It is difficult to get a clear view of the times in which we live. Our interest in the present is far more practical than theoretical, of course — we are living in it, not looking at it. For all that, living presupposes at least some looking, and there are two major ways of gaining perspective on the passing scene.
Call one the Ciceronian, as captured by the title of this piece. Today and its customs are compared with the past and come up short. We have fallen upon evil days, the orator tells us, and we need only think of our republican past to see this. A version of this is expressed in Evelyn Waugh’s remark that the only way he could stand to live in England was to pretend he was a tourist.
A more imaginative perspective is gained by projecting into the future and taking the tendencies of the present to their logical consequences. A year ago I said some things about Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World. Recently I reread Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and had a similar reaction. Benson wrote in the early years of the twentieth century, Huxley’s novel was published in the 1930s. In the 1940s appeared George Orwell’s 1984, and that takes me to my point.
The reader’s appraisal of a futuristic story alters when he lives in the future time that was projected by the novel. How vacuous all those thrillers culminating in a nuclear holocaust can seem to us now. Whatever future awaits us, it doesn’t seem to be that. Yet, read when they were written, they gripped us because that seemed an all too plausible outcome of MAD (the policy, not the magazine).
When 1984 arrived, Orwell’s prophecy was taken not to have come true. I am not so sure. Witness the devaluation of the language, as in the rhetoric of “choice.” What Benson and Huxley foresaw has certainly in large part come to pass. Nature worship and euthanasia (Benson), bioengineering rendering sexual congress only recreative, euthanasia, the cult of youth (Huxley).
Whether the present is brought before the bar of the past or imaginatively projected into the future, the assessment assumes that we can share it. Indeed, in my three novelists, it is a character whose humanity has not been completely stamped out who provides the focus of the drama. Huxley incorporates the Ciceronian within the futuristic by providing a reservation of humans who have come into existence in the old way, who have parents and age and die and anguish over what they do or do not do. Huxley’s misfit envies these “primitives.” (“Strange, prisoners, Socrates.” “Yes. Very much like ourselves.”)
Ten years ago when we founded CRISIS we asked whether it was the spirit of the Council or something else that was being implemented in the Catholic Church in America. The moral teaching of the magisterium in matters of sexual morality, the family, abortion, was not ignored — though Humanae Vitae was a dead letter almost everywhere — but the bishops were dissipating their authority in questionable — literally, they asked for dialogue — documents on nuclear defense and the economy. How dated those documents would seem today, were anyone to read them.
I will leave politics and economics in the capable hands of Michael Novak, who makes the persuasive case that what Crisis advocated has stood the test of time better than the bishops’ letters.
It is our fears about what was going on within the Church which have; alas, been more than realized. Catholic theology is in advanced disarray, the laity do not have sound doctrine preached to them, there is a confusion that is all but institutionalized. The inescapable mark of what has gone wrong is anti-papalism, a disdain for, a condescension toward, a hatred of the Holy Father. It is in this more than anything else that what has been called the Protestantization of Catholicism can be seen.
Things are far worse now than one would have predicted ten years ago. Did you think you would live long enough to have priestly, even episcopal, pederasty become ordinary news? Yet, from very early on, Crisis drew attention to what was going on in the seminaries. Just the other day one read that sexual instruction in one major seminary urged “self-pleasuring” as natural and healthy. The dung in the Augean stables mounts higher.
Catholic politicians have become the point men for “abortion rights.” “Homophobia” is debated on our campuses as if healthy disgust with perverted sex were an attitude Christians must overcome.
One could go on. One has. But it is pleasant to report that we had no idea of the good things that lay ahead and which are all around us now. The faithful are in diaspora in the institutional Church in America, in dioceses, in parishes, in colleges and universities, but they are there in increasing numbers. They are regarded as pariahs and throwbacks and conservatives. They are identifiable by their fidelity to the pope and the magisterium. They are the future of the Church in this country.
Those whose turbulent youth was not made easier by proportionalist moral theologians, marry, have children, and return to the faith of their fathers. They know bunk when they hear it. They want the undiluted teaching of the Church. They are not always welcome in their parishes or dioceses, but their number grows.
New seminaries have come into being, strong bishops assume responsibility for pastoral care, and prudent pastors know their duty cannot be delegated. Devotion to Mary and to the Blessed Sacrament consoles the faithful and makes modernists uneasy. There have been dramatic conversions and the return of many scarred by a sexual revolution abetted by theological dissent; they have heard all of that siren song they wish to hear. We did not have the prescience to foresee such hopeful signs.
Such things do not just happen. They are brought about. Only God knows what the coming decade will bring. It is not a speculative question. It is a question of what, Deo volente, we will do.