Ambivalent About Babylon

The West's moral darkness has advanced under the cover of the very slogans now tossed about by those courting Armageddon abroad. Freedom! Democracy! Freedom—to do what? Democracy—to achieve what?

“Babylon the great is fallen!” —Apocalypse 18:2

It was once said, in circumstances akin to those now upon us, that war is the great clarifier. The present conflict in Ukraine is no exception to this adage, which, despite its author, is generally correct, if a bit simplistic. Indeed, the conflagration in that land has given occasion for many to poignantly recognize a certain estrangement from their own civilization, which they are being summoned to defend.

We have lately heard much talk about our “values” from the elite institutions of Atlantic society. When the representatives of these institutions speak, they not only articulate the interests of this or that organ of the liberal order, but they reproduce the ideology of the regime they govern, with its myriad presuppositions and commitments about man and his place in the cosmos. These presuppositions and commitments form the values of the regime: the goods it regards as deserving of celebration and cultivation.  

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A thoughtful person, possessed of well-developed conscience, must be forgiven for inquiring about these values, ostensibly threatened by Russia’s aggression (the prudence and legitimacy of which we will bracket). Such a person looks across the western world—rather, across the cultural imperium that bears that venerable title by sleight of hand—and observes an order that enthusiastically encourages grave abuses of human nature, thereby obstructing man’s journey toward beatitude.

Yes, if the same person is brutally honest, he concedes the profound sinfulness of the regime under which he lives, and, by extension, the civilization of which he is a member. This sinfulness is magnified by liberalism’s characteristic aversion toward physical coercion, which masks a habitual pattern of spiritual violence against its subjects.  

These are hard conclusions for anyone to reach, especially a faithful Catholic. The virtue of piety demands that we honor the secondary sources of our being: namely, parents and country. Yet experience tells us that these sources are susceptible to corruption. This is, lamentably, the case with the western world, so-called, which willfully labors beneath a terrifying pall of moral darkness.

This darkness has advanced under the cover of the very slogans now tossed about by those courting Armageddon abroad. Freedom! Democracy! Freedom—to do what? Democracy—to achieve what? Freedom and democracy are indifferent things, desirable insofar as they facilitate integral human flourishing and, ultimately, the vision of God. The technicians of the liberal order know this well enough (current rhetoric notwithstanding), since they circumscribe freedom and circumvent democracy whenever these instruments hinder the steamroller of History.  

How then is one to feel about the problem of liberal hegemony raised by the Ukrainian crisis? There are obvious moral costs associated with Russian victory; there are equally obvious moral costs attached to Ukraine’s definitive integration into the pseudo-West invented in the wake of the Cold War, with its pet experiment of radical human autonomy. Whereas our regime can acknowledge the former costs (not incorrectly), it cannot acknowledge the latter costs, for doing so would involve admitting its own fatal flaw.  

Of course, we should not condemn our civilization as wholly bankrupt, nor rashly disregard the undeniable benefits of the liberal experiment (said benefits being partially the delayed fruit of Christendom, a point that cannot be pursued here). We should likewise grant that the present order has certain redeeming features, including a proven record of material abundance and relative domestic tranquility. And definitely we should not suppose that our civilizational peers—e.g., Russia, China, and India—are morally pristine or otherwise desirable as alternative arrangements; on the contrary, each suffers from a unique set of evils, some extraordinarily odious.  

Nevertheless, our neighbors’ failures do not excuse our own deficiencies. We must seriously ask ourselves—as the first Christians asked of the Roman imperium—whether the liberal imperium is fundamentally broken, whether it sits under judgment, whether the time of patience has come and gone. Can we retrieve what has been lost? Can we renovate what has fallen into dilapidation?  

One cannot know the answers. Perhaps there remains an opportunity to subvert and convert the regime from the inside out. Regardless, it is certain that the banner of the West is not Christ crucified but Adam unbound and locked in a doomed struggle against creation and Creator alike. 

In the eighteenth chapter of the Apocalypse, the apostle John paints a vivid image of “Babylon the great,” likely code for imperial Rome, a civilization vitiated by luxury, pride, deviance, and idolatry. It is worthy reading at this juncture. Do we not see upon the sacred page our own visage, as if in a mirror? “For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies” (Apocalypse 18:3).

Europe is ablaze. We are told that the flames threaten what we hold most dear: freedom, democracy, open society, the rights of man, all the fascinations of this eon. Perhaps there is something to this. 

But pardon those who are—if only for a reflective moment—ambivalent about Babylon.

  • Philip Primeau

    Philip Primeau is a layman of the Diocese of Providence. His writing has appeared in Catholic World Report, Aleteia, Catholic Exchange, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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