The day may come when Catholics can support neither of the main American political parties or their candidates. Some think it’s already arrived. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, argued along those lines a few years ago, explaining why he couldn’t vote for either a Democrat or a Republican.
I don’t know what Professor MacIntyre will do this year. For my part, along with my brother bishops in Pennsylvania, I believe it’s important to vote today and on every election day. A well-formed Catholic conscience can choose wisely between the candidates. And this year, vital issues are at stake.
Still, elections are tough times for serious Catholics. If we believe in the encyclical tradition—from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate—then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party. Catholics give priority to the right to life and the integrity of the family as foundation stones of society. But we also have much to say about the economy and immigration, runaway debt, unemployment, war and peace. It’s why the US bishops recently observed that “in today’s environment, Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and few candidates fully share our comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity.”
Any committed Christian might be tempted to despair. But the truth is that it’s always been this way. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “here we have no abiding city” (Heb 13:14). Augustine admired certain pagan Roman virtues, but he wrote the City of God to remind us that we’re Christians first, worldly citizens second. We need to learn—sometimes painfully—to let our faith chasten our partisan appetites.
In the United States, our political tensions flow from our cultural problems. Exceptions clearly exist, but today our culture routinely places rights over duties, individual fulfillment over community, and doubt over belief. In effect, the glue that now holds us together is our right to go mall-crawling and buy more junk. It’s hard to live a life of virtue when all around us, in the mass media and even in the lives of colleagues and neighbors, discipline, restraint, and self-sacrifice seem irrelevant.
Contemporary Problems Developed Over Centuries
Brad Gregory, the Notre Dame historian, seeks to show how we got this way in his recent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. His answers are surprising, and for some readers, controversial. But his book is also important—and in its explanatory power, brilliant.
Gregory argues that today’s relativism and cult of the consumer—what he ironically calls “the goods life”—have roots that run centuries deep. He wastes no time on nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. But he does show with riveting clarity that in the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers unintentionally set in motion certain ideas that eventually enabled today’s radical self-centeredness.
Gregory also shows that while the Reformers lit the fuse, medieval Catholics laid the dynamite. Late medieval laity were, quite often, profoundly pious. And because they were pious, they minded when their leaders weren’t. Pious laypeople had an appetite for reform precisely because of their devotion. Late medieval clergy too often preached one thing and did another. Greed, simony, nepotism, luxury, sexual license, and schism in the hierarchy created an intolerable gap between Christian preaching and practice.
Many Catholics worked for reform from within. Some had success. Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians owe their origins to medieval reform. Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were part of an international community of letters determined to renew Christian life from the inside. Saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bernard of Clairvaux spoke truth to ecclesiastical power.
But one key difference separated these Catholic voices from the Protestant Reformers: The Catholics believed that the Church had her teachings right. She just needed to actually live them. The Catholics believed that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the saints, and in the Church’s historic doctrines offered an authentic, all-encompassing Christian way of life sufficient to sanctify human existence—if it was actually embraced and shorn of its abuses.
The Protestants, preaching sola scriptura, threw much of it away. The Protestants believed that the deposit and structure of Catholic faith were fundamentally flawed, that Christ no longer abided in the Roman Church, and that Scripture alone communicated God’s will. Sola scriptura changed everything for Western Christendom. The Church became the churches, and the process inadvertently, but relentlessly, fueled individual sovereignty and relativism.
Gregory says a great many hard things about the results of sola scriptura. But before congratulating ourselves for avoiding that mistake, Catholics need to linger over why Christian life was ripe for such destructive turmoil in the first place. Too many Catholics—especially, but by no means only, clerical leaders—lived their professed faith with visible cynicism. Gregory’s first lesson, then, is that the way we live matters. Our failure to practice caritas has consequences for our unitas, then and now.
But Professor Gregory doesn’t stop there. He’s only warming up.
Disputation and Fragmentation Ends Theological Unity
The Reformers’ stress on sola scriptura sought to close the gap between Christian preaching and practice. But it failed at that, while opening a Pandora’s Box of new problems. Competing interpretations of Scripture actually intensified the confusion. Lutherans read Scripture one way, Calvinists another, with varieties of Anglicans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, and Quakers veering off into options beyond counting.
Gregory also chronicles the secular philosophers who stepped into the breach. In the place of sola scriptura, the Enlightenment offered wisdom sola ratio. From Descartes, through Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Hegel, and others, on to Heidegger and Levinas and their successors, the great end-run around revealed religion and its traditions began, seeking truth based on human reason alone.
But as Gregory shows, the philosophers fared no better than the Reformers. Competing ideas proliferated. Truth, and answers to life’s big questions, remained disputed. In more recent times, Nietzsche, Foucault, and the post-modernists have been honest enough to say so, scorning the Enlightenment as much as they scorned Christianity. We can see the results in today’s pervasive spirit of irony and skepticism.
As Gregory explains, our culture’s metaphysical chaos has helped shape our politics, economics, and science. No corner of everyday life has gone untouched.
Politically, Reformation leaders turned to secular rulers for protection from the papacy, fueling the growth of the modern secular state. Popes and bishops, who had once been a countervailing force to medieval secular power, found they had much less leverage over kings in the new dispensation. Early modern states spent decades at war with each other, ostensibly over theological differences. But, in reality, churches and states used each other for their own very practical ends. States grabbed the chance to expand their power, and churchmen sought protection and state support.
The result was bloodshed and exhaustion, militarily but also metaphysically. Medieval intellectual life and religious practice had been impressively unified. In a monastery or a scholastic university, the pursuit of knowledge integrated organically with the pursuit of virtue. But the new, post-Reformation universities increasingly came under secular rather than ecclesial control. They segregated theology into a separate faculty of weakened importance, shifting their energies to train professionals and scientists who could serve the state’s growing commercial ambitions.
Reading Gregory, we see that much of early modern history is the story of how mercantilism and the market supplanted the Church as the forces ordering common life. Early experiments in religious toleration had largely commercial motives. Weary of endless religious disputes, the burghers of the early Dutch Republic stopped requiring membership in their official (Protestant) Church and welcomed merchants and artisans of all faiths. England, America, and other states followed suit. They acknowledged religion as a public good but effectively reduced it to a private choice, meanwhile—in practice—revering commerce as a national purpose.
The Abandonment of Sacraments Brings Profound Consequences
The Reformation also had implications for science and technology. With varying degrees of self-awareness, when the Reformers dismembered the sacraments, they changed the way Western culture perceived nature and the whole material world.
As an example: even today, to the extent Catholics are formed by the sacraments, we live in a world infused with God’s presence. For both the medieval and modern Catholic, the material environment is a medium for divine grace. But the Reformers’ disdain for works and sacraments inevitably made faith a more inward, abstract experience.
As Gregory details, when the sacraments are no longer public patrimony but merely private practices, culture inevitably changes. Westerners used to believe that the world was part of a spiritual cosmos, but after the Reformation, that confidence is no longer shared. Consequently, modern merchants, universities, and intellectuals have developed the habit of seeing matter as spiritually inert, which means it is available to be manipulated to serve human desires.
But real science never has proven, and never can prove empirically, that nature is spiritually inert. To the extent secularists (or religious fundamentalists) insist upon that, they are ideologues, not scientists. Catholics have always believed God works in and through natural causes. He revealed himself to us in his son, Jesus Christ. But God also exists utterly outside creation. He is wholly Other. He is not merely the biggest Sky Fairy or Super-Being in the heavens. In other words, the Christian God is not the kind of God who can be “disproved” by anything we might see under a microscope or through an experiment. Yet many today, indebted to an anti-sacramental metaphysics, insist that a conflict must exist between science and religion. This is false. And it didn’t have to be this way.
In some ways, Gregory’s book could be subtitled “the West’s crisis of faith and reason.” The Reformation—sincerely, zealously, and with the best intentions—unleashed centrifugal forces that undid the medieval synthesis of revelation and philosophy. Ever since, our culture has gone down one intellectual dead-end after another, romantically seeking a spiritual life free from authority and tradition, or rationalistically seeking truth as if human beings were autonomous and self-sufficient. The great Western marriage of faith and reason—the shared confidence that faith is personal but also communal, that reason isn’t against faith but extends it—that is what the Reformation cost us.
Catholics Not Entirely Blameless
Catholics have made terrible and costly mistakes in this story. As noted, the Reformation happened for good reason. Every point Professor Gregory makes is told with balance, respect for all sides, and historical detail buttressed by nuance; 145 pages are devoted to endnotes. Gregory’s account of the Galileo crisis is especially interesting. He explains how Church leaders, having rightly understood the Reformation’s threat to sacramental metaphysics, overreacted and misjudged Galileo’s significance for theology.
In our own day, of course, Catholics have continued to find plenty of ways to bring the faith into disrepute. The Church took too long to articulate her own theologically-grounded doctrine of religious liberty. The sexual abuse crisis has earned many priests and bishops a millstone around the neck for wounding the innocent and causing good people a crisis of faith. And ordinary lay Catholics have let themselves be colonized by the greed, sexual anarchy, and materialism of the culture around them. In too many instances, if we look at the way American Catholics actually live, we consume, relativize, and trivialize like everyone else.
To cultivate virtue, to pursue a life of self-sacrifice, to live joyfully and infused by the sacraments is not something anyone can do alone. It’s too hard. We need grace. We need companions. We need to be taught and trained. This is why God gave us the Church. Too often flawed and all too human, she is nevertheless our Mother, and always, always a gift.
Modern Western political theory tries (or pretends) to steer clear of prescribing morality. Because our society divides so bitterly over matters of truth and ethics, modern lawmakers tend to enshrine individual privacy and autonomy. But in doing so, they diminish the life-giving social importance of religious faith. This legal “neutrality” isn’t so neutral. In feeding the sovereignty of the individual, our public leaders fuel consumer self-absorption, moral confusion, and—ultimately, as mediating institutions like the family and churches wither—the power of the state. The Reformation has led, by gradual, indirect, and never-intended steps, to what Gregory calls the “Kingdom of Whatever.” It’s a world of hyperpluralism, where meaning is self-invented by millions, and therefore society as a whole starves for meaning.
No wonder Catholics find elections these days so grim. To be a Catholic in 2012, in the modern West at least, is to live at the end of a long history. Brad Gregory eloquently shows us some of what that means. Our moral failures and our intellectual choices have had consequences over the centuries. And now our culture is fractured.
But it didn’t—and it doesn’t—need to be that way. The Church is still here, still calling us to repentance, still summoning us to the sacraments. In this Year of Faith, she invites Catholics to a great new evangelization—not against fellow Christians from other traditions, but in friendship with them as brothers. Our ambition must be to repair a culture of unbelief and to heal the inhuman politics that flows from it. And if we can’t achieve that in concert with our fellow Christians, then we can at least live the Gospel more faithfully ourselves. It’s time, and long past time, to close the gap between our words and our actions; our preaching and our practice.
Professor Gregory has reminded us with uncommon grace and clarity that we cannot escape our past. But neither do we need to be captured by it. That alone makes his book worth the price.
This review essay first appeared November 6, 2012 on Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute, Princeton, NJ, and is reprinted with permission.