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                                The Church and the Enlightenment

On the origins and history of western secularism.  How our non-Christian  brothers and sisters came to think the way they now do and what it means. 

                                                         

I         

                              From Faith and Reason to Reason Alone

I’m sure we all of have a fairly good idea what the word Enlightenment means  when it is spelt with a capital E at the beginning --- that is if we paid adequate attention during history lessons at school or lectures at college.

We are talking about the movement of ideas which came to dominate men’s minds during the 18th century, reaching an explosive climax in the French Revolution.  But that as we know was not the end of the business.  Historians may restrict the name Enlightenment to the opening 18th century phase of the phenomenon.  But under different forms and names, the same ideas remained very much alive after the Revolution and have exercised an ever growing influence right down to our own day until they have completely transformed the way most western men and women think about and understand themselves and their existence.

We are all familiar with these ideas even if we do not assemble them in our minds as a creed.  They can be classified as belief in perpetual progress towards some ideal state of natural happiness; belief in liberty equality and brotherliness as the primary and indispensable ingredients of that happiness; belief in democracy as the infallible means of securing them; belief in the power of unaided human reason to resolve all human problems and ensure that the rights and dignity of all are respected;  evil is chiefly due to ignorance and can therefore effectively be overcome by the right kind of education.

Since the early 19th century this catalogue of principles for right living and thinking has gone under the name of “liberalism”.  I am using the word in the philosophical sense.  We could define a fully-fledged liberal in the philosophical sense as anyone for whom these principles satisfy all their spiritual needs and aspirations.  As for the rest of us, while not subscribing to them in a strictly dogmatic sense, they are now so deeply embedded in western thinking that we tend to accept them as more or less self-evident truths without history or mystery  like two and two equalling four.

But are they, either in whole or in part?  Let’s take a closer look at them.

                                                                

II    

                                           One in Two or Two in One

There are two facts about the Enlightenment  which it is essential to grasp if we are fully to understand it.  The first, regardless of how it began, is that it became far more than just another movement in the history of ideas like the romantic movement.  What happened in the drawing-rooms, libraries and coffee houses of 18th century Europe resembled  in at least one crucial respect what happened in the deserts of Arabia in the 7th century A.D.  A new world religion was born.

Clearly there were and are great differences.  Islam had one, and only one founder and its first converts were desert tribesmen.  The Enlightenment, on the other hand, as a coherent body of  ideas, was the work of a succession of men of letters, and its first converts were nobles and sophisticated city-dwellers. 

Nevertheless, the title “religion”  can, I believe, be justified in so far as the teachings we  are considering provide their own particular explanation of the meaning and  purpose of human life and our final destiny as a race; in so far as they present those teachings as the sole path to happiness for everybody; and in so far as they  are spread by a high proportion of their followers with missionary zeal.

All this was recognised by Pope Paul in his closing speech at the Second Vatican Council.  “At the Council,” he said, “the religion of God made man” had encountered “the religion of man aspiring to be God”.  He did not of course mean that there had been official representatives of secular humanist societies debating with the bishops in the Council Hall.  He was referring to the fact that much of the Council’s work was directed towards showing how far the doctrines of the enlightenment are or are not compatible with Catholic belief.  There was an implicit recognition on the part of the Council that the cult of “man aspiring to be God”, as Pope Paul put it, is now the Church’s main intellectual and spiritual rival, beside which Islam pales into insignificance. 

The words liberalism,  secularism, secular-humanism, socialism and  communism are simply names for the new faith’s main denominations (with freemasonry as the survival of an early 18th century form).  Their members may differ about how the final goal is to be reached.  But they are at one about the new message of salvation itself.  Paradise in this world brought about mainly or entirely by human effort.  Free masonry  differs from the other denominations in that from the start it took an overtly religious form with religious rituals and ceremonies and meeting places and continues like this even in those lodges where worship of a supreme being has been supplanted by atheism.

Although this new “faith” was not initially regarded as incompatible with belief in God, and in the eyes of  many people is still seen in that light, for a core of committed believers man rapidly replaced God, if not as an object of worship, at least as worthy of a quasi-religious veneration.  There may no longer be a God whom one can offend by sin, but there exists an abstraction called Humanity against which it is possible to commit crimes.  

For the first hundred years or so this unbelief was of a straightforward no-nonsense kind; the kind subscribed to by sceptical, free-thinking 18th century French abbes.  Religion is just superstitious rubbish promoted by priests for their personal advantage and only fit for servants and peasants.  The sooner it is done away with the better.  But in the following century, after passing through the tortuous tunnel of German romanticism and philosophy, a more “mystical” atheism emerged, owing its origin mainly to the German philosopher Feuerbach (1804-1872).

According to Feuerbach, man invented the idea of God before he was old enough to realize that what he imagined to be the attributes of a Supreme Being --- omnipotence, omniscience, absolute goodness --- were really, in latent form, his own attributes.  Man will therefore never fully flourish until God, or the notion of God, has been wiped from the slate of men’s minds. It is this which Paul VI  seems to have had in mind when he spoke of  “the religion of man aspiring to be God.”  So far Marxism and Nazism have been its  most notable  political offshoots.

We are now, I think, so used to atheism as a socially acceptable idea that it is difficult for us to realise what a new and unusual phenomenon modern atheism is.  There have no doubt been atheists or small groups of atheists, either of the parish pump or academic kind, from the time parish pumps and academics first entered history. But never before has the world known powerful and committed groups of atheists not only believing they have the one true remedy for all the sorrows and problems of mankind, but bent on converting the great mass of humanity to their viewpoint by reason, persuasion, or if necessary, force.  Nor have we ever before had nations or societies in which the bulk of the population  have become unbelievers, at least in the sense that religion makes little or no impact on the way they think and live.

One of perhaps the most penetrating observations about this phenomenon can be found in Pope John Paul II’s Sign of Contradiction, a series of sermons preached during a Lenten retreat to the papal household while he was still Archbishop of Cracow.  When, the Pope remarks, the devil told Adam and Eve that they would become like God if they ate the forbidden fruit, our first parents did not really believe him, nor until recently did any of their descendants when subject to the same temptation.  The proposition too obviously violates common sense.  Only in the last 200 years has the devil found men really prepared to take him at his word.

Stepping back then for a minute and surveying our new world religion as a whole, we can see it as having two components.  First there is what I will call the humanist or humanistic project.

By the humanist project I mean the idea of  bettering human life in this world  and developing as many of nature’s potentialities as possible.  Rightly understood this is compatible with Christian and Catholic belief.  Indeed it is part of it. From the beginning our first parents were told to “till the earth and subdue it,”  an idea which the authors of the conciliar document Gaudium et Spes were particularly anxious to propagate.   “Subdue” should be understood as develop its potentialities, not exploit them.

However onto this humanistic  project, though not necessarily a part of it, has been grafted  a missionary atheism  bent on side-lining or eliminating religion. 


                                                  

III

The Christian Component

                                    

I come now to the second of the two facts about the Enlightenment, which I said we must grasp if we are fully to understand it.  When its ideas and values have not had atheism grafted onto them, they can, taken as a whole, be classified as a kind of Christian heresy.

Its teachings either have their origins in Christianity, like the idea of raising up  the poor and lowly, or have always had a prominent place in the Christian scheme of thing, like the notion human brotherhood.  Collectively, these ideas are the product of 2000 years of  a Christian way of looking at the world.  It is impossible to imagine them occurring in the form they do in any civilisation or culture so far known to history other than a Judaeo-Christian one.  Nor have they in fact done so.  They can  be accurately described as “secularised Christianity”. 

Take for example the doctrine of perpetual progress.  In all other civilisations, or those sufficiently advanced to have a philosophy of time and history, both have been seen as following a cyclical course.  Whatever has happened once will after the passage of enough time, happen again, and these recurring cycles will repeat themselves ad infinitum.   Only in the Jewish-Christian scheme of things have time and history been presented as one-directional and culminating in a state of perfection.

We can find other examples  of Christian influence on Enlightenment thinking in the political and social fields as well.   The emphasis on constitutional government and the rights of man and his dignity represent a recovery of topics and themes well known to the middle ages but swamped by the late renaissance cult of fame, glory and princely absolutism.  Equally we can see the seeds of representative government  in the medieval English parliaments and French States General.

The Habeas Corpus Act of 1769 also had its origins in medieval England, and Benjamin Franklin tells us that his contributions to the United States constitution were influenced by his conversations with the Paris Benedictines.  We can even see at the roots of Marxism a distorted attempt to realise the principle which the Church in its social teaching now calls “the universal destination of earthly goods”, i.e. the earth’s goods are meant for everybody --- not just privileged minorities; they are to be equitably if not equally shared.   Our Lady’s Magnificat has even been rifled  to justify “putting down the mighty from their seats.”

This is what makes the whole enlightenment “package” so singularly difficult for the Church to handle.  It is not something totally alien as paganism largely was.  In consequence only too many of today’s Christians seem to believe that except about God and Christ and perhaps the 6th and 9th commandments, they and their secularist neighbours are on the same wave length in regard to more or less everything else.

What they fail to see is that, when wrenched from their Christian context and raised to the status of absolutes, notions like liberty and equality no matter how good in themselves, can receive a quite different significance and even become appallingly destructive. Outside the context of a world designed by a Creator for a purpose, it is impossible to make a harmonious whole of them.

Take individual liberty for example.  If it is presented as the highest good how can it fail to endanger social cohesion and consideration for others, which, together with self-control, I would say are the three prerequisites for anything approaching what can be called civilisation .  On the other hand we know from experience that attempts to establish absolute equality threaten even legitimate liberties.  In fact, of course, liberty and equality are not the highest goods.  The highest goods are truth and goodness.

This is why Chesterton and Georges Bernanos could speak of the modern world being full of Christian virtues (or ideas) gone mad, and why the Church’s attempts to recapture these Christian runaways and relocate them in their proper context is proving so taxing.

Some remarks by Pope John Paul II on one of his last visits to Poland help to show the extent to which the doctrines of the enlightenment are, from a Catholic and Christian standpoint, a confusing blend of benign and toxic elements.

“In the name of  respect for human dignity, in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity” he exclaimed in one of his speeches, “ I cry out ‘do not be afraid!  Open the doors to Christ’.”  However, in another speech he spoke of a “spiritual disorientation” caused by “various liberal and secular tendencies,” and the need “to defend human freedom…..in a social context permeated by ideas of democracy inspired by liberal ideology” .

From the Church’s standpoint, one could say that, as guides to human living and human endeavour, the Enlightenment project and its creed, are defective in two ways: They are defective because of what they exclude, and they are defective in giving first place to secondary goods.     

                                                

                                                          

                                           

                                                             IV      

                                                 How It All Began

I now want to take you back in time to look at the way the ideas we have been examining  originated and have since developed and interacted.  One can find adumbrations of what was to come as early as the renaissance.  But for the sake of  simplicity we will take as our starting point the period following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which brought the 17th century religious wars to an end. 

We are immediately conscious of being in a new spiritual climate. It is like the stillness after a storm.  People  have time to reflect.  In particular there is a weariness about religious issues.  Was it all worth while?  Can’t men live at peace even if they differ about religion?   Surely they can agree about the existence of God and the laws of nature, since these are truths open to reason, and leave it at that.

Through improved means of communication the mood spreads across Europe to Russia in the east and across the Atlantic to the New World in the West.

I am talking of course about the thinking, reading and writing classes.  The great bulk of men and women are as yet untouched by this change of mood.  But for men and women of the type I have in mind thinking reading and writing are their life’s blood.

In Catholic Europe, Jesuit education has long made entrance to this aristocracy of intellect much easier for bright boys from poor families.  Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) is an example.  A Protestant pastor’s son, he studied philosophy under the Jesuits of Toulouse for a while. Then, through his literary journal, News of the Republic of Letters and his Historical and Critical Dictionary he helped to turn what had been a mood into a movement and give it international cohesion. He was not alone.  The proliferation of periodicals like Bayle’s had an effect not unlike that of the Internet today.   It put people with ideas living at a distance from each other in touch in a way that had never been possible before.

 

As a result  the sense of lassitude dissolved to be replaced by a rapidly growing self confidence.

The achievements in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and physics of  men like Descartes, Leibniz, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle and Newton, had begun to reverse the backward looking mentality characteristic of the renaissance.  From now on western men and women took to seeing themselves  as superior to the Greeks and Romans rather than as their perpetual pupils, and to direct their thoughts towards a future full of new possibilities instead of towards a past which might be rivalled but never surpassed. The idea of building a perfect world,  a utopia, which St Thomas More and the Italian Dominican Campanella  had played with a century and a half earlier,  increasingly seemed to be a possibility.

By now we have reached the early 18th century.  Up to this point the flow of  new notions had been changing men’s way of thinking by a process of  what one could call quiet interpenetration or osmosis, with England and Holland providing most of the input.    There had been no single directing or driving force behind them.  It could equally be compared to a gentle rain falling on a flower bed full of seeds waiting to germinate

All this, however, changed with the arrival on the scene of the men we know as the French philosophes,  a term we associate with the names of Voltaire, Diderot ,and d’Alembert, and from now on France will take the lead.

The French philosophes were brilliant writers and publicists rather than philosophes whose historical importance lies in the fact that they turned what had been a movement into a cause, which is something very different.  For them the new ideas that had been taking shape were not to be left to make their own way as best they could.  They were to be actively promoted.  This was achieved chiefly through the plays, tales and poems of Voltaire, and Diderot’s encyclopedia.   Soon there would  scarcely be a gentleman’s library between St Petersburg and Lisbon whose shelves their volumes were not  adorning.  They became for the European gentry and upper middle classes what volumes of the Church Fathers had long been for Europe’s monks in their still unrifled or unsacked monasteries.

Simultaneously, in the Catholic Church, or in religion as such, the philosophes found an enemy to be overcome; something which is always helpful to the advancement of causes.

This first phase in the development and spread of enlightenment ideas was optimistic and relatively apolitical.  There was admiration for the English constitution and later for the American colonies in their war of independence.  There was also, not without good reason,  criticism of the existing French social set-up.  But the philosophes  were not averse to absolute monarchs provided those monarchs had the right ideas and carried out reforms of which the philosophes approved.  Confidence was momentarily shaken by the Lisbon earthquake of 1751 --- how can a benificent nature let her children down so badly? --- but it was soon recovered, lasting till the eve of the Revolution.  However, before we come to that,  events take a new turn with the arrival in Paris in 1741 of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Just how momentous the influence of this immensely gifted  vagabond  was to become --- just how bizarre the disparity between the kind of person he was and the society he mesmerised into drawing up its own death warrant --- all this is, through familiarity, no longer easy to appreciate.  It is as though a 1960s hippy had wandered into a meeting of the Royal Society and been unanimously elected president.  However I only want to make one point about him here.  It was Rousseau who can be considered as having first politicised the enlightenment project.  From a cause he turned it into a political undertaking with a quasi-religious dynamism.  After the publication his Social Contract,  justly described as the revolution’s Bible, politics, including if necessary revolution,  came to be seen as the main highway to the earthly paradise more than reason and education.

As for the Revolution  itself and the  Napoleonic period we can see their role in the history of Enlightenment thinking as experimental and missionary.  Paris under the revolution became a kind of laboratory for testing what happened when Rousseau’s  principles were used to govern fallible and not all that reasonable human beings.  Meanwhile the revolutionary and later the Napoleonic armies  were carrying  the notions of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy with missionary zeal  far and wide across Europe to men and women of every social strata.  Not to see a resemblance to an Islamic jihad is surely next to impossible.

The other point I would like you to notice about the revolution is this.  When it was over the ideas that partly provoked it and subsequently shaped it,  emerge in two conflicting forms; a libertarian form favoured by the new politically and economically dominant middle-classes, and an egalitarian collectivist form appealing to the new industrial underdogs.  We could call the first the enlightenment of Voltaire and the encyclopaedists, and the second the enlightenment as re-shaped by Rousseau,

The libertarian form gives birth to classical liberalism, the egalitarian form to socialism and communism, which are as much  products of the Enlightenment as the libertarian  forms.  Consequently, our new religion of “man aspiring to be God” will from now on be at war with itself, at least on the political level.   Sometimes it will be a cold war, sometimes a hot war.  From time to time there will even be truces and temporary mergings of objectives.  But these can never be lasting because the basic principles and  aspirations of the members of the two sides are irreconcilable.   Which is to have first place?  Liberty?  Or equality?  And is paradise to be reached by limiting or enhancing the powers of the state?

Very soon, moreover, classical liberalism begins to take two recognizably different forms as well: in France and the rest of once Catholic Europe a strongly dogmatic missionary form; and in the Anglo-Saxon world, on both sides of the Atlantic, a milder, more pragmatic shape.   

The difference has mainly been due to the role played by atheism.  Atheism has always been high on the agenda of  European liberalism with Catholic Christianity as its chief opponent or target and freemasonry, whether deistic or atheistic, as a kind of sub-denomination.   

Anglo-Saxon liberalism, on the other hand, has never been irreconcilable with belief in God or Christianity.  Simplifying a bit, we can  see Voltaire and his friends as fathers of European liberalism and  the 17th century English philosopher John Locke as the ancestor of the milder Anglo-Saxon form. 

The two  forms have never been openly at war with each other, and there have always been adherents of the European form in Anglo-Saxon countries and vice-versa.  Nevertheless the distinction, I believe,  remains valid and is important for understanding much of the history of the last two centuries, as well as making life easier for historians, teachers and school children when it comes to explaining  or understanding how politicians and statemen all calling themselves liberals can take often conflicting stances.

                                                   

                                                 

                                                            VI

                                            

                                                    1815 – 2000

The next stage in the life of our new religion  or proto-Christian heresy could be called the first great liberal age. In both its dogmatic  and pragmatic forms, liberalism appears to be the force with a future, while nearly everywhere conservatism and tradition are on the defensive. 

In the names of liberty and democracy things good and bad are swept away, and others good and bad are introduced to replace them. Inevitably interests and aspirations sometimes clash. “Free trade”, a panacea for some liberals is anathema for others.  Likewise free love. There is much championing of the rights of minorities and subject groups of which the abolition of slavery is an obvious high point. In foreign affairs, energy is directed towards undermining long-established empires by encouraging national liberation movements.  At the same time, as the century goes on, not all liberal regimes will be averse to acquiring  colonial possessions outside Europe.  

By the end of the century there can have been few areas of the western world where enlightenment principles or values in their liberal form had not penetrated and influenced public thinking.

In the meantime the original enlightenment world view had been undergoing a radical modification in at least one respect.  The  theory of evolution by natural selection  was rapidly doing away with the 18th century view of nature as something ordered, stable, predictable and  benevolent.

For the fathers of the enlightenment, nature was something to be respected, even venerated.   She is our best teacher.  If we follow nature we can be sure we will always do what is best and right.  After Darwin, however, everything seems to be in a state of flux or to happen by accident.  As a result  it becomes impossible to classify anything as either natural or unnatural.  Things just happen and that’s that.

Oddly enough, contemporary green movements seem to represent a partial return to the 18th century idea of nature even if it clashes in many respects  with the Darwinist world view, which will also end by shaking confidence in that other fundamental enlightenment belief  “perpetual progress.”

But I am looking ahead.  In our survey of enlightenment thinking as a whole, we have now reached the  First World War and the Russian Revolution at which point classical liberalism in Europe meets its Gotterdammerung.  It’s cultural influence and intellectual prestige pass to its egalitarian communist and socialist rivals with their collectivist theories of government, politics and social life. These for the best part of a century have been living a largely underground life, erupting from time to time in revolutionary outbursts that were quickly suppressed.  However, after 1918 and the Russian revolution  they can live openly in the daylight with Marxism rapidly occupying top place as a political and intellectual force. 

From the late 1920s on, the reaction of many western liberals to their newly-empowered egalitarian rivals  is not unlike that of moths to a flame or rabbits to a cobra.  Some are attracted, others repelled.  But the common roots and underlying unity of purpose linking all the off-shoots of the Enlightenment produces that curious phenomenon so characteristic of the 20th century down to the collapse of the Soviet Union; devotees of freedom who can see “no enemy to the left”, or people who call themselvess “liberals” adulating or making excuses for the longest lasting  and socially and psychologically most  devastating tyranny known to history.

Taking the  century as a whole, we can see it, in the first place, as the period when enlightenment ideas replace Christianity as the main cultural force shaping the way the majority of western men and women look at and think about life and things in general.  As I have said, enlightenment and Christian ideas are not all  irreconcilable.    However by the end of the century, Christianity as an active cultural force will, at least in Europe, be a minority religion.

Or looked at from a different standpoint, we can see it as the century in which one-party collectivist egalitarianism under the leadership of Soviet Russia shares world-wide clout and influence with common sense Anglo-Saxon liberalism or libertarianism of the US kind.  In the first half of the century they unite to crush their fascist or national socialist opponents.  In the second comes the standoff of “the cold war,” until the Soviet Union collapses and communist China begins to adopt western liberal economic principles.

Meanwhile,  as western economies started to revive during the late 1950s and early 60s and a decade or so later Marxist prestige began to decline, it looked as if the west as a whole was entering  a new or second great liberal age.

But of what kind?

                                                               VII

                                                                

                                From Anglo-Saxon Liberalism to Secularism

At first glance,  the student revolts of the 1960s and the opening phases of the sexual revolution leave the impression that the ghost of Bakhunin, father of anarchism, had temporarily taken charge. However, when in the ‘70s things started to settle down a bit and a significant part of the next half-generation decided that money-making was more enjoyable than lounging about, smoking drugs, and cocking snooks at authority, it began to seem as if  a revived Anglo-American  or common-sense liberalism was going to be the directing or guiding force of the coming age.  And to some extent it has been, above all in the United States.  But in England and Europe, for the last two or three decades things have begun to look different.

Dogmatic European liberalism or secularism, as we will from now on call it, has increasingly been supplanting the Anglo-Saxon kind.

With its antipathy to religion,  missionary spirit, and determination to impose its own code of  what it considers right and wrong, regardless of its once stridently proclaimed  devotion to freedom of speech and expression,  all the evidence suggests that it is moving towards making atheism the equivalent of a state religion.   This I believe is the most significant development of the last 25 years.  Political correctness is simply secularism’s new  code of ethics or “ten commandments”  which everyone must to obey whether they agree with them or not. 

On this point one can perhaps best illustrate the key difference between classical liberalism and secularism by looking briefly at their approach to that basic liberal principle, separation of Church and State.

For the American founding fathers it meant allowing everyone to give private and public expression to their religious beliefs without the state giving preference to one over the others.  They did not regard reference to God or the Creator in their constitution and other state documents as violating this principle, because most of them regarded his existence and knowledge of the natural moral law as self-evident truths open to all men through reason alone.  Atheism most of them would have seen as an aberration, an act of unreason.  Nevertheless atheists should also be allowed to express their disbelief as much as other people their beliefs, but not to use the state to impose that disbelief  on other people or everybody.  And this I would say has  been the prevailing view of common sense liberalism down to today.

As a political position the secularist approach  made its first fully-fledged public appearance with the anti-clerical governments of the French Third Republic after 1870.  However, because of France’s large Catholic population at that time, they were not able to go as far as they would have liked.  Nevertheless their interpretation of separation of Church and State initiated the situation we see taking shape today throughout Europe in which religion and its influence are not only to be side-lined but as far as possible excluded from public life on the grounds that religion is inimical to the common good. Atheism--- as a quasi state  religion --- is to have the privileged position which the principle of separation of Church and State was initially introduced to prevent.

In England, for instance, we have a growing number of cases of Christian women being dismissed from their jobs for wearing a small cross or crucifix round their necks while at work and their dismissal receiving approval from the judiciary.  One is tempted to ask why if devout atheists have a supposed right not to be offended by seeing religious symbols in public places, devout believers should not have an equal right not to be offended by their exclusion? 

It is the same with recent legislation forcing Christian institutions to embrace practices which go against the members consciences, such as collaborating in abortions or allowing the adoption of orphans by homosexuals.  Both these are violations  of a once fundamental enlightenment principle the “right of free association”.

                                         

Vatican II and the Future

                                                           

Were the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mistaken then in trying to come to terms with the Enlightenment and its more dedicated adherents?  There are Catholics who would say Yes, but on this point I have to disagree.  The work, I believe, was necessary for the sake of all those members of the Church, who in many respects are children of the enlightenment without knowing it.  It was also necessary for the sake of the waves of immigrants pouring into the western countries in search of  the jobs which their native countries are unable to provide.  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 underrated, they are still a minority, even a small minority.  Of the millions of western or westernized 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 Catholic magisterium. Their main weakness has always been a defective or inadequate philosophy of nature and 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 being able to say what they honestly think, 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 “good intentions” and  “caring concern”,  and increasingly incapable of handling the social problems their religion of ‘man aspiring to be God’ is already producing? 

It is no longer a question of governments coping with unforeseen  consequences, but of governments actively promoting policies regardless of the consequences.  The family is not the only thing 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.

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 could end by being in its own way as spiritually and culturally damaging as the Soviet system.  It will probably not  be as painful, but seen in the light of eternity, it could be as harmful.

So there is hope that as secularists, like their forebears during the French revolution, become 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 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.  And the same can be said of secularists.   We have to have their good in mind too.  Anything that can make the path back to reason and common sense easier for them is to be commended. 

Note from Philip Trower

In this article on the Enlightenment I say that as a rival ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ there has been nothing like it in the history of the Church since the rise of Islam. At the same time because of the borrowed Christian elements, I also describe it as a Christian heresy. Pius VII, around 1805 or so, even went so far as to say that:

Liberty, equality and fraternity, rightly understood could have a place in a Catholic context. In my opinion, contemporary secularism can be seen in both lights. It is a quasi-Christian heresy of the magnitude of Islam.

This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission. www.thewandererpress.com

Copyright © Philip Trower 2017

Version: 28th January 2017


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