PLEASE LEAVE BY THE BACK DOOR
It is probably unnecessary to have to ask you to read this final chapter because we tend not to have the same repugnance for postscripts, conclusions and epilogues Indeed, our expectations about postscripts, conclusions and epilogues tend, if anything, to be too high. We subconsciously look forward to them as the point when everything will end happily or be tied up neatly. But that, of course, is impossible when we are reading about historical events rather than fiction. A book of this sort is designed to help you on your way as Christians and Catholics through the years ahead, not to predict what the surrounding conditions are likely to be. So you may be disappointed — although I hope you won't be.
As I said in Chapter 1, although this book is like the previous one, Turmoil and Truth, in that both are concerned with the crisis provoked by the disintegration of Christendom and the take-over of Christendom by a powerful intellectual and spiritual rival, the accent in the earlier volume was on debates and conflicts inside the Church, while here it is mainly on debates and disagreements with groups and bodies of opinion outside the Church, and the moral and spiritual crisis through which the entire Western world is passing.
So in order to make a final assessment of that crisis and its impact on the Church, let us begin by recalling the path we have been following, moving back from the point we have now reached to our starting point in chapter one.
In the last five chapters we have explored the influence of modern Western thought and culture on two of the most sensitive areas of the Church's life: theology and the liturgy. The resulting problems only the Church can sort out. This is in the first place a matter for the magisterium, and the matter at stake is the protection and propagation of divine revelation.
With the greater part of the book, however, it is different. Leaving aside the chapters on Karl Barth and liberal Protestant theology, the seventeen chapters between pages 13 and 202 are concerned with recognised fields of scholarship. Or philosophical and scientific inquiry, where the predominant factor is reason rather than revelation. The debate here is between the Church's scholars and thinkers and their non-Christian counterparts — who, in theory at least, are all solely interested in and committed to discovering the truth about those things which are within the compass of the human mind operating on its own. In this debate, impartiality is the virtue to which everyone taking part should and would like to be able to lay claim, and the chief issue is whether a particular proposition or hypothesis can be shown to be true. If it undoubtedly can be, then the question of how it affects our understanding of this or that revealed truth comes second, and is of concern mainly to the Church.
Finally, our backwards journey brings us to the first seven chapters, which are different again. Here in the doctrines of the Enlightenment we found ourselves confronting an ideological construction based on a mixture of natural truths, inherited Christian attitudes of mind and aspirations, a great deal of wishful thinking, and a missionary zeal that could well put a lot of Christians to shame. It is the universality of the Enlightenment message and its missionary zeal, as we said, which, following the example of Pope Paul VI, justify our describing it not only as a religion and a Christian heresy but as the soul of modern thought and as the Church's main religious rival today.
How far have the Church's efforts to reach an accord or modus vivendi with this new rival succeeded since they were initiated between forty and forty-five years ago at the Second Vatican Council? On the surface, not far. On both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly on the European side, the "committed cadres" of secularism as we could call them have been conducting an increasingly aggressive campaign against Christianity as a whole and the Catholic Church in particular, with the ultimate purpose, apparently, of reducing Christian influence on public law and social life to vanishing point.
No gestures on the part of the Church, as far as one can see, have softened the hearts of secularist hard-liners or persuaded them that the Church could make a beneficial contribution to their quest for an ideal society. Not even Pope John Paul II's unprecedented apology in the millennium year for the crimes, misdeeds and mistakes of Catholics during the 2000 years of the Church's history awoke a sympathetic response. The gesture was ignored, as was the Pope's invitation to other groups, nations, religions, and bodies of opinion to make similar apologies for enormities and crimes committed in their names over a much shorter span of time. 276
What could highlight secularism's total lack of response more clearly than the recently drafted European constitution, whose preamble attributes the formation of European civilisation exclusively to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and then — jumping over 1500 years — to the Enlightenment, omitting any reference to Christianity whatsoever.
Even more tell-tale is the growing number of court cases in which religious believers are prosecuted for offending secularist sensibilities, or violating secularist substitutes for the Ten Commandments. They range from police investigations for saying what has been recognised as true in the majority of societies since the beginning of history, namely that homosexual practice is unnatural, wrong, and socially harmful, to court cases for the removal of Christian and other religious symbols from public view. I think that it is not unreasonable to foresee, at least as a possibility, the ultimate absurdity of an anti-Christian persecution conducted by people who once called themselves liberals or freethinkers.
All this of course is conducted under the rubric of the separation of Church and State. However, there is a marked difference between the way a non-confessional liberal state of the Anglo-Saxon type understands this rubric and the way a secularist state of the French anti-clerical type interprets it.
A non-confessional state is one in which no religious belief is given precedence over any other. The government refrains from favouring or imposing one particular world-view and, without being dogmatic about it, tries, in so far as is possible, to treat the different religious communities even-handedly. This, presumably, was what the American founding fathers had in mind. One could call it a pragmatic solution to a particular historical situation.
Whether a non-confessional state can or should treat different codes of behaviour impartially is a separate question. This is a matter I touched on in the chapter Human Rights and Human Wrongs. You can hardly have a state or nation with a plurality of codes of behaviour, at least not about fundamentals, since if that is the case, where are the basic precepts for such a code of behaviour to come from? This is a problem the founding fathers do not seem to have considered. Since the majority were deists, it probably never occurred to them that any considerable body of citizens would one day question the existence of a Creator or the truth of the natural law as formulated in the Ten Commandments.
A secularist state on the other hand is one in which religion as such —— the notion or even the mention of God — is as far as possible excluded from public rife, public affairs, public documents and public places, with the purpose of eventually making godlessness, coupled with a humanistic adulation of man and his achievements, the reigning belief of the majority of citizens.
Were the American founding fathers being inconsistent when, in establishing equal treatment — at least in theory — for all bodies of opinion, religious and irreligious, they allowed references to God and the natural law in their declarations of independence and constitution? No, because belief in a Creator, the natural law and a moral conscience are not matters of faith. They are logical inferences based on the evidence of the senses or internal experience, and as such are acts of reason within all men's reach. It is much more reasonable to believe that the universe is the work of a Mighty Intelligence —regardless of the mystery of suffering and evil — than that it generated itself by accident and sustains itself without a cause. Atheism, by comparison, is an act of unreason.
Obviously I am not arguing that atheists may not be men of the highest intelligence. There are many reasons why people become atheists. The Second Vatican Council gives as one of them the bad example of believers. This is a melancholy truth. However it no more constitutes an argument against belief than the existence of bad lawyers is an argument against having laws or people to administer them. So when, in a genuinely non-confessional state, devout secularists and their offspring claim that they feel "intimidated" or "provoked" by references to God in public places, religious believers should enjoy an equal right to feel intimidated and provoked by His exclusion. 277 Toleration, to which our secularist brethren still at least give lip service, means putting up with what you regard as your neighbour's peculiarities and foibles, provided they are not grossly immoral or socially disruptive, no matter how much they offend your sensibilities.
However, in western Europe, if not so far in the U.S., it begins to look as if the days of the truly non-confessional state are numbered. In practice, if not yet in law, as I pointed out in Chapter Three, what is being attempted is the establishment of atheism as a state religion — just as it was, and still is, under Marxism.278
Were the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mistaken, then, in trying to come to terms with the Enlightenment and its more dedicated adherents? While not a few Catholics would say Yes, on this point I have to disagree. The work had to be done for the reasons I gave at the end of Turmoil and Truth. It was necessary for the sake of the faithful, who in many respects are children of the Enlightenment without knowing it. It was necessary for the sake of the waves of immigrants pouring into the Western countries as the native populations of the West decline. They too need to know how much in the culture of the countries of their adoption is due to Christianity and how much is not.
And there is another consideration. Although secularists are increasingly influential throughout the West and are able to sway public policy and public opinion in a way that should not be under-rated, they are still a minority, even a small minority. 279 Of the millions of Western or Westernised men and women subscribing more or less consciously to Enlightenment principles and aims, by far the greater number are liberals of the un-dogmatic Anglo-Saxon kind, whether they live in England, North America, France, Spain, or anywhere else. Liberals of this kind have always been strong on works of philanthropy. They are par excellence the "men of good will" referred to so often in recent documents of the magisterium. Their main weakness has always been a defective or inadequate philosophy of nature and of man, which leads them repeatedly to underestimate the obstacles to be overcome in the attainment of their goals. One could say that a good liberal of this kind wakes every morning in a state of frustration and disappointment on finding that the world is still a very long way from perfection. But they do really value one's being able to say what one honestly thinks, and with them discussion has always been possible, leaving aside the fact that they have always included large numbers of Christians.
How then are liberals of this kind going to react as the rule of their one-time secularist allies becomes more and more oppressive under a polished surface of "best intentions" and "caring concern," and increasingly incapable of coping with the social problems which their policies are already producing?
About a decade ago, for example, I attended a conference in Stuttgart on the family, where for the best part of a week we listened to politicians and officials from Bonn explaining how they were coping with the breakdown of the family. After listening to them for two days, the thought came into my mind: "This is liberalism trying to cope with the consequences of its own philosophical follies." Since then the situation, in Europe at any rate, has deteriorated still further. It is no longer a question of governments coping with unforeseen consequences, but of governments actively promoting policies regardless of the consequences. It is not the family alone which is under attack. The moral and spiritual life of whole populations is being debauched, and I am not thinking at this point of the "sexual revolution." I have in mind the preaching of politicians and cultural elites who have nothing better to offer than an "ever higher quality of life" (for many of us, it could be argued, the quality of life would be higher if it were "lower'), and a lop-sided doctrine of human rights (which turns rights into wrongs and wrongs into rights). The two together, coupled with the unprecedented rain of riches and conveniences, seem to be making large swathes of the populations of the West as demanding as 18th century aristocrats, and increasingly ungovernable. 280
I am not envisaging the imminent collapse of Western society. As long as it keeps economically afloat, that seems highly unlikely. But I do see it set on a course that future historians could well label "the decline and death of liberalism."
How in fact do you govern a nation where the majority of the citizens are at least practical atheists? How indeed are people of any kind governed?
This is a problem which liberal and secularist governments have never until recently had to face, and appear not yet to have even recognised as a problem. Although there have been liberal governments of one sort or another for 200 years, they have been living off other people's capital. They have been ruling over societies where the majority of the citizens were still Christian or deeply influenced by Christianity.
The Marxists of course had no problem. If only as a last resort, they had the secret police, the prison camps and the torture chamber. This is why neo-Marxists, jockeying for a position in Western-style political systems where such things are not acceptable, discuss what they call "the problem of social control." With their sombre view of human nature inherited from their founder, they at least recognise that there is a problem; that people en masse will not automatically behave in a reasonable, orderly, co-operative way unless they have been trained from childhood to listen to reason and conscience and provided with adequate motives for continuing on the same course.
It could also be called "the problem of the interior and exterior policeman." As you weaken the interior police force, you have to enlarge the exterior one.
So there is hope that as secularists become, like their forebears during the French revolution, more and more dictatorial, entangled, and at cross purposes in their efforts to make godless populations absolutely free, indistinguishably equal and enforcedly fraternal, genuine liberals will at last begin to see the light and start opposing them. For their sake too, therefore, it has been necessary for the Church to come to terms with the Enlightenment.
To conclude — if conclusion there must be — the irony and complexity of the relationship between the Church and the Enlightenment can perhaps best be expressed by adapting — if that is allowable — the parable of the Prodigal Son.
There was once, as in the original story, a man who had two sons, and the younger said to his father, "Give me my share of the inheritance." Then, having received it, he went off to a far country taking all his newly acquired wealth with him. However, instead of wasting it on riotous living, he used it to start a lot of highly profitable businesses. Within a short time he had become a billionaire and, returning to his country of origin, began buying up large tracts of his father's property, which the elder brother was managing while the father was away on a world tour.
To begin with, the elder brother tried to fight off the younger brother's incursions. But he lacked his brother's financial astuteness. Each time he was outwitted. What was he to do? He had to admit that his brother's businesses were well run. They benefited the employees as well as the customers and shareholders. He also had instructions from the father to stay on good terms with his younger brother in so far as that was possible. At first, he thought of suggesting that he and his brother go into partnership and run the two inheritances as one. However, on reflection he saw that, short of a radical change of heart on the younger brother's part, this would be impossible because not all of the younger brother's businesses were of the kind, or run in a way, that the father would have approved. Recently, for instance, he had been financing an international chain of high-class brothels. He had also been telling people that there was no need to worry about what the father thought, since the father was dead. His agents had even been spreading rumours among the younger customers and employees that the father never actually existed. He was an invention of the older brother. In the past people didn't have fathers. The earth generated people spontaneously.
Will the older brother be able to bring the younger brother to a better frame of mind? When the father returns will he find his two sons running the estate together in fraternal harmony according to the principles he, the father, had laid down? Or will he discover that his elder son has had to take refuge in a far country while the younger son lords it on his own, and according to his own lights, over the ancestral patrimony?
Except for the rare man or woman endowed with the gift of prophecy, these are things which it is not given to us to know.
276. It is difficult to see how an accommodation with truly committed secularises is possible, any more than it would have been possible with Calvin or John Knox, as long as they persist in seeing the Catholic Church as a secularist equivalent to the And-Christ. However, one can never be sure. In the 19th century, the Marquis of Ripon, who had been Grand Master of the English freemasons, became a Catholic, and used to go straight from meetings of Gladstone's cabinet to meetings of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
277. According to a recent French government document, the wearing of religious symbols by children in state schools (in this case Muslim girls wearing headscarves), constitutes an act of "intimidation" and "provocation" for unbelieving children and their parents. Daily Telegraph, London, 20° September 2004.
278. In Europe today "there is an aggressive secular ideology that is worrisome ... In politics, it is considered indecent to talk about God — as if it would be an attack on the freedom of unbelievers?' Cardinal Ratzinger, interview in La Repubblka, 19th September 2004. "Secularism means that there is no religion but the state — it is nothing short of state atheism." Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. Vatican archivist. For both, see Catholic World Report, December 2004.
279. Cardinal Ratzinger, citing the historian/philosopher Arnold Toynbee, observed in an interview on Vatican Radio that Toynbee "was right when he said that the fate of society always depends on creative minorities." (Reported in The Wanderer, 16th December 2004.) The Cardinal was actually forseeing a possible role of Christians in an increasingly hostile environment. But Toynbee's insight applies equally to secularists.
280. It is only a small point, but for some years now, English state-owned hospitals have been displaying notices warning that anyone insulting or assaulting doctors and nurses will be handed over to the police.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018