The Church today has a troubled relation to the academy and media.
The reasons are quite basic. Secular intellectual authorities believe they stand for a way of understanding the world, free unprejudiced inquiry carried on by disinterested professionals, that is sufficient as well as uniquely correct. The Church considers neutral secular expertise insufficient, since the world is neither neutral, secular, nor fully comprehensible by human means. She therefore accepts additional sources of knowledge, such as tradition, revelation, and natural law, and appeals to them especially in regard to ultimate issues and questions of value.
In such cases the kind of expertise on which secular intellectual authorities rely gives no definite answer. Those authorities therefore apply some default principle they consider neutral, like freedom, equality, or efficiency. Because the Church rejects that solution, they view Catholic doctrine as essentially arbitrary and oppressive.
That view dominates public discussion today. The result is that the secular media never bother to get Catholic beliefs right. They have no respect for them, and tailor their account of them to the general story they want to tell about the world. What passes for neutral rationality, it turns out, has a mythology and plot line of its own. Mainstream academia is much the same: it is reluctant to accept truth or authority that elude its control, so it tends toward a reductive, dismissive, or negative view of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Even Catholic colleges, who willingly accept the authority of governments and accrediting agencies over policies, programs, and personnel, reject religious authority and think it a point of honor to hold the Church at arm’s length.
A basic part of the problem is the position and function of those who deal professionally with words and symbols in today’s society, not just academics and journalists but lawyers, bureaucrats, and producers of pop culture. The activities of such people are big business, the potential rewards attract clever and energetic careerists, and the growth and pervasiveness of government, bureaucratic organization, and electronic communications give them unprecedented power.
That situation has profoundly weakened other more traditional arrangements that are laden with symbols and were once basic to social functioning. Marriage is being abolished as a natural institution with functions that precede the state. The family circle, when it exists at all, is usually found around the TV. We don’t have proverbs and folk tales, we have internet memes and pop culture. And we’ve abandoned poets, priests, and popes in favor of Lady Gaga, TV talking heads, and Supreme Court justices.
In such a world journalists aren’t wisecracking hard-drinking skeptics who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. They have real institutional power, and they look for common ground with others who hold it. Nor is academia an ivory tower or a grove inhabited by meditative philosophers. American higher education is a half-trillion dollar industry that provides the expertise, training, and certifications that are fundamental to the technological organization of society. As such it is no more disinterested or neutral than any other big business.
So the occupational outlook and interests of journalists and academics, like those of the lawyers, bureaucrats, and managers to whom they are allied, prejudices them against religion, which sets limits to human knowledge and decision, and against traditional arrangements in general, which resist centralized supervision, control, and reconfiguration. Whatever their individual or conscious views, such people as an interest group would rather have human life commercialized, bureaucratized, and controlled by officials who find out what they need to know and do from Harvard and The New York Times.
The result is that education, scholarship, and public discussion today hardly offer a level playing field for people with a religious or traditionalist outlook. We hear about free inquiry and reason, but the institutional and occupational interests involved limit the applicability of that ideal. Whatever it was that led the Supreme Court and other intellectual leaders to the view that the basis for the traditional and natural view of marriage is a desire to injure people, it wasn’t free inquiry and reason in any real sense.
In fact, the radical weakening of tradition, transcendent standards, and the idea of human nature, together with the bureaucratic and commercial complexity of life today, liberates those professionally involved in defining reality from the control of actual realities, no matter how obvious, and sets them free to follow the demands of power, their own or those of their patrons. Many of their theorists tell us that reality is a social construction, and there’s something to that. As a matter of practical social authority reality is not what we see in front of us, or what God, nature, and history have given us—it’s what’s on TV or in the prestige press.
What should we do under such circumstances as Catholics, as citizens, and as human beings? The answer must be found in independence, integrity, and building on what we have.
First of all, we must stand our ground. In recent decades there’s been an unfortunate tendency within the Church to treat secular life as the standard and Catholicism as an accessory, so that the goals and understandings driving secular public life are thought to define the nature and needs of the times. The Church knows more about reality than Harvard or The New York Times, so that attitude makes no sense and has to stop. Throwing open the windows of the Church doesn’t mean throwing the Church open to the secular progressive party line. It means throwing open the windows to God, who defines reality in all its infinitude, and then throwing them open to man as he really is, not man as secular modernity wants him to be.
When we engage academia and the secular media we need to keep that in mind. We can’t allow their version of what is real and important to stand uncontradicted. When they define reality, we need to poke holes in their definition. When they propose a vision, we need to show that there is something better, and their vision when left to itself becomes a nightmare. We may be ignored, but if we preach the word in and out of season someone will eventually take notice.
More basically, though, to stand our ground we must occupy it and see it as something worth occupying. We can’t fight something with nothing, so devotion and integrity come before engagement. Polls tell us that American Catholics live like other Americans, routinely reject fundamental doctrines of the Faith, and hold moral views that differ very little from those held by others. That is the true catastrophe that has befallen Catholics and the Church.
With that in mind we need, with the aid of our own intellectual and media institutions, to develop, articulate, and live by a fully Catholic understanding of how things are. That will require discipline and limits, but it’s not simply a matter of those things. The Catholic world has the right to outshine all others, since it has so much more to draw on. The most basic reason Catholicism is losing in public and private life is our own mediocrity. We have taken what we have inherited and turned it into something nondescript. As always, we need to examine ourselves and respond to what we find. What is the tone of Catholic life and religious observances? How many saints can be seen among us? What, compared even with recent times, is the level of Catholic achievement in the arts, sciences, scholarship, and thought generally?
The Church is hardly the only hotbed of mediocrity in America today, but those who can draw on the spiritual and intellectual resources of the Church have no excuse for accepting the current situation. With that in mind, we need to go beyond Catholicism as a social identity and routine, basic though those things are, and open ourselves to inspiration and transformation.
Others can give better advice than I on cultivating the spiritual and contemplative life, or for that matter the artistic and intellectual life or the life of everyday rectitude and piety. Politics starts with what precedes it, though, so even from the standpoint of the Church’s relation to politics and public life it’s obvious that better things will have to start from the center of how we live.
The column first appeared September 5, 2013 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The painting above by Charles Auguste Steuben (1837) depicts Charles Martel’s triumphant victory at the Battle of Tours in 732.