When Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879, counseling Catholics to return to the philosophical tradition in which St. Thomas Aquinas stood, Christianity looked as if it were about to be swamped by modernity.
The Enlightenment Project, the exuberant belief that scientific progress and the absence of priests—to say nothing of popes—from social and political life would lead men out of the darkness of the ages of faith, was in the ascendancy. By contrast, to live one’s life in the expectation of another and better one, to see this world as a vale of tears, to put one’s trust in Jesus Christ and the Church He founded, seemed obscurantism indeed.
The Jesus of Church dogma like the Jesus of Renaissance painting would crumble before the onslaught of historical research. Read according to the evolving canons of historical criticism, the Bible would lose its authority. Church dogmas would be seen accordingly, to be built on sand. Sectarian beliefs would no longer give rise to war, a universal peace would be established.
To reject modernity might have seemed then like turning away from the light, a preference for murky shadows whose psychological explanation would soon be formulated.
There were many Catholics who urged the Church to adopt modernity rather than oppose it, to adjust Church teachings to an enlightened age. Papal responses to the rising tide of modernity, within and without the Church, are one of the surest manifestations of how God looks after His Church.
What if Pio Nono had followed liberal advice? What if Leo XIII had endorsed socialism? What if Pius X had compromised with modernism? What if the popes had boarded all those sinking ships?
It is no great simplification, perhaps, to say that the major philosophical point of Aeterni Patris was to endorse epistemological realism: the human mind is measured by reality, not the reverse. Truth consists in the mind’s getting it right about the things that are. Getting it right about who we are provides the objective basis for moral action. As we look about us now at the debacle of modernity, the wisdom of the magisterium is borne in upon us.
It was not only the guns of august that brought about the downfall of modernity, but they were certainly a first dramatic proof that enlightenment optimism was misplaced. Succeeding wars have removed whatever remained of the belief that a world without God was in good hands. But not everyone who saw the defeat of the Enlightenment could accept the consequences, as witness George Steiner’s T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures. In Bluebeard’s Castle. Nowadays it is impossible to overlook the fact that modernity has failed.
Alasdair Maclntyre has pointed out that we live in a time of universal emotivism. He means that the belief is widespread that moral and aesthetic judgments are, at bottom, simply statements of preference, of what I like, of what I prefer. There is no objective measure of them. One of the odd results of this is that we can no longer agree or disagree on moral matters. If you and I both say that x is good, we are reporting on distinct subjective states, yours and mine. If you say x is good and I say x is bad, we have disagreed no more than if you should say you have a toothache and I say I haven’t.
If things are bad in the practical order, they are worse on the level of theory. There are philosophers of science who say that physics has no more claim to be a true account of the way things are than voodoo does.
We live in a time when in the best intellectual circles the human mind’s ability to achieve either practical or theoretical truth is doubted. We live in a time when one of the few defenders of the range of reason is the Roman Catholic Church.
A Catholic is confident that universal emotivism is a false position. A Catholic is confident that the human mind can achieve truths about the world in which we live and about ourselves.
Does this confidence repose on religious faith? Indeed it does. Does this mean that only those who have the gift of faith can share this confidence? By no means. But the faith provides an ambience within which reason can pursue its proper work. And ambience is important for the intellectual life as it is for culture generally. Intellectual work remains hard work but who in a nihilistic ambience such as that touted by Richard Rorty would even undertake it?
The past century of Church history thus provides much food for meditation and thanksgiving. The present moment sees the Church as almost alone in insisting that there are objective norms for human action, that we cannot simply impose our will on the world as in genetic engineering, abortion, and contraception. The Church continues to direct us to that philosophical tradition which is founded on realism.
If the faith provides an ambience within which the intellectual life can be pursued, the successful outcome of intellectual work is important for the faith. Without natural truths we would be left with nothing but fide- ism, religious claims that bear no relation to what anyone can know about himself and the world. That is why the Church concerns herself with philosophy and science. The Holy Father and Cardinal Ratzinger provide precious guidance through these parlous times.
And yet there are those who, standing amid the rubble of modernity, stridently demand that the Church get in step with the modern world. There are those who, apparently unaware of modern culture’s judgment on itself—that it has failed—urge the Church to conform to the zeitgeist. They profess to be embarrassed that the Church is out of step, backward, resistant to progress. Progress. Ah yes.
The Church has heard such voices before and in her wisdom has ignored them. I recommend again the thought experiment suggested above. What if the Church had acceded over the past century to successive demands that she get in step with the modern world? This is only an argument from analogy, of course, but it is an argument.
It is not the Church that tells us that modern culture is bankrupt. Rather, it is the spokesmen for that culture. Unable to ignore the chaos around them, hollow men have begun to recommend it. Try it, you’ll like it. They call such cheerful nihilism “liberal irony.”
In the title of a book I have not read: Beware of the naked man who offers you the shirt off his back.
The gift of faith continues to be the best thing that ever happened to the human mind. The Church, custodian of the supernatural, continues to be the greatest champion of the natural.