André Malraux, the courageous and large-hearted French Resistance fighter who later served as minister of culture under Charles de Gaulle, is often quoted as having said, “The 21st century will be religious, or it will not be at all.” No thinking person can disagree.
But in the opening pages of his memoirs, Malraux recounts a story about a priest he met during the Resistance, which gives a clearer idea of what he may have meant. The priest, against all rules for clerics, was engaged in actual fighting against the Nazi occupation in France. One evening, after a particularly grueling day, Malraux, the priest, and a couple other combatants took shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. A bottle of wine was opened, and Malraux was moved to ask:
“Mon pére, hearing confessions all the time, you must have learned a lot about human nature.”
The priest replied “no,” that he was only present to absolve penitents in the name of Christ. There was nothing he personally did in confession.
More wine went around, and suddenly, the priest piped up: “Well, I suppose there are two things.”
“And what are they?”
First, said the good father, people are a lot more unhappy than you think. Malraux, who was also a talented novelist, said he could understand that; in fact his own observations made the priest’s judgment quite plausible. “And what is the other point?”
“There are no real adults?’
This fall we will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, and perhaps it would be worthwhile to reexamine what the council documents refer to several times as the new “maturity” of the human race. Mostly, the council speaks of maturity in terms of public engagement by Catholics in the worldwide spread of democracy and economies governed by free political institutions. But there is also a suggestion—one exploited in some of the early interpretations—that the human race is coming to maturity through a combination of science and technology and reliance on individual conscience. Though there is a kernel of truth in this contention, as the old moral realism knew, we need to be quite careful in assessing whether people can be depended on to behave as real, responsible adults.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that a good part of the history of the Catholic Church in the past three and a half decades hinges on interpretations of the council. The early, more radical interpretations of Vatican II are still dominant in the academy and professional theological circles. But increasingly, those have had to contend with the very different and powerful reading of the council documents provided by one of the prominent council fathers: Karol Wojtyla, now better known as John Paul II. After the many marvelous encyclicals of the current pope, when we return to the council documents, we read them with fresh eyes.
The Holy Father has spoken more fulsomely about human freedom than any of his hundreds of predecessors. He counts the modern emphasis on freedom among the great achievements of recent centuries. But nowhere in his vast output is freedom separated from an equally fulsome development of conscience.
And with good reason. The Second Vatican Council took place in the 1960s, roughly contemporaneous with the great cultural upheavals in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Many people then saw the mature use of freedom as requiring political activism on the one hand and individual choice about “personal” morality (i.e., sex) on the other. But in fact, both of these attitudes lead away from anything that might authentically be called formation of conscience. There are a host of political issues with an ethical dimension. Yet it is difficult to see—to take only a few examples—how judgments about the Vietnam War, welfare policy, partisan politics, or Social Security flow directly from moral principle. Catholics and non-Catholics have taken varying positions on such questions, and the most that can be said about them is that they involve prudential judgments about which perfectly reasonable people disagree.
The impact of this mentality on personal morality, however, was far more substantial. Complaints about sexual license, the breakdown of the family, the social impact of illegitimacy, and the decline of public morals have become so common that nearly everyone now makes them. The effects of the public moral climate on Catholic attitudes are empirically measurable. James D. Davidson of Purdue has found that, among other things, Catholics of the Vatican II generation differ with post-Vatican II Catholics in many ways. To mention only three of the most striking:
1. Almost half the postconciliar group have been taught that it is “important to be a good Christian” versus knowing Church teachings. About a third of Vatican II Catholics believe that. Neither group seems to be much bothered, however, about how we know whether we are being a “good Christian” without settled principles.
2. Only about a quarter of the Vatican II generation believes morality is circumstantial, but 42 percent of the younger group does.
3. Almost a quarter of those born since the council has been taught to “think for themselves” instead of following Church teaching.
The language of younger Catholics is clearly drawn more from contemporary American culture than from Catholicism. Even allowing for poor catechesis and general teaching in the last few decades, we have here a cultural phenomenon to which the Church response has been quite weak. Modern America believes making your own choices, even when you have not taken the trouble to be well-informed or think through the consequences of your action, is a kind of maturity in and of itself.
That is why the teaching of John Paul II on the necessity of moral formation to real freedom and maturity will loom larger in the years to come. If we are candid about our own lives, we will be ready to acknowledge that it is quite believable that there are no real adults. Freedom and maturity have to be won in a hard struggle. Even the old pagans knew that. The great Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that “the art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” Before we boast about our maturity and claim our freedom, even in the Church, we need to wrestle with the world—and ourselves—a great deal more.