It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this philosophy, which has transformed religious thinking everywhere — inside and outside the Catholic Church. If the shape of Christian belief once seemed to you clear, but now seems fuzzy and without substance; if your priest speaks to you of Christian faith, life situations, commitment, encounter, or meaningful experiences, without your being sure whether he believes in the Incarnation and Resurrection, the after-life, or even in God, existentialism is largely responsible.
This philosophy, which was put together in Germany in the 1920s and '30s, principally by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), with contributions from Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and some philosophical technicalities borrowed from the Austrian Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), represents the same philosophical trends I mentioned earlier in this series of articles but with some differences. One could call it a cousin of the vitalism and pragmatism of Bergson and James; not a direct descendant, but a member of the same philosophical family. The German occupation of Paris popularized it in France, and after 1945, it was introduced to the world at large by Sartre, Camus, Samuel Beckett, and a host of other successful writers. By 1950, there can have been few self-respecting Catholic intellectuals, orthodox and unorthodox, who had not dipped their minds in this murky spring.
Although some of its devotees have recently been putting it at the service of Communism, it is really the last desperate cry for liberty as western intellectualism feels itself being sucked for good and all, as it fears, into the omnipotent collective society. It is also the culmination of the romantic revolt against Descartes' picture of man as just a computer-like mind, and against objectivity in religious and philosophical thought. Existentialists, like their forerunners, take for granted Kant's assumption that reality outside us is essentially unknowable. Only through self-awareness do we have direct contact with the inner nature of the real. Reality, therefore, can only be understood by analyzing our inner feelings and states of consciousness. These, in a sense, constitute reality.
In the background to existentialism are the writings of two thinkers who by the 1920s had long been dead: Kierkegaard (d. 1855t. a gifted but highly eccentric Danish Lutheran; and Nietzsche (d. 19001) the also gifted but unbalanced German atheist who eventually lost his mind.
Kierkegaard is a preeminently subjective thinker and his view of reality, religion, and human nature derive from the experience of his conversion — he had lost his beliefs at university and recovered them when about 25 — and his neurotic reactions to certain episodes connected with his father and fiancee; his father had once cursed God, and the son thought he shared his guilt.
A STATE OF UNKNOWING
Kierkegaard's view of his conversion and of the foundations of belief is an extreme Protestant one. Faith is a blind, basically mindless act — a leap in the dark. A man "commits" himself to Christ without having any reason for doing so; he is urged to make the leap by what he has gone through emotionally beforehand. The emptiness of life without God, and the consciousness of his own nothingness, have led him from dread, through anguish to despair. The pain and terror of despair drive him to jump beyond himself, and in so doing he "encounters" God.
(It is true that God sometimes uses unhappiness to make us think about Him. But that is different. Thinking, under the attraction of grace, leads to knowledge (and love), not to jumping off a cliff.)
Even after his conversion, however, Kierkegaard's Christian continues to live in a state of partial dread and anguish because he is daily faced with the necessity of making decisions while having no way of knowing what God requires of him. He has total freedom and total responsibility for his acts, but no guide as what will be right or wrong in given circumstances, or what the consequences of his acts will be.
Like the other philosophers we have considered, Kierkegaard, too, had a passionate dislike of metaphysics and of objectivity in philosophy, his work being full of diatribes against both. He had a similar dislike of doctrine and of universally applicable moral principles in religion. The way things look to the individual, the way he feels about or experiences them, is the criterion of truth, which is thus different for everyone. As for moral choice, each of these decisions has to be governed by the situation in which it must be made. We must take our courage in our hands, says Kierkegaard, not knowing whether the outcome will be salvation or damnation.
Kierkegaard's strong feelings and intellectual brilliance, the fact that his writings contain much that is true and psychologically penetrating, that they provide useful arguments against the crude rationalism and materialism of what is called "the scientific outlook," that he was trying to make his contemporaries realize that belief in Christ and following Christ should be a matter of deep conviction rather than of social conformity, have unfortunately led today's most influential thinkers in the religious field into ignoring his profound errors. The element of melodrama in his religious approach has also, I think. been an attraction. It has been largely responsible for the painfully pretentious way of talking and writing — the notable lack of modesty with which people speak about themselves as caring Christians, committed Christians, anguished Christians — which are at present such a feature of the religious scene.
Kierkegaard's writings made little impact outside Denmark until about 1918. when they were translated for the first time into German. From then on, however, his influence on the European intelligentsia, religious and irreligious, was tremendous — reaching even to Spain, where Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset took him up. He was read for his own sake, not just as a source book of the new philosophy, and in this direct way he profoundly modified nearly all forms of European Protestantism.
So much for Kierkegaard. Nietzsche's message was different. Western men, so the message reads. know "that God is dead." i.e. doesn't exist. But they are hiding from the fact, or rather from its logical consequences. They must be made to face them. Man is totally free. No laws bind him. He may do anything. He must, Therefore, dare and achieve.
(From this aspect of Nietzsche's thought, Bonhoeffer, the German pastor put to death by the Nazis, took his ideas that modern men "have come of age," are incapable of understanding the supernatural or the sacred, have taken over the role formerly attributed to Providence, and that Christians must now live and act as though God did not exist — in other words what is called "secularized Christianity.")
The leading ideas of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche together provided the foundations on which Heidegger and others constructed existentialism.
Heidegger was a lapsed Catholic ex-seminarian who was professor of philosophy first at Marburg (1923) and later at Freiburg (1929-45), being forced to retire in the latter year because of his connections with the Nazis. He believed. and publicly claimed, that from Plato onwards the whole approach to philosophy had been wrong. All philosophers, until himself, had misunderstood the nature of the problems and how to solve them; he had found the right method and was going to put philosophy on the right track for the first time. Like Karl Marx, he found his ambitions greater than his capacities. He was never able to finish his major work (Sein and Zeit — 1927), which was to establish his claims.
In existentialism, the mind is not just dethroned, it is, in effect, abolished. To use it for thinking in the normal way by distinguishing object from object (cat from mouse, and mouse's tail from mouse's body), or objects in the outside world from the thoughts in one's mind (object from subject) is treated as if it were a sin. This kind of normal thinking — though plainly designed for us by God, and in use since the creation of Adam — was supposedly introduced by wicked "Greek intellectualism," and is said to falsify reality, which does not consist of separate creatures with distinct natures, but is envisaged as a liquid continuum like treacle or soup. Making statements about the nature of God, for instance, as Our Lord did — saying that He is a Father, or that the Son existed from all eternity — should be forbidden because they turn God into an "object," and God cannot be considered as an object among a variety of other objects (even if we are unquestionably objects to God).
To understand reality, there must be a total surrender of the self to experience, a plunging of oneself in the treacle or soup (the self being part of the soup, though possibly the soup, or the experience of being in the soup, is just an extension of the self — views differ and are not always clear). This is called "openness" or "openness to Being" and is one of the existentialist virtues. There are, of course, many experiences in life which we ought not to be "open" to.
In Heidegger's later philosophy, the attempt to understand life and reality in this way — by the immersion of the self in experience or Being — resembles oriental mystical practices. Influenced by the German poet Rilke, he has developed an atheistic nature mysticism. Instead of thinking, the philosopher, through his passive "openness," seeks communion with the One — or the All.
The fallacy at the root of all existentialist thought, as I mentioned in another article, is the idea that "experience" can be a path to knowledge on its own. separate from and, in some sense, in rivalry with the use of the mind. In reality, experience is merely the stuff out of which knowledge is derived. Unless we analyze or think about what we have experienced (which necessarily involves the use of abstract ideas and propositions) our experiences will tell us nothing or deceive us. The way we feel about things is not necessarily the way they are.
Existentialism also assumes, along with Kierkegaard, that we all experience reality differently; each has his own version of the "truth." This is why each must be allowed to "do his own thing"; whatever he finds "meaningful" or "relevant." The word meaningful in existentialist talk does not mean true, right, or intelligible, but what gives the individual satisfaction.
In fact, as might be expected, Heidegger and the existentialist, having dethroned the mind (though, like their predecessors, only for philosophy and religion) and exalted "experience," then proceed to use their minds in the normal way (employing abstract ideas and terms like the rest of us) in order to carry out their analysis of human moods, states of consciousness. and what is considered to be man's basic life situation, and to construct their picture of what a human being essentially is and life is all about.
It is really a picture of what life looks like, after reading too much Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to an unhappy guilt-ridden atheist.
Man finds himself "thrown into the world" without knowing how or why he is there and with no real way of finding out. His basic states are those of Care (he is condemned to preoccupation with pointless worldly tasks) and Dread (like Kierkegaard, he has constantly to make decisions, but every situation is different and there are no rules to guide him. At the same time he is responsible for the remotest consequences of his smallest acts). So he moves through life, haunted by the flight of time, burdened by guilt, trying to reach "self-understanding" through the experience of his "present situation," and "projecting himself into the future" as he endeavors to "realize his possibilities," until he reaches death, the last of his "possibilities" which will put an end to him. As his present situation is never quite the same today as it was yesterday, he is ever having to change his understanding of things and make a new beginning. Not surprisingly, the existentialist decides that life is meaningless and absurd.
Existentialist literature is full of rather pretentious talk about death — as though its existence were a recent discovery. There is much complaining and posturing about the tragic situation in which the inescapability of death puts a man, and his anguish at finding himself there; existentialist man is angry and not a little sorry for himself because he cannot have two things at once, atheism and immortality. Even "Catholic" theologians. who are supposed to believe in Heaven, talk about death as if it were a gloomy indignity.
In all these ideas we see the roots of ongoing revelation. Imitating the existentialist, the neo-Modernist Christian seeks to realize his possibilities and understand his everchanging existence and spiritual and material needs in the light of his also ever-changing "present situation." Through ongoing revelation God sends messages about how to do it. God's messages are received interiorly through "religious experience," and exteriorly through the circumstances of the moment. There has been no other revelation.
The above is the aspect of existentialism which emphasizes experience and mood, and describes the human condition. It is mainly Heidegger's contribution.
PASSING THROUGH SUCCESSIVE EXPERIENCES
The other aspect deals with what men and women specifically are, their essential nature. and stresses their nothingness, will, and freedom. On this subject, Sartre speaks loudest.
When existentialists speak of nothingness, they are not describing what Christians mean when they speak metaphorically of man's "nothingness" before God. They mean it literally. In connection with ourselves it is a difficult idea to make sense of. How can men exist and not exist at one and the same time? Nevertheless, this is another vital part of the existentialist message.
Men and women are not beings who have a substantial and enduring reality from the moment of birth, or rather conception, onwards. Man is a nonbeing who achieves, or semi-achieves being of a transitory kind by passing through his successive experiences. He is like a wisp of vapor — capable of absorbing "experience" — which has materialized (unexplainably) in a void. A man's existence, as the famous existentialist pronouncement has it, precedes his essence. But, in fact, existentialist man never has an essence. What he essentially is can only be calculated at death when his gradually accumulating units of existence or experience are added up — presumably by his friends after his funeral — and then he no longer, in any sense, is.
However, for hard-line existentialists of the Sartrian, and more recently the "Christian" type, the mere passive reception of experience does not confer true existence. A man only exists in a real sense by continuously making free and conscious acts of will.
Perhaps we can make sense of what is being said here by returning to the image of reality as an extended treacle or soup. The human will is pictured as an eddy of energy making a hole or space in the treacle or soup of Being. Man is this empty space created in the continuum of reality by the whirlpool of his free will. If he stops exercising his free will, the hole closes up and his existence is swallowed by the treacle. He is, essentially, a free will and nothing else.
These notions may seem to you abstruse and ridiculous, but they make it clear why people now "become" persons, rather than are persons. You become a person insofar as you are able to act consciously, make decisions, and realize your possibilities. If, through poverty, failure of bodily or mental faculties or their lack of development, you are wanting in any of these things, you cease to be a person and can be dealt with accordingly.
Abstruse notions have a way of producing far-reaching public consequences.
When these ideas are translated into "Christian" terms, people are not Christians as a result of their beliefs and Baptism, they are in a state of perpetually "becoming" (but never perhaps actually being) Christians through engaging in "Christian" activities — an outlook which (unintentionally) encourages a new Phariseeism, since these existentialist Christians can only "prove" their Christianity to themselves and others by conspicuous good works which it is necessary to draw attention to. We have here another reason why in Modernist "Christianity" activity is all important and knowledge and belief are at a discount.
At this point in the philosophy, there is a change of key from minor to major, and the tempo becomes brisker.
Common sense must eventually have suggested to the father guardians of existentialism that few men are going to pay attention for long to a system of thought which holds that life is pointless. Some more positive ideas, therefore, started coming to the fore.
AUTHENTIC LIVING AND COMMITMENT
Confronted with his absurd and meaningless existence, which will be extinguished by death, man has two choices. Either he can live "inauthentically."
This means hiding from the truth, the fact that life is meaningless. and accepting the standards and values of the crowd: he thus escapes the inner misery and despair that result from an honest appraisal of the facts.
Or he can take the heroic course and live "authentically." as the heroes of Camas' novels do. Authentic living means facing the truth. life's futility, and temporarily, at least, submitting to the despair which is the necessary consequence, but which, if it does not lead to suicide, will eventually purify him. Despair will drive him out of himself and away from "trivialities." By it he will be impelled to commit himself to a life of dramatic choices or a particular cause. As we saw, only the use of the will can cause a man truly to be.
This is why Mr. Average-man, who is supposed to drift through life without committing himself to anything in particular (except perhaps supporting his family, bringing up his children in the service of God, and quietly fulfilling the duties of his state), is looked on with such scorn by the existentialist faithful. These semi- or nonbeings are, for existentialists, like the reprobate in the Calvinist system, destined for damnation, or the bourgeois in the Marxist system destined for the firing squad. However, as death wipes out "good" and "bad" alike, Mr. Average-man has perhaps followed the wiser course.
But what is a man to commit himself to?
Theoretically, it ought not to matter. Since life is a string of pointless unintelligible "happenings," gardening. stamp-collecting, agriculture. or overturning the state should all be on the same level. Man's choice and activity alone give the experience of living whatever ephemeral and factitious meaning it can be said to have. Man can make good evil and evil good. He, not God. is the author of meaning, "truth," and value.
In practice, however, it seems to be generally agreed among existentialists that a man should commit himself to one or other variant of that familiar enterprise "transforming the world" or building the earthly paradise. He now has a blueprint for "realizing his possibilities" and "making his future."
The history of human thought is full of strange alliances and one of the most surprising is this which has brought what is perhaps the most radically individualistic philosophy ever invented into the service of political collectivism. Sartre and other French existentialists of the left like Merleau-Ponty have been the principle marriage-brokers.
How does the existentialist come to this decision?
"They (the existentialists)," said Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Genesis. On False Trends In Modern Teaching. "attribute to our appetitive nature a kind of intuitive faculty, so that a man who cannot make up his mind what is the true answer to some intellectual problem need only have recourse to his will: the will" — guided solely it seems by its appetites, and without reference to the mind — "makes a free choice between two intellectual alternatives. A strange confusion'." the Pope continues, "between the provinces of thought and volition!"
WHISTLING IN THE DARK
To encourage men not to lose heart once they have made the decision and launched into transforming the world, and to prevent them from relapsing into the nihilism which existentialism has logically prepared them for, the philosopher Ernst Bloch here obligingly produced his "philosophy of hope," which has been introduced into Christian circles by Jurgen Moltmann. This is why you may possibly have been hearing a lot about hope from the pulpit recently. But this meaningless existentialist "hope" is not Christian Hope — trust in the providence of God and hope of eternal happiness with Him. It is frightened existentialist man whistling in the dark when he thinks that possibly the forces modern man has let loose are going to be too much for him to control, and he will blow up the world before he can build the only paradise there is going to be.
In committing himself to an activity, thus rising from inauthentic to authentic existence, a man "transcends" himself, and in doing so encounters "the other" with whom he can enter into a "meaningful" relationship or "dialogue." He "opens himself" to others; he is "a man for others": he pits himself at their disposal. Insofar as these ideas have value, they are a grand way of saying that unselfishness is a good thing. How often when studying existentialism one is tempted to define it as fantasy occasionally punctuated with platitudes!
In this way, existentialist man breaks out of the lonely private world of his personal experience. The "other" is usually men, but in the case of Jaspers and his followers could be God. who, however, is rarely called God; the preferred expressions are "Transcendence" or "Transcendent Being." Dialogue is chiefly an exchange of experiences. It can generate fellow feeling and lead to joint decisions in practical matters. But it is never a discussion of ideas undertaken in the hope of reaching agreement about truth of a serious kind since that would be impossible. As we have seen, the worlds of our personal experiences are not the same. Of its nature. existentialism is the enemy of human unity, because it rejects the preconditions for it: a common nature and a common understanding of things.
So far, I have mostly been considering the atheist existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre and the agnostic existentialism of Jaspers. But before finishing with the subject, we should look briefly at a slightly different philosophical current which has been simultaneously flowing into the existentialist pool. This is the theistic existentialism deriving from the Jewish thinker Martin Bober (1878-1965), and the French Catholic quasi-existentialists Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) and Emmanuel Moonier (1905-1950).
A LOOK AT THEISTIC EXISTENTIALISM
All have been influenced in their thinking by Kierkegaard and existentialism generally, hut they reject its atheist, pessimistic, and excessively individualistic formulations. The human person and the human community are the subjects of concern and the poles round which their thinking turns.
Martin Buber's 1 And Thou is the important source book for this stream.
Although not intrinsically harmful like the existentialism we have so far been discussing, this personalist and communitarian brand (which has had the most influence in France — Heidegger's influence has been mainly in countries of German culture), is, owing to its generally shaky and subjective foundations, easily turned to undesirable purposes. (All philosophies that make their starting point man and his inner life rather than creation as a whole are likely to end by having as their determining principle man's wants rather than the intentions and designs of the Creator as visibly expressed in things through their natures.
Some of the teaching of this kind of existentialism is simple enough. We ought to remember that other people are human beings, not things. Every human being is unique and precious. We must not allow people's social functions to swallow our awareness of what they truly are: a garage mechanic or bank clerk is more than just that. We must overcome our self-centeredness; we are not isolated units but members of society. Being is more important than possessing.
Such, for instance, is the burden of Marcel's message; he also philosophizes interestingly about particular topics like fidelity and friendship.
No one will quarrel with all this, even if it is hardly news. It can even with advantage be stressed. It is what made existentialism palatable, even attractive, to a proportion of the European clergy anxious to revivify parish life.
However, this French personalism also has more expressly existentialist things to say, as well as, I think, tending to foster a Rousseauistic sentimentality about people and human problems in general.
We meet again the idea that people are not fully human to start with, but become so. This time there is a new condition for genuine existence. It is doubtful if a person on his own can properly be said to exist, since we fully exist only when we "transcend our self-centeredness," are "open to others." and commit ourselves to "living for others." What makes a person a person, we are told, is his commitment. So for an "I" to exist there must be a "Thou" for him to encounter, communicate with, and at whose service he can put himself. Robinson Crusoe on his island was barely human until Man Friday turned up. Marcel summarized his thought thus: "Person — engagement — community — reality."
These are some of the reasons why the existentialist Christian is first and foremost a "man for others," not a man for, or servant of God. Insofar as God is encountered, it is chiefly through meeting other people and sharing in their projects.
While theoretically, in this kind of existentialism, the human person is the focus of attention, in practice the relationships between people tend to be given greater importance, and a higher degree of reality, and to be seen as goods and ends in themselves. When Crusoe and Friday met, their "encounter" was the really precious element in the situation, they themselves being significant only as the poles between which the encounter took place and which made it possible.
Communities, being a network of relationships, are given an even higher value and degree of reality. The community readily becomes an object of worship, and fostering the growth of "community" the one really necessary apostolic work. One can be fully and finally human, it is suggested, only when consciously and continuously engaged in communal activities. A community, simply by being such, is seen as having a healing and sanctifying power. In the community, "reconciliation" takes place: the troubled are psychologically tranquilized, and the divided learn to live together, forgetting their disagreements. What the community is like or its members are thinking and doing becomes a secondary consideration — if it is considered at all.
In fact, as we all know, there are relationships and encounters in life which should be avoided and communities from which one has to separate oneself (like Lot from Sodom and Elijah from the priests of Baal). In living for others, moreover, (that is willing and working for their good) we often have to say "no" to them; to be shut, not "open," to their wishes and desires.
ROTTING THE ROOTS
While it is true that we always need the presence of a Someone Else, the Supreme "Thou," in order to exist, that we are always in a relationship of at least one to One; God is an "I" who needs no "Thou" in order to exist, and however delightful and necessary human companionship may be, it is not the source from which we derive our being, and it can and occasionally has to be dispensed with. We sometimes need to be less with others in order to be more ourselves. We should also perhaps add that the selfish are just as much human beings as the unselfish they are then bad human beings, not semi-human beings.
No doubt Buber and Marcel would have made most of these qualifications, but millions of their followers seldom do. And many of the distortions of their thought seem logically to follow from it, or to be the result of its misplaced center of gravity. For Mounier, the importance he attached to the community led him to put a halo around socialism and he eventually became one of the fathers of "Christian" Marxism.
The truth is, it is not always by their positive errors that philosophies do harm. All philosophies contain grains or elements of truth, and just as much damage can be done by mishandling these; by making what is a part appear to be the whole, or by moving what belongs at one side to the center.
Existentialism has many other interesting things to say. But these are the only ones I have room for here.
I should perhaps apologize for having dwelt on it so long. However, if you understand existentialism, you will understand why in so many hearts Christian beliefs are being rotted at the roots. For intelligible thought of all kinds, and the Catholic Faith in particular, it is like a powerful solvent. It is not, I think, difficult to see how much of neo-Modernism flows directly from it.
ENTER KARL RAHNER
Such is the system of ideas, or view of life, chiefly in its Heideggerian form, which the German theologian Fr. Karl Rahner and his followers have been trying to push and haul into place so that it can be made the philosophical foundation for the teaching and preaching of the Catholic Faith and the training of Catholic priests. It is to replace not only the philosophy of St. Thomas but all the natural categories of philosophic thought — pejoratively described as "essentialism." To make the enterprise look more presentable, Fr. Rahner's particular brand of existentialism is called "transcendental Thomism." What they are doing is shifting the Faith from a philosophical foundation of concrete onto a bed of sand and silt.
Fr. Rahner, who studied under Heidegger, had been his lifelong admirer and disciple, and was one of the principal theologians whose ideas were censured by Pius XII in Humani Generis. After 1960, however, chiefly through the efforts of certain German bishops, the authorities in Rome were persuaded to let him loose. His supporters represented him as a new St. Thomas Aquinas, who is repeating in the 20th century what St. Thomas achieved in the 13th. St. Thomas reconciled the Faith with the thought of Aristotle; Fr. Rahner, they claimed, is reconciling it with the thought of Heidegger. Heidegger is supposedly the new Aristotle. Perhaps comment would be superfluous.
(If any parallel is to be drawn, an actual one would be between Fr. Rahner and Malebranche. In the 17th century, the French Oratorian priest Malebranche tried to marry the Catholic Faith indissolubly to the rationalism of Descartes. Nearly evenone now agrees that his efforts were disastrous — even the "new theologians." When they complain that before the Council the presentation of philosophy in seminaries was too abstract, insofar as they are not objecting to the fact that it was orthodox, they are objecting to the results of Malebranche's influence.)
Unlike Pere Teilhard de Chardin, Fr. Rahner does not have a wide popular following or reputation. Among other things, he is much more difficult to read, as well as being a great deal more cautious in the way he advances his ideas. Nevertheless, his prestige with the intellectually sophisticated in the Church is immense (it has been helped by a Madison-Avenue style campaign of adulation and fame-building) and through them his influence has reached the most unsophisticated of the faithful. He is the only figure so far in neo-Modernism of comparable importance to Teilhard de Chardin. He has been doing for existentialism what Pere Teilhard has done for evolutionary progress religion. It would be difficult to say which of these two men is responsible for the most damage. It is the introduction of existentialist terminology and categories of thought which has enabled the theological revolutionaries to make it seem as if all Catholic doctrine were dissolving in a mist of doubt, and to persuade people that their innovations are "developments of doctrine" instead of the heresies they actually are. To soften up the resistance of the clergy, they are told that existentialism is the philosophy of modern man, that modern man won't be parted from it, and that unless modern man is allowed to bring existentialism with him into the Church he won't be converted.
Nothing could be less true. The clergy have simply been lied to. Very few modern men consciously know anything about existentialism; and fewer still knew about it before the Council. The majority of Anglo-American philosophers have been hostile to it, regarding it as romantic continental eyewash (whether or not justly is beside the point); it is alien to the scientific mind — one finds few scientists either familiar with or interested in it; as for modern men in general, if they are not believers of some kind, then insofar as they are philosophically anything, the majority are likely to be old-fashioned rationalists or materialists.
Fr. Rahner, however, is more than the champion of a doubtful system of philosophy. Using existentialism as his base, he has played an active role in the destruction of Catholic belief, functioning as the revolution's heavy artillery. He moves slowly forward, keeping well behind the lines, and fires over the heads of the advancing troops (Fathers Kueng, Schillebeeckx, Haering, Schoonenberg et al.) so as to weaken in advance the dogmatic positions they are about to assault. He rarely himself attacks a doctrine directly. His method is to sow doubts in the mind about it by putting a question.
Is it possible, for instance, that we can no longer understand the Chalcedonian definition of our Lord's Divinity; or that the sacraments owe their origin to men rather than to God (man erects them as "a landmark"); or that the Pope could turn himself into a constitutional monarch; or that the office of bishop could be filled by a committee of clergy; or that heresy is now an impossibility — Catholics can in good faith stay in the Church no longer believing what she teaches; or that everybody who is committed to "building the future," atheists included, is somehow a member of the Church?
Having put the question, he moves cumbrously round it, peers at it as if it presented insoluble difficulties, then stands back, sucks his forefinger and wonders. At last, when he has given the impression that the answer must be "yes" and the Church will have to accept whichever of these heterodox opinions he is pushing, he retreats behind a smokescreen of qualifications and affirmations of orthodoxy, leaving the questions still hanging in the air, and the doubts fixed like barbs in his readers' minds. The 13 volumes of his Theological Investigations are the books which have sown most of these doubts. But at the time I am writing about, he was not much known outside a restricted circle. Fame, with its deadly breath, had not yet touched the poor man.
Existentialism, as will readily be seen, is at the heart of the moral as well as the doctrinal revolution. It not only destroys the metaphysical framework of reality by which the mind ascends to God, reducing everything to a fog and a flux where He is lost. It provides the justification for situation ethics (every situation demands a different response), and the theory of the fundamental option (there is only one grave sin — not to be "committed to Christ" or "a man for others").
In this field, another fateful figure, Fr. Bernard Haering, leads the way with his new "Catholic" immoralism.
The claim is made that Fr. Haering has put back "the person of Christ" at the center of moral theology. What he has actually put there is existentialist man who, after "encountering Christ" and "committing himself to Christ in love," is supposedly free to decide for himself as circumstances arise what the law of Christ allows — mortal sin, if he so wishes.
With existentialism as the acid, Fr. Haering is dissolving Catholic moral theology the way Fr. Rahner is dissolving dogmatic theology.
Such so far, I would say, has been the influence of existentialism on the Faith and the Catholic mind. Substantive and destructive inroads, aimed at dethroning the soul as man's center of concern, were made easier by the philosophy of existentialism and the rapidly maturing science of psychology.
Under the impact of the "new" psychology, with support from existentialism, Catholic teaching about the soul — that it is a substantial reality which gives unity and form to the body and continues in existence even when its faculties are dormant or prevented by physical damage or disease from working — began to be questioned or rejected by large numbers of learned book-reading clergy.
The transforming influences in this field have been chiefly Pavlov and Freud — and, I suppose one must add gloomily, the Kinsey Report, which from the early fifties many priests seem to have used as their handbook for the science of the soul.
One cannot say that the ideas of Pavlov, Freud. or their followers, of themselves destroyed belief in the soul. The existence of the soul is denied for other than purely intellectual reasons. But the new psychology did attach the prestige of science to disbelief in the soul, whose nonexistence could now be thought of as somehow an experimentally proved fact.
The behaviorism derived from Pavlov is really just the vulgar old notion that man is only a body and his body a machine; what were thought to be his spiritual faculties are just nervous and muscular reflexes. Western men have had to listen to something like this since La Mettrie popularized the idea in L'Homme Machine over 200 years ago (1747). But behaviorist ideas have now profoundly influenced "Catholic" educational theory, education being seen as reflex-conditioning or programing the computer, rather than feeding the mind with truth and training the will in virtue.
Freud's presentation of psychic activity is more complex and subtle without being any less materialistic. Man is a center or fountain of psychic energies which the body generates somewhat in the fashion it sweats. More importantly, as we know only too well, all these energies are said to be sexual in origin. Although the human "personality" is built up by directing the greater part of these energies into other channels by means of fear and disapproval, so that they form a crust or shell of "personality" around the still undirected and free-flowing energies of the libido. their fundamental nature is not changed.
From all this men have logically concluded that if man's basic energies are sexual, he is essentially a sexual animal. Happiness must therefore lie in giving these energies release, and misery, as well as damage to health, result from controlling or restraining them. This conclusion is now, as we know, another accepted principle for the new moral theologians as well as the educationists.
The existentialists have made a contribution in this area. Sexual activities being one of man's "possibilities," he becomes more of a person the more he indulges in it. This is why the famous "Catholic" sex-education program in America is called Becoming A Person. On their side, the psychiatrists support the existentialists in their preoccupation with "relationships," since a characteristic of many of the psychologically sick with whom they deal is not being able to get on with people. It is for the same reason that we hear so much about the need for "maturity." A weakness of those with a penchant for psychology is to see everybody as needing a visit to the psychiatric clinic.
Rejection of belief in the soul on the grounds that it conflicts with the findings of modern psychology (as well as with the principles of existentialism and the most recent biblical research — the concept of the soul was a Greek invention) and the materialism implicit in all this, is, I think, the most important recent addition to Modernism.
Contemporary psychology has also, needless to say, helped to weaken or demolish belief in the reality of sin. This it has done largely because it provides no theoretical basis for recognizing the distinction between character (what we make of ourselves) and temperament (the qualities we find ourselves in some sense "gven" at the outset ) and consequently between responsible actions and reflex or compulsive actions. All actions can be presented as conditioned. Adler was the only important modern psychologist who did provide a basis for such a distinction — Freud in spite of his personal self-discipline does not — and Adler has had least influence at the popular level.
Another novelty derived from this source is the rejection of chastity as something harmful and evil. To this we may add the present conviction of many of the clergy that men and women are incapable of living chastely. (So they are without grace; but grace is available.) The Kinsey Report supposedly provided statistical proof for this assumption, thus making contraception, sex outside marriage, and the abandonment of celibacy for the clergy a necessity.
The early Modernists did not for the most part deny the existence of the soul: on the contrary they were proud of their souls: and to their credit they were not apologists for lust. Will as much be said at some future date of the neo-Modernists encountering the faithful in nearly every corner of the world in the present day?
Copyright © Estate of Philip Trower 1979, 2019