Living Up to Modernity

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While traditional Catholic morality might have been suitable in pre-modern times, the circumstances of modern (or postmodern) life make it impractical, unreasonable, and cruel—or so argue the progressives. The world has changed since 1800, they claim, beginning with the Industrial Revolution; societies and their moralities must change with it.

Once-unimaginable advances in technique (the term the French author Jacques Ellul advocated as being more linguistically accurate than “technology”) in every field of human knowledge have resulted in the considerable prolongation of human life, the enormous growth in human populations, and the spread of urbanization. Material plenty increases at an unprecedented rate. Democratic government continues to expand, whether nations want it to or not. The mechanization of life and labor has greatly diminished the degree of sexual differentiation in the workplace. Managerial bureaucracy proliferates apace. Simple and easy means of contraception allow men and women to have sex (allegedly) free of consequence.

All of these things and many others have helped to advance the progressive case that the morality of the Old and New Testaments is an intolerable constraint upon modern society. We must abandon Christian morality—and the Catholic variety in particular—in the interest of promoting a fairer, more compassionate society.

No Christian, let alone a Catholic Christian, is free to accept this proposition. Rather, his first duty is to assert that any society that is incompatible with Catholic moral teaching is not a fully human society at all. This is as true now as it was two centuries or two millennia ago.

 

Though few people wish to hear it, the root cause of the incompatibility is the Industrial Revolution and the industrial civilization it has fostered since then. Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” claimed that Christ’s first coming had thrown the world out of kilter. She’s exactly right—and that was the whole point. Conversely, industrialism, yoked to capitalism, has done the same thing on the material plane—and so, inevitably, on the spiritual plane as well. Christ accomplished what He did by introducing the supernatural element directly into history; industrialism injected one that was unnatural and even anti-natural into human society and the natural world.

No one denies the innumerable benefits that science and industrial technique have given the world. It is equally undeniable that the accumulated sum of these benefits has also, over time, corrupted our humanity while inflicting grave damage upon the natural world. Industrialization and commercialization have made life too easy, physically and otherwise, for people living in developed countries, while making it miserable for those in undeveloped or underdeveloped ones. It aggravates historical sufferings through new and unregulated intrusions and disruptions. Wretched excess and unprecedented ease have made the inhabitants of industrialized societies physically unhealthy, intellectually shallow, spiritually blind, and neurotically anxious—yet, at the same time, absurdly confident in the power of human beings to perfect the world and ourselves.

Progressives, along with scores of millions of other people (some of whom call themselves Christians), consider contraception moral, rational, and necessary to the functioning of modern societies. Without birth control, they argue, women could not enter the workplace alongside their husbands, thus depriving them of their equal right with men to a job or career—not to mention that much-needed second income. To stay at home and conceive, raise, and educate more children, they protest, is personally burdensome, unfair, and unaffordable besides. In the absence of birth control, the global population will increase to the level where the Earth, incapable of sustaining it, will suffer ecological collapse and bring civilization to an end.

The sole solution lies in transcending technique. Flannery O’Connor thought the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception to be one of her most spiritual. If we are unwilling to exercise physical and moral self-control, she added, we must be prepared to live piled up upon one other in a great global mass of elbowing, squirming, wriggling people.

O’Connor was right, practically as well as theologically. Self-discipline is the only possible answer. Technology is the result of the exercise of the human powers of intelligence and ingenuity with which God generously endowed us to create civilization. Since the Fall, however, our moral capacities have remained vastly inferior to our intellectual ones. So, we’ve used our rational powers to create the bad as well as the good, while employing the best products of our intelligence to bad ends. We can secure a prosperous and happy future for humanity—and, more importantly, make amends with God—only by exercising the necessary self-discipline. By doing so, we will also be rendering thanks to God for the intellectual gifts with which He endowed the human race—the same gifts that have permitted us to achieve levels of material civilization, plenitude, physical comfort, and health that pre-modern generations never dreamt of and that are in themselves blessings from God.

It is the only means we have available to restore balance to a world intellectually and morally unbalanced by technique, and the human contradictions technique reflects and creates.

I’ve been reading George Weigel’s latest book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History. In it, Mr. Weigel offers interesting insights into a problem that concerns him: the introduction of the principle of historicism into the contemporary Catholic Church and Catholic theology. He criticizes the synod of bishops summoned by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015 for having proposed that history judges Divine Revelation (rather than the opposite) and for holding that contemporary circumstances may allow, or even require, the Church to “modify or radically change” Christ’s teachings on the nature of marriage, while ignoring Paul’s about the spiritual worthiness needed to receive Holy Communion in a state of grace. Amoris Laetitia, Weigel claims, “effectively denied what Vatican II affirmed.”

The postmodern Church need not continue in this fatal direction. The other path available to her—the holy and therefore institutionally and spiritually fruitful one—is orthodoxy. “Catholicism in the twenty-first century,” Mr. Weigel observes, “experienced growth and vitality where the Gospel was embraced in full and where the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was regarded as a stable template for missionary discipleship, not a compendium of ideals impossible to achieve.”

As Jim McFadden, the founder of The Human Life Review, so often ended his articles, “Oremus!”

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

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Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review.

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