Sense and Nonsense: Our Fragile World

Ever since I read Ralph Mclnerny’s remark about the “fragility of the West” in the February Crisis, I have been thinking about its implications. Our situation is paradoxical. For over 50 years, the principal enemy of the West has been Marxist socialism in its various forms. Practically all political literature has been written in order to oppose, to come to terms with, or to embrace the socialisms in power. The Left has argued that socialism was the “mission” of society, even its goal. The fact that socialism could not, despite its claims, solve problems either of human productivity or of human brotherhood often seemed irrelevant to the course of public discourse. The truth was, however, that socialism could not produce what it claimed. In the end, it ruled by force. Fortunately, at least a few thinkers through the modern era realized this. If socialism were the only root of modernity, the world would at present be a most promising place.

In addition, nuclear war, another of our great fears, was seen, even by our bishops, as a kind of independent variable with little or nothing to do with the ideologies that might use it. Now suddenly we see that the problem of nuclear weapons is really a problem of socialist and other ideologies, not of the weapons themselves—something that traditional natural law thinking assumed all along. Nuclear weapons themselves are not threats. Ideologies which control them are. We seem surprised to find this out.

That this socialist ideology in its various forms has attracted both clerical and academic dons in disproportionate numbers has been one of the curious, if not scandalous, things about it, or at least about the academics and clerics. But if the dangers of socialism were not simply the practical problems of socialism but rather the kind of thought that brought it forth, then the dangers remain, perhaps in an even more subtle form, when the ideological roots of socialism remain unchallenged.

Eric Voegelin, in a perceptive remark, assigned the strange attraction socialism held for clerics and academics to a lack of faith on the part of both, clerics and academics. They could not believe in the religious promises of the faith, so they sought to incarnate them in this world by their own actions in political movements. They would not let them come to be according to a divine plan. In the meantime, actual people in socialist systems, from Eastern Europe to Korea to Vietnam to Nicaragua, invariably voted against socialism with their feet when they could, more recently with ballots, again when they could. The academic and clerical dons, for the most part, looked the other way.

Suddenly, in the light of recent events, some think that perhaps Fatima was not merely “mythological” after all. But this religious suspicion dare not be mentioned. In any event, the case for socialism on which the Left has based itself for well over a century has collapsed except for the silly clerics who still look in desperation, but contrary to the will of the actual people there, to El Salvador or, worse, to Cuba, as a kind of leftist haven, even when the Nicaraguans, their former ideal, have failed them in a free vote.

With the demise of credibility in socialism, it seems to all but a few that Western liberalism has won, as Francis Fukuyama maintains. Yet, we have this nagging worry that perhaps the Holy Father was right in sensing that the demise of socialism would not necessarily be an unambiguously good thing for freedom or human dignity. Liberalism and socialism sometimes seem to be branches of the same tree. McInerny himself rightly agonized: “The real danger we run is of imposing on ourselves freely what totalitarian governments have been unable to foist on their slaves. What will the newly liberated people think when they see how we have used our freedom?” The notion of “democratic totalitarianism” is one we consider with utmost disdain, yet we wonder whether that is not what should be our principal worry.

James McFadden has predicted that the “Greens” will be the “Reds” of the 1990s. Paul Johnson has voiced similar concerns. Environmentalism, in its various forms, is already the chief candidate, along with feminism and classism, to assimilate all the statist and people-control ideas that we used to attribute to the socialists. Both are offsprings of the same modernity. Apocalypse, which used to be proclaimed in terms of nuclear weapons, is now discovered in greenhouse effects, which have little basis in fact, or in sundry fearsome dangers which are invariably said to require placing people more and more under the control of the state as the sole savior of mankind. The children who recycle paper and bottles on TV are endowed with a quasi-mystical purpose for their projects.

Modernity, as the Straussians and Voegelinians have well described it, is the mentality that would place all norms under the human will, with no criteria from nature. All natural “authority” is said to be illegitimate. Religion, then, is merely a way to control the masses who do not “understand” as the intellectual classes do. The intellectual classes are subject to nothing but themselves. Thus, if the intellectuals want to “create” a new morality and impose it politically on the population, there is nothing in principle to prevent them from doing so. There is no “nature” or “natural law,” let alone divinity, that might stand to protect the permanent things. In this regard, we have paid too little attention to the conformity in academia, to the extraordinary gnostic conformism of professors and media sources in our society.

At first sight, the “Greens,” the environmentalists, might seem to be different. After all, are they not “conforming” to nature? Of course, what they are doing is reversing the relationship between man and nature as described in Genesis. The word stewardship has become the religious route to modern ideology as expressed in environmentalism. The result is the same. Human beings are subject to control through ideas of nature or natural capacity which certain intellectual classes developed. While socialism erred in terms of expecting too much of man, the “Greens” err in expecting too little.

Paul Johnson asked the decisive question in the February 1989 Crisis: Would the demise of socialism mean the rejection of modernity and therefore the revival of faith and reason over against a reason subject only to human will? Johnson was quite sure that the demise of socialism would not be the end of modernity. We are still busy seeking to re-order nature, particularly human nature. In the areas of human life especially, as Ralph McInerny noted, we are deliberately seeking to change ourselves to be what we are not. This project is one that affirms that we will seek to do what cannot be done. But of course, it “can” be done: we can rebel against—and destroy—our created natures in the name of a nature we would create. We can kill our kind in our wombs and justify it on the grounds of modernity, of our wills. We do it every day. We defy what we are.

What disturbed me about the truth of Ralph Mclnerny’s comment was its sense of the fragility of our civilization, a civilization that seems to have every right to look at itself with optimism. We have succeeded yet we are failing. We could collapse rather quickly, as Rome did, and for many of the same moral reasons. This success and failure would not be so perplexing if we could see that we have not gotten to the root of the problem simply by thinking that socialism has failed. That socialism would fail was inevitable, however often it was tried. But every intellectual failure brings a challenge to replace that failure with something else. With religion itself in such chaos, having argued itself, in many cases, into being the last bulwark of socialism, there seems to be little place to turn except to another branch of that same modernity which claims that what is, is what the human will puts into being.

The 1990s will, I suspect, be the working out of the implications of the next candidate for the mantle of modernity—namely, the “Greens,” those who will want to rule us through ruling nature. In retrospect, I wonder whether the “Reds” will seem rather benevolent by comparison. A couple of years ago I wrote a little book entitled, Unexpected Meditations Late in the Twentieth Century. It is now later in the twentieth century. For Christianity, these years will continue to be decided by a struggle with modernity, with the adamant intellectual dons and their clerical followers. This struggle is already lost in many areas. If the 1990s mean anything ultimately, they will decide whether Christianity goes into the Third Millennium as having recovered itself, or as being merely another expression of modernity, as Christianity often seems to have become in its handling of socialism and as Christianity is tempted to become in its understanding of the “Greens.”

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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