How Catholics Can Save Our Dying Civilization

In a recent address, Archbishop Chaput articulated how much we depend on the residual religious capital of earlier times, but once the capital is spent, “we may not like the results, because the more we delete God from our public life and our private behavior, the more we remove the moral vocabulary that gives our culture meaning.”

In spelling out this precipitous divestment, the Archbishop identifies four feedback loops both caused by and contributing to the depletion of religious capital. First, we’re unable to think clearly, a capacity which our obsession with marketing and emotional-laden images hinders. Second, we’re unable to remember, constantly re-inventing ourselves but with a weak grasp of the abiding things. Third, trapped in our technological and scientific loves, we’re unable to lift our eyes and imagine and hope for the fully-human. Fourth, we’re increasingly unable to distinguish genuine freedom from mere indulgence or license.

Even before joining the Church, I was tantalized and impressed by the Christian Humanism of Catholicism. Here was a faith that included great intellectuals and great mystics, magnificent works of art in exalted buildings and works of mercy in the most humble of settings, the work of spirit and the work of human hands.

That spirit of fullness, the integral vision of Christian Humanism, is manifest in Archbishop Chaput’s talk, for it is utterly natural for him to relate the loss of authentic religion with very natural consequences. The loss of faith isn’t just a loss of heaven but also of thought and imagination, not just a loss of observance but of human life. The faith is a humanism mediated through Jesus Christ who reveals not only God but also ourselves, and which takes the way of the Cross. A Humanism of the Cross is not “airy” or naïve like a certain kind of progressivism, and yet Catholicism holds that there are genuine and remarkable human accomplishments which should be in no way denigrated and which in no way compete with the Gospel. That’s a remarkable vision.

 

Integral humanism is unknown to a society failing in thought, memory, imagination, and freedom. Paradoxically, the faith is often rejected on the grounds that it is the faith which is unthinking, forgetful, small-minded, and unfree. As the late Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan put it, aptly in this case, “a civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency.”

In one of his major works, Insight, he probes the conditions of what it is for humans to understand, launching what he calls “a campaign against the flight from understanding,” articulating with remarkable precision how the flight from understanding promotes the cultural and civilizational decline sure to follow.

In the ordered universe created by God, human intelligence is naturally suited toward our own development and the advancement of the good. If we were perfectly intelligent and perfectly reasonable, we would expect our knowledge, actions, policies, persons, and societies to develop and progress. Of course, we refused to be intelligent and reasonable, choosing (and inheriting) the way of our own will, and thus concupiscence, ignorance, death, wickedness, and decline. Rather than knowledge, we use our reason for self-satisfaction, and our actions, policies, persons and societies are distorted and disrupted as a result.

Such distortions tend to accumulate, moreover. Just as reason tends towards cumulative progress, so does unreason tend towards cumulative decline, for “corrupt minds have a flair for picking the mistaken solution and insisting that it alone is intelligible, reasonable, good.” Having rejected the full range of questions for a more reductive vision, minds forget how to think, certainly forget how to remember, and the imagination contracts, as does the moral vision.

So distorted, the reduced person carries on with their intelligence, although now the “bent” intelligence overlooks the fully coherent, the genuinely reasonable, the truly good for a conclusion close to the truth, but not quite. Perhaps it works well enough, but the next exercise thereby begins further away, starting only with the resources of “close enough” but not the truth, and the options have shrunk, as have the persons who think, and act, and choose. The next decision is yet farther from the truth, and important resources are forgotten, vital skills neglected, key authorities overlooked, and the situation begins to splinter. Soon enough, the necessary things—wisdom, patience, sound education, imagination, faith, and so on—are in short supply, and those with power privilege themselves, forgoing the wisdom that others could provide, as Lonergan explains (and which Steven Cone and I catalogue in our new book):

Increasingly the situation becomes, not the cumulative product of coherent and complementary insights, but the dump in which are heaped up the amorphous and incompatible products of all the biases of self-centered and shortsighted individuals and groups. Finally, the more the objective situation becomes a mere dump, the less is there any possibility of human intelligence gathering from the situation anything more than a lengthy catalogue of the aberrations and the follies of the past. As a diagnosis of terminal cancer denies any prospect of health restored, so a social dump is the end of fruitful insight and of the cumulative development it can generate.

Such is the result of sin, and from original sin there is no progress. Intelligence is powerless to free itself from original sin, even if it wanted to, which it no longer does.

As I understand it, Lumen Fidei is making no claim of empty pietism but rather an acutely prescient observation when stating that “once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim,” for the light of faith provides an illuminating source of “every aspect of human existence,” and thus is integral and non-reductive in its knowledge. Such a light, the encyclical continues, given our sinful state, “cannot come from ourselves but … must come from God.” Further, this light does not merely sweep us out of our troubles and into some serene realm of transcendence, but transforms us by God’s love, giving us “fresh vision, new eyes to see”—faith allows us, again, and also here and now, to begin the recovery of thought, memory, imagination, and freedom.

The faith is about far more than social recovery and advance, for in the end faith gives us an encounter and union with the living God, but faith never provides less than the possibility of social recovery. While God gives us Himself, and this is ultimate, it was not below Christ to heal the lame, teach the unknowing, and work as a carpenter; just as Christ engages us in our natural and temporal concerns, so too does faith, this Humanism of the Cross, bring new vision and light to the spiritual impoverishment surrounding us.

As Lonergan puts it, faith, and the love ensuing, remakes us, including our intelligence, so as to allow for the progress natural to reason. No guarantees, of course, for we can, and do, resist love and the transformation made available to us, and the snares and wickedness of the devil operate still, but there can be hope, even if of a chastened, patient kind—one which knows not only Eden but also the Cross.

The Church exists not for itself but for others. We exist for evangelization, for the health and welfare of souls. But persons are not souls only, they are, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a unity of soul and body so profound that “neither the spiritualism that despises the body not the materials that considers the spirit a mere manifestation of the material do justice … to the unity of the human being.” As such, we exist for others as complete and integral persons—for an integral humanism.

That humanism cannot be maintained or achieved inasmuch as we forget to think, remember, imagine, and live freely, and so we turn, in great hope, to the faith which remakes our loves with the love of God, thus giving us back everything we had lost.

I worry, I’ll admit, that it seems that too many of us are not fully cognizant of the enormity of the task facing us. We must re-evangelize and rebuild a Christian Humanism for the sake of the world and all persons, and yet we are, perhaps, as culpably wounded by the loss of religious capital as our fellows. The task is daunting, for we can give little to a watching world until we recover ourselves, and the labors needed for that—our schools, our music, our poetry, our ethics, our formation, our architecture, our hospitals, and etc. and etc.—will bring heavy crosses to bear.

But the leader and perfecter of the faith (Heb. 12:2) has already trod that path, and we can follow. But it’s time, perhaps past time that we do so.

Editor’s note: The picture above depicts the iconic scene at the end of the 1968 motion picture “Planet of the Apes” released by 20th Century Fox staring Roddy McDowall as Cornelius and Charlton Heston as the astronaut George Taylor.

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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