Western culture has been under attack since its inception. From the 300 Spartans at the Hot Gates, to Lenin, Marx, and the Cold War, this is nothing new. There are dark forces roaming the world that would usurp the sacred role of transcendence at the heart of the Western tradition.
Catholicism, a defining institution of Western culture, suffers the same threat. The faithful are required to protect and promote the fount of baptismal water that opens the way to salvation. It is our sacred duty. To carry out that duty, it is necessary to know what we are up against.
Many of the Church’s current troubles are self-inflicted. Take Vatican II’s Gaudium Et Spes as one example. The Pastoral Constitution opens with, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” This is a poetic way to begin. It is also problematic. As Bishop Barron put it, “Who positions whom here? In a word, is ‘the world’ setting the agenda for the Church, or vice versa?’
Good question. A major complaint concerning Gaudium Et Spes is its length (the longest document in the history of the Church’s ecumenical councils) and verbosity (which provoked Joseph Ratzinger’s robust critique just after publication). In short, the text is seen by many as ambiguous. It has attracted both zealous supporters and equally fervent detractors.
America is also under attack. Many of its troubles are self-inflicted. For example, similar ambiguity is found in the opening to The Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Though the document is brief when compared to Guadium Et Spes, the opening sentence is just as problematic. Many misconceive that the Founders held a Judeo-Christian version of God in mind when positing “Nature’s God.” However, the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are more closely associated with Enlightenment notions of a social contract. In this view, “Nature” serves as a neutral ground outside the influence of human culture. Never has a human witnessed such a “Nature.” It is purely abstract, a construct of the mind. In order for humans to witness nature and communicate it to others, they must first participate in its concrete reality. In this view, a social contract would necessarily emerge from nature, not invent it through abstraction.
D.C. Schindler, in his study The Politics of the Real, puts it this way:
The “state of nature” that lies at the foundation of the social contract refers to nature precisely in the abstract, univocal sense: it is nature understood in a formal and generic way as that which lies outside any particular culture, a nature that tends to be interpreted as the preservation of its own existence, rather than to goodness…
This, at best, is deism. Deists, like Catholics, believe that God created the universe. From here they part ways. Deists, of which Thomas Jefferson was a type, claim that there is no revelation of divine purpose to mankind through the prophets. In their view, Jesus is something other than divine (a modern twist on the Arian heresy). Human reason, for deists, usurps divine revelation, and miracles become impossible. This is not Catholic.
Schindler further observes, “The only God that is finally permitted within this horizon is one that can conform to private judgment.” Nature’s God, no matter what the Founders ultimately had in mind, due to its ambiguity, strips God of sovereignty. He becomes relative to the individual and can mean anything to anybody. In this nightmarish scenario, man creates God rather than the other way around: the marriage of hubris and nihilism.
Returning to the question raised at the beginning of Gaudium Et Spes, “Is ‘the world’ setting the agenda for the Church, or vice versa?” Combined with the ambiguity in the Declaration of Independence, the question then becomes, “In America, is the individual setting the agenda for the Church, or vice versa?”
Enter Orestes Brownson, a Catholic American who bore witness to the Civil War. For Brownson, the social contract theories were idealistic rather than realistic in that they assumed a “State of Nature” as a state of perfect liberty free of all cultural norms. For Rousseau this meant that so long as an individual could provide all their own needs, there was a state of innocence, almost a kind of Eden. For Locke, this perfect liberty was pre-political but not pre-moral, where the “State of Nature” becomes a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests.
Brownson called these utopian visions into question by granting primacy to natural law:
That there is, or ever was, a state of nature such as the theory assumes, may be questioned. Certainly nothing proves that it is, or ever was, a real state. That there is a law of nature is undeniable. All authorities in philosophy, morals, politics, and jurisprudence assert it; the state assumes it as its own immediate basis, and the codes of all nations are founded on it; universal jurisprudence, the jus qentium of the Romans, embodies it, and the courts recognize and administer it. It is the reason and conscience of civil society, and every state acknowledges its authority. But the law of nature is as much in force in civil society as out of it. Civil law does not abrogate or supersede natural law, but presupposes it, and supports itself on it as its own ground and reason.
Though Locke acknowledges a law of nature, it is not the natural law of Aquinas. For Locke, civil society somehow supersedes the law of nature through a social contract that appears out of nowhere. Brownson grasped that civil society, to function, must remain rooted in the realism of natural law.
Brownson goes on to note that the radical individualist ideology of the South had been defeated in the Civil War and the progressive ideology of the Union abolitionists mistakenly took the defeat as their own victory. In Brownson’s view, the war was between two forms of abstract ideals, that of the individualist and the progressive. In The American Republic, he put it plain: “The great body of the [American] people instinctively felt that pure socialism was as incompatible with American democracy as pure individualism.”
As a Catholic, Brownson had faith in God; it was this faith that made him a realist rather than an idealist concerning American democracy. Natural law is realistic and has been demonstrated as such by civil societies for centuries. Enlightenment “Laws of Nature” are idealistic, purely human constructs. America, for Brownson, is based on democratic realism, not the idealism of radical progressives or rabid individualists. Idealism tends toward ambiguity.
Reductionist movements like Marxism, Maoism, and Critical Race Theory have run rampant through the twentieth century and into our own. Beware. They all aim for ideals forever out of reach, ill-conceived utopias that banish the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Rome fell due primarily to tribalism in the empire along with moral decay. Let this not be the case for America. The solution is obvious but difficult to achieve. The Judeo-Christian tradition, which merges Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures and nurtures them into fruition, must prevail against the idealism of progressives and individualists who would be gods themselves by creating heaven on earth. America is not a utopia and never will be. Its mission is to strive toward a more perfect union. When the striving ends, so does the American experiment.
As for Catholicism? It, too, is obvious. The Church sets the agenda for “the world,” not vice versa. Scripture and Tradition trump utopian delusions each and every time. Heresies come and go. The Church abides.
Grounded in Scripture and centuries of Tradition, Catholicism is real. God the Father is real. Jesus Christ is real. The Holy Spirt is real. The Eucharist is the real presence of Christ. There is nothing ambiguous about these claims. They are the Rock upon which the Church abides.
Just as Catholics look to Scripture and Tradition to connect to reality, Americans must employ the entire tradition of the West as their compass. When they do, they will discover that the Judeo-Christian God is true north.
[Photo: Vatican Flag on the White House Grounds (John Sonderman)]