Seeing Things: Soul of the Word

“Private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is.”

A passage from a recent encyclical? No. Actually, it’s from Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Under all the foppery and empty witticisms, Wilde retained something of his Catholic soul, which is why a book from 100 years ago trying to describe an acceptable socialism can sound so much like John Paul II. The experiment failed. Socialism is everywhere discredited. Healthy souls were nowhere to be found under its tyrannies.

Wilde was partly wrong: It is the old sin of avarice, the love of money, not private property or the institutions created to protect it, that has corrupted the soul. We do not become slaves because wealth exists; we become slaves because we put wealth above our humanity. But Wilde’s vision here of what it means to be human deserves further thought.

Especially since we have witnessed a series of protests—in Seattle, Washington, and Prague—made up of an incoherent band of anarchists, environmentalists, and labor leaders seeking, in an even more confused fashion than Wilde’s, to reconfigure the world. These protesters rightly see that globalization presents a threat. They fail to see its real opportunity.

Vaclav Havel, the distinguished Czech dissident who is now president of the Czech Republic, said at the World Bank’s Prague meeting in late September: “We often hear about the need to restructure the economies of the poorer countries and about the wealthier nations being duty bound to help them accomplish this…. But I deem it even more important that we should begin also to think about another restructuring—a restructuring of the entire system of values that forms the basis of our civilization today.”

These are wise words, but we might ask whether they can be implemented in the ways our leaders normally think. The kind of restructuring Havel desires is, at its heart, a religious question. It is doubtful that James D. Wolfensohn, the World Bank president, and his colleagues are reading moral theology or Catholic social teaching in their spare time between the periodic meetings of the bank. Even figures like Havel largely act through political and economic measures. They may all be engaged in the ultimately self-defeating project of trying to achieve a religious end by agnostic means.

We already know the reaction whenever people around the world try to introduce greater religious influence into secular questions. The politicians themselves are not the immediate problem and might even welcome such help. The media are another thing entirely. A century ago, Wilde had already identified a problem that we are only too well aware of in this election season: “In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever.” People in this country and around the world are so often told about the potential threat of religion by their everyday sources of information that one of the principal tasks of anyone with a vision like Havel’s is to shame the reporters and the entertainment industry into understanding the real-world effects of their usual modus operandi.

This fall a media mogul, Ted Turner, sponsored a gathering of more than 100 religious leaders at the United Nations (UN), allegedly to deal with the problem of how to bring religion to bear on the problems of the modern world. As is Turner’s wont, he made fun of the fundamentalist Christianity into which he was born during an opening address. But it is doubtful that religion can have a salubrious influence on the globalized world when even some of its supposed advocates give the impression that it is okay to ride roughshod over the beliefs of particular communities. We need a much more supple understanding of the relative claims of the universal and the particular. Instead, we are getting some political nostrums tricked out with a religious veneer. A shrewd observer who attended the religious summit described it to me as, “The Left talking to the Far Left.”

In the early centuries, there appeared an Epitula ad Diognetum (Letter to Diognetus). Such are the mists of history, that we know neither the Christian author nor his intended recipient. But we do know that it enunciated a crucial point: “What the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.” My former colleague, George Weigel, wrote a powerful book (Soul of the World) a few years ago, outlining what this might mean in our situation.

We cannot say what a properly globalized world would look like. But we can be certain that if any humanizing and elevating vision of contemporary globalization is to emerge—it already has to a certain extent with the current pope—it will not be because of the World Bank or UN conferences. It will emerge from where it always has: the religious institutions, so badly weakened and coopted by our leaders but always poised for a new resurrection.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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