sense of moral perspective has virtually vanished. What has always been regarded as basic, incontrovertible “navigational points” for making sense of human existence — parenthood as a basic form of humanity, for example — is disregarded with much ease and little reflection. Thus, when I explain the reasons for Catholicism’s opposition to abortion or to in vitro fertilization, I am met with incredulity. (How could I be so narrow?) The argument gets nowhere because it never really gets started.

My experience in these discussions is, I believe, indicative of a cultural shift which has been gathering force for some time — a sort of San Andreas fault of the mind. The path such discussions take lead me to believe that there are commitments widespread in our culture which virtually guarantee an inhospitable reception to Catholic moral teaching on human reproduction. To the extent that Catholics are wedded to these cultural assumptions, they too will be less than fully receptive to these teachings. Four features in the contemporary landscape stand out as particularly pertinent.

(1) An ever-expanding notion of freedom. The idea here is that freedom per se is an overriding good, and that therefore impediments to its limitless expansion should be opposed. To allow is good and desirable; to prevent or restrict is bad and undesirable. Back of this attitude is the replacement of the notion of a natural/supernatural end for man with the ideal of personal autonomy. If a free-floating autonomy (“realizing one’s potential”) is the goal of human existence, then limitations on personal freedom will appear gratuitous and reactionary. Offer new scientific techniques of procreation and many will respond, “Why not?”

(2)The notion that if we are able to do something, it is permissible to do that thing. “Can do” implies “may do,” even “should do.” Technology has a special power to dazzle the human mind, to the degree that men find it difficult to forego the new capabilities it promises. There is a peculiar dialectic between the discovery of new technologies and the exercise of human choice: the former sometimes appears to “determine” the latter.

Caution in the face technological prowess is bound to appear, in the current climate, unprogressive.

(3) The legacy of the “death of God.” What Nietzsche and Dostoevsky meant when they first grasped this cultural phenomenon a century ago is that God was disappearing from the mental framework of Western man. Man’s undertakings are less and less understood as being under the aegis of the transcendent. Man is now his own master, the veritable “measure of all things.” He belongs to no one but himself. (Recall that Socrates’ argument in prison for not committing suicide is that the gods, to whom he belonged, had not released him from his earthly commitment. The notion that one’s sojourn on this planet is subtended by obligations to a transcendent power has pre- Christian roots; today this notion is thought to be quaint at best; on many it clearly has no hold whatsoever.) When a person believes that he alone furnishes the moral criteria for his projects, then of course why shouldn’t he pursue any for which exist the means to achieve them?

(4) The “fill-in-the-blank” theory of rights. Whereas the U. S. Declaration of Independence speaks in a parsimonious way about rights — only three, the foundational ones, are enumerated, though the existence of more than three are implied — one can now find rights ascribed to virtually anything: to a job, to a paid vacation, to a certain “quality of life.” That animals allegedly have rights is no longer treated as a frivolous philosophical position (books advocating such rights are respectfully reviewed in The New York Review of Books). So to the question, ‘What sorts of rights are there?’, one can simply leave a blank, to be filled in with … well, with whatever one likes.

In this sort of climate, it is not surprising that persons should think it perfectly obvious that parents have a right to children — and that this implies a right to the means to that right. Hence, access to IVF is a right a parent may legitimately claim. Who would presume to deny them this right?

The above are not so much the result of conscious deliberation as they are mental dispositions. They provide a “mindset” within which our culture thinks about new technologies. My contention is that this setting disposes people to consider such technologies favorably. It is the matrix out of which emerges the typical reaction: “But what’s wrong with a couple who cannot otherwise have children using the IVF technique, or contracting with a surrogate mother?” The four factors make up the moral horizon within which new options are appraised and choices regarding them made. This horizon lies outside the traditional Christian landscape. Precisely this is the locus of the problem we confront in our fellow citizens.

In other words, we are living in a post-Christian culture. Not a novel observation, that. But I wonder whether the full force of this phenomenon, and the magnitude of the problem it presents, has yet hit us. Repairing moral cleavages within an entire culture is not the sort of thing individuals can easily undertake, for it’s not simply a matter of enough people making enough of the right sort of arguments (though the latter is certainly not negligible). That is, recta ratio is not by itself sufficient for the moral reconstitution of a culture. What is needed is something more fundamental, and also more elusive — a whole new sensibility.

For bringing this about, we scarcely have any idea how, specifically, to proceed. For myself, I am inclined to take a cue from Walker Percy, who has suggested that today’s defender of the faith must rely on indirect means, on irony and a certain sort of slyness. Percy was speaking particularly of the novelist, but I think his suggestion is pertinent to all of us.

As we continue to wage the battle of ideas with our secular opponents and “progressive” co-religionists, then, we should not be surprised or disheartened when our efforts do not produce immediate and extensive results. Our charge is not necessarily to be victorious in the wider cultural arena, but to remain faithful and to bear witness. We may not be able to “save” our culture; but we can, as T. S. Eliot reminds us, “live the life of significant soil.”


In 1983, Terry Hall became the managing editor of Catholicism in Crisis.

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