A Catholic Response to Utopian Modernity

The world goes its own way without much regard for the Church, because it has very little regard for truth—that is to say, for reality.

The problems go to the roots of current ways of thinking. The modern movement of thought began as an attempt to attain security and certainty by emphasizing what is practical and by imposing strict standards of evidence. That meant tossing out quite a lot: tradition, revelation, and the insight into natural forms and functions—and their connection to permanent human concerns—that lies behind our understanding of natural moral law.

People wanted to be scientific, and that meant rejecting many normal ways of thinking. They hoped the result would be knowledge that was exact, reliable, and useful, and modern natural science has indeed given us amazing advances in medicine and weaponry. Modern forms of organizing society, such as the modern state and the business corporation, have also proved immensely effective in important ways.

There have also been other results, the most notable of which is the reduction of all seriously considered human concerns to technology and desire. After all, if higher goods and ultimate truths can’t be measured or produced to order, and it seems we can get by without them by figuring out how to give people what they want, then why not simplify matters and forget about them?

That’s what’s happened in our public life. Everybody who matters is a secularist today, and the situation has far-reaching implications. One is that educated and well-placed people now believe that the institutions on which social order is based should be technically expert, economically rational, morally nonjudgmental, and universal in their reach. So the world should be ordered comprehensively by global markets and expert regulatory bureaucracies, together with subsidiary institutions such as universities, think tanks, media organizations, and various NGOs that serve or try to influence government and business. That, it is thought, is the uniquely rational way of organizing society, and whatever threatens it, or attempts to limit it or introduce other authorities, is irrational, disruptive, and a threat to humanity.

That’s why the people who run things in Europe have rejected Christianity and adopted the EU as their religion. For those committed to it, the European Union is not really a practical contrivance to be judged by its visible or likely effects. It is a supreme principle that must forever expand and deepen in its application without regard to practical considerations or the outlook or well-being of the people the governments involved supposedly represent. Anything else would violate the vision of the secular development of the human world into an ordered and beneficent cosmos. That, it is thought, would be the triumph of chaos, irrationality, and violence.

The problem is that the society aimed at has no room for man as he is. It treats him as fundamentally a careerist and consumer, with no natural particularities, and no higher aspiration or destiny than the perfection of the system that enables him and his fellows to get what they want. Any qualities that go beyond that are disruptive, and must be eradicated or neutralized by confining them to a purely private sphere where they won’t influence anything.

For that reason it has no place for the attachments that have always formed human life and to which we have always given our deepest loyalties: family, religion, specific community, particular people and culture, ultimate truth. Such things become private, sentimental matters with no special definition and therefore no serious public function. They are not permitted to make a difference, because when they do the kind of rational, transparent society at which liberal modernity aims becomes impossible. So to the extent they retain a connection to aspects of how people live, it’s a problem to be dealt with under the rubrics of equality, tolerance, and inclusion.

The vision is utopian, which means that it does violence to human nature by trying to root out things that make us human. To make matters worse, the situation can’t be discussed intelligently because the abolition of ultimate truth leads to the abolition of truth as such. Truth becomes first a matter of what is useful, then what is comfortable and pleasing, and finally what helps the teller get what he wants. Integrity disappears from commerce, politics become spin and optics, and even scholars present truth as something constructed for other purposes. When such tendencies join with the view that common sense doesn’t count, and we should only pay attention to what experts say, the result is a tendency to ignore the obvious in favor of the assertions of those who have social authority and claim special insight. For examples, consider contemporary architecture and educational theory. People hate the one, and the other notoriously doesn’t work, but nothing can be done about either.

So the problem with present-day life is that it’s short on truth and reason. Our job as Catholics is to stand for those things, so if (to pick a prominent example) the truth of marriage and the sexes is rejected, then we need to say what it is and work toward it.

But how? People sometimes say that the Church has had two ways of dealing with the modern world, the “fortress Catholicism” symbolized by Trent, and a more flexible Catholicism, symbolized by the Second Vatican Council, that, as Paul VI put it, “felt the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives.”

Both have their uses and limitations. Working for truth involves knowledge and proclamation. Knowledge is mostly a matter of understanding the teachings of the Church, as well as any relevant secular knowledge, proclamation of presenting what is known in the most effective way. In such matters flexibility is necessary, as long as we remain grounded. As an earlier Paul said, “I became all things to all men, that I might save all.”

Working for truth also involves faithful acceptance of the truth, living in it, and making it easier for others to do so. For most of us, doing all that requires, if not a fortress, then at least a Barque of Peter that is able to keep out waves, sharks, and seaweed so life can go on. We are social creatures who depend on what’s around us. It is possible to be chaste in a brothel and faithful in a world that treats faith as a danger to be suppressed—the saints have done so—but most of us are more fragile, and if Catholics want to maintain their faith and evangelize others they need a concrete way of life to offer that is backed by reliable, common understandings and generally works for people who are presently less than saintly.

To continue with our example, then, promotion of the truth about man requires, among other things, a setting where the habits, expectations, and beliefs necessary for marriage and the family to thrive can maintain a stable and reliable presence. That means that if the world becomes more actively anti-Christian, it becomes necessary for the Christian community, in important aspects of its practical everyday life, to separate itself more from the world. If we want to live in the truth, we can’t be entangled in a system based on lies and the virtual reality of propaganda, pop culture, and electronics. It is difficult, for example, if we want to teach our children the truth about the sexes, to accept the intrusion of the mass electronic media into domestic life, or to send them to schools where they will be punished for referring to a boy as a boy.

Part of the story of the Church in America has been the struggle of Catholics to achieve full inclusion in American life. The tendency of events shows that that attempt needs to be rethought. Engaging the world in hopes of gaining it is a wonderful thing, if that’s what the struggle has been about, but not at the cost of losing the faith and way of life we hoped to gain it for. We can offer the world something only if we maintain what we have to offer, and we can’t do that if we are absorbed by present-day society.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 07, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above entitled “The Tower of Babel” was painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1563.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • tom

    Well said. We need actual “Catholic” forms of education from K through graduate school with an excellent virtual schooling curriculum. We need our charity to start at home. Giving limited resources to folks who aren’t Catholic and who have no desire to become a Catholic is a sin. Participating in decades of “unjust” wars is well…er…unjust! Sadly, the Church in America ain’t got no leadership with no common sense; worse, the bishops seem to be working against the sheep…Judas goats.

  • AcceptingReality

    Great article that articulates what I think better than I could have done myself. I think societiy’s return to truth needs to start from our pulpits. Way, way to many Catholic priests routinely bend to the secular culture so as not to offend or simply because they themselves take the teachings of the Church lightly, wrongly thinking they are outdated rules for living. June, also known to secularists as “Pride Month” is right around the corner. What better time to start preaching about marriage and family?

    • Or what better time to “begin” teaching the faithful that homosexual behavior is a mortal sin that will will those who practice it to eternal damnation. And while I agree what with what you’ve said, the fault lies at the feet of the bishops. They have both individually and collectively (USCCB) abandon their sheep. God will one day demand an accounting.

  • hombre111

    Great article, worth reading more than once.

  • Mark

    This is an absolutely brilliant article which speaks clearly to what the Holy Spirit has been blowing through my mind this past year: given the current situation in the world, how can I continue to try to be leaven and salt within the world when the very systems which embrace me are tearing my sanity to pieces. I’m currently experiencing direct rejection of the truth I try to speak within the totalitarian corporation I work for. Yet I pour over the conciliar documents (Lumen Gentium & Gaudium et Spes) which encourage me to engage myself ever more in this system which is quite literally killing me (having already experienced a nervous breakdown). Few but critical have been the mentions by the council of the necessity and vocation of those whom Christ draws apart, to sit at his feet like Mary (someone has to contemplate the Word lest the very stones pull up and listen) or to dwell apart for prayer, fasting and atonement. Vocation can be a very personal thing and each of us must discern every day the means and method, according to our nature, of offering our light. I truly wonder, given the remarkable similarity of what this article discusses with what I’ve been discussing with some Christian coworkers hearing the same message in prayer, if the Holy Spirit is not working in our day to achieve some sort of “pivot.”

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  • Marcos

    Mr. Kalb and everybody. Thank you for your article. I read it and I think the answer can be found in Opus Dei teaching: remaining in the middle of the world. It is necessary to remain in the world without being absorbed by the bad things of the world. Please check the Opus Dei teaching. You can ask at http://www.opusdei.us

  • Scott Waddell

    I’ve read around the more traditional Catholicsphere an idea kicked around for Catholics to renounce U.S. citizenry for a modified resident alien status. We would still pay taxes (render unto Caesar) but would not vote but be immune for cooperating with abortion, same-sex “marriage”, etc. and would only be eligible for military draft in the unlikely event of homeland invasion. Sounds radical, but not really because it is just making an increasingly de facto situation de jure.

    • Adam__Baum

      but be immune for cooperating with abortion, same-sex “marriage”, etc.
      and would only be eligible for military draft in the unlikely event of
      homeland invasion.

      How will you be exempt from cooperating with SSM or abortion? Obamacare doesn’t require citizenship and SSM isn’t dependent upon your fiscal support.

      • Scott Waddell

        Catholic hospitals would not have to perform or even refer abortions. Catholic adoption services would not be compelled to place children with homosexual couples. I haven’t fleshed this out how exactly it would work, and I don’t think it very likely.

        • John O’Neill

          I agree totally. It is becoming more and more difficult for Catholics who live in America to practice and speak of their Faith. Better that we should declare our independence. I have already gone the path of dual citizenship so I have an escape route from the coming government persecutions against the Church. The most annoying thing is to find oneself included in the term the so called Catholic vote in American politics which assumes that Americanized Catholics who are not followers of the magisterium but rather of the democrat party theology of abortion are one and the same as practicing Roman Catholics.

  • ColdStanding

    What you ask for can not be done without reviving those forms that have already afforded the flourishing you desire to occur. Post-Trent Catholicism, which can not be considered (except by hombre III) as a rupture with tradition, put in place and/or confirmed all the components which your analysis says is needed for a robust Catholic life. It was Catholic culture; is what Catholic culture looks like. If it was Catholic culture then, how can it possibly not be considered as Catholic culture now? It just does not seem reasonable to hope for or imagine a Catholic culture different from or other than what Catholicism already produced as a culture. Nobody expects a tree to be something other than how the various trees already express themselves. A cow or condor is as it has been for a very long time already because that is what their individual form affords them. Catholic culture is the organic result of the Catholic form. It fruits and morphology are going to be very much like what they have always been.

    The physical building, the local expression of the Catholic Church in stone or what have you, is a harbor. From the storm of modern life, yes, but also where one can put out into the deep. When we leave the liturgy, we need to bring back our catch from the deep. It will only make sense to people that the Catholic Church affords something different, something deep, is if a) we do afford something different and b) something deep and look distinctive doing it.

    This isn’t pining for the past. Church time is not progressive; does not evolve. It is calenderic or periodic, but not progressive. We can expect Heaven to look pretty much like John described it in Revelation, because it is unchanging. We shouldn’t fear this or take it as a negative, but it is important to understand that this truth will mean that the form of Church liturgical life will continue to look like it always has*. Heck, modernity (which is new in comparison to the Church) is a late reaction against the constancy of the teachings of the Catholic Church!

    *But ColdStanding, it HAS changed. Didn’t you notice the whole Novus Ordo thing? Well, yes, I did as a matter of fact. I think we can save (face on) Vatican II, but we really need to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. Never mind the tares.

  • John O’Neill

    In my dotage I have been living in Amish country among a people who take their faith very seriously and are successful in keeping the evils of television and public schools at bay. The thing that impresses me about the Amish besides their basic adherence to Christian life is the fact that they still maintain their language; i.e. Pennsylvania Deutsch. As one who is fluent in German I found the Pennsylvania “Deitsch” interesting and took a course at the local school in Deitsch. I realized that having your own language is very important among a religious people. Growing up in the pre Vatican II church I learned the Latin of the mass and went on to pursue Latin studies at university. I found it a real loss when the post Vatican II church especially in America dumped the Latin completely and I blessed Benedict XVI for trying to bring some of it back. I realize that I understood some of the deep truths and beauty of the faith better in Latin than in the vernacular. In present times I find myself having difficulty understanding when the modern American speaks or when he writes. The modern American language is the perfect vehicle for confusion, lies and depravity. I need only to listen to Mozart’s “Ave Verum” or some version of “Panis Angelicus” to actually understand and feel the beauty and splendor of our Catholic faith.

  • If you please, the world is not supposed to have regards for the Church but for the Head of the Body of Christ, that is Christ Himself, the incarnated Word of God, the beginning and the end of all creation.

    All human organizations shall pass .. but He, the beloved Son is eternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. We look up to Him and Him alone.
    The servants are not greater than their Master … God bless you and thank you for this article.

    • ColdStanding

      Ah, so it was perfectly fine to drive nails through the hands of Our Savior. Indeed the only offense of His crucifixion was the crown of thorns? Me thinks ye need a wee bit of nuptial theology. Some common sense would help, too. I would assume that, while you might value your head over your over your hands and feet, you’d be loath to to have anyone of them chopped off.

  • I will echo Mark and say that this is an absolutely brilliant description of our current peril: “One is that educated and well-placed people now believe that the institutions on which social order is based should be technically expert, economically rational, morally nonjudgmental, and universal in their reach. So the world should be ordered comprehensively by global markets and expert regulatory bureaucracies, together with subsidiary institutions such as universities, think tanks, media organizations, and various NGOs that serve or try to influence government and business.”

    And, unfortunately, there are, I’m afraid, not a few Catholics and other Christians who want to climb the socio-economic ladder and find it easy to justify their cooperation because of the supposed good done various NGOs and bureaucracies.

    My only complaint – and it’s more an observation than a complaint – is that navigating between the Scylla of “fortress Catholicism” and the Charybdis of “flexible Catholicism” both of which Mr. Kalb rightly describes as having “uses and limitations” is going to take some real discernment. And, I’m not sure any of us are really ready for it. (I suppose articles like this help us to get ready.) Mr. Kalb seems to be steering slightly toward the fortress Catholicism side, at least for now.

    If I had children, I’d certainly do as Mr. Kalb suggests, in terms of schooling and monitoring media. There’s no doubt he’s right, we must remain faithful to the faith we’ve received or nothing else matters.

    However, I also have the opposite worry – that Christians will ghetto-ize ourselves and miss opportunities to be the leaven in the lump. Or, make simplistic moral judgments that won’t win the respect of honest secular types who might otherwise be somewhat receptive to seeing the Christian argument advanced seriously.

    I know that Opus Dei has some wonderful gifts to give the Church and the wider community. I have recently been participating in Communion and Liberation, which is very much focused on our experience of Christ in every day life.

    • Outreach and proclamation are very good things. Paul emphasized them in his own life. But he also emphasizes that different people have different gifts, so he doesn’t say that everyone should go on missionary journeys and so on. His letters aren’t about doing outreach and proclamation, they’re about issues that arise within Christian communities and about more internal aspects of Christian belief and the Christian life.

      It seems to me that today we’re tempted to think of the secular world–politics, economics, popular culture, etc.–as the real world, so the Church gets its meaning and reality by drawing close to it and ministering to it. That seems to me an illusion. God is the most real being, so the Church gets meaning and reality by drawing close to God. If she does so she becomes the leaven more or less automatically. Some people are called to draw close to God by penetrating the secular world and winning the respect of honest secular types by advancing the Christian argument in ways they can take seriously, but that’s not everyone or even the majority.

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