Subordinating the Sacred to the Secular
By James Kalb
In recent decades the Church has softened her public witness for the truth of the Catholic vision of things. That tendency became much stronger after the Second Vatican Council, and can even claim some support from statements such as the address of Bl. Paul VI at the Council’s close.
The change has corresponded to a tendency in the world at large toward ever more thorough integration of all aspects of life into a single commercial and bureaucratic system. Education, childcare, livelihood, support in time of need, scholarly study, popular entertainment, high culture, and the channels of public information have all lost independence and become ever more a part of that system. The tendency has made Church teaching, which is independent of the system and in many ways finds no place within it, seem irrelevant, incomprehensible, and even antisocial. To speak to the modern world in a way it can understand, it seems, the Church has to adapt to it in ever more radical ways, and downplay certain aspects of her teaching altogether.
The triumph of the current form of society has entrenched itself through what are now praised as diversity and tolerance, which deprive social connections other than commerce and bureaucracy of definition and functionality. Respect for endlessly diverse religions, lifestyles, family forms, and cultures, and celebration of their diversity, means none of them have any authority. They become a matter of individual choice, with every choice as good as any other and all subject to change at any moment. To reject that view, or to act in a way that fails to conform to it, is to be subject to social, economic, and legal sanctions as a bigot.
The Internet has enhanced the tendency toward the tyranny of a single system of opinion and the functional unification of all aspects of life. The diversity of voices it presents, with each as readily available as any other, turns views that lack the backing of recognized public authority into a sort of white noise that falls into irrelevance, while the ease of connection makes the informal relationships that are the stuff of everyday life interchangeable, transitory, and individually undependable. It is not the connection but the system through which we connect that we rely on.
The result of such tendencies is that all social standards and relationships outside those defined by the legal and economic system disappear as distinct realities and become a matter of how particular individuals happen to feel and act at a particular moment. Outside that system there is nothing stable enough to count socially—and therefore, since man is social, to count seriously—as reality. All else is mere opinion, or rather feeling, since opinion claims to be about truth, and must therefore connect itself to public objectivity in some way.
That is the reason for the “culture wars.” Traditional morality had to do with goods and loyalties associated with a variety of concerns and arrangements—family, religion, particular culture—that are now rejected as institutions and treated as matters of pure individual choice. The change in moral standards results from that rejection. Instead of love of country, which depended on the concept of a particular people and their land, we have love of universal equality, or perhaps attachment to America as a team or business enterprise; and instead of the ideal of chastity, which was intrinsically related to the family as an institution, we have the right to sexual expression, with abortion—which now counts as sacred ground—as its backup.
A comprehensive trend throughout Western society can hardly leave the Church untouched. Recent statements of the German bishops present the results with special clarity, in line with the German gift for thinking things through in a way based on fundamental principle. As those statements reveal and Archbishop Georg Gänswein recently observed, German churchmen see the Church not as something specially instituted by God and at odds with the world, but as one social institution among many, the main value of which lies in its contribution to the common social project. So the Church too must assimilate to the tendency of things and become fully integrated with the global system of commerce and bureaucracy.
Nor is that situation at odds with prestigious theological understandings of the basic nature of Catholicism. Professor Thomas Stark notes that the thought of Walter Kasper, a representative figure in the German church and now a leading figure in the Church as a whole, makes history “the ultimate framework of all reality.” On such a view the Church can only be the Church of what’s happening now: there are no eternal verities outside that for her to concern herself with.
That view seems shocking when we consider how radical it is, but even outside Germany public statements of the most influential Catholic leaders seem ever more in line with the secular progressive project and ever less inclined to push “culture war” positions. It seems, then, that the Germans are continuing their historical role as intellectual leaders in the modern development of Christianity, as in other aspects of modernity. To all appearances they simply say clearly, justify theoretically, and implement consistently what other responsible officials accept or soon will accept as a practical matter.
Nonetheless, the Gospel doesn’t say the world redeems the Church, but the opposite. Nor does it say the world will end when it evolves to the Omega Point through the logic of history and the policies adopted by responsible officials. It says it’ll end when those things lead to catastrophe. And in any event even the most careful systematic thought can lead us astray. The goodness of what it gives us depends on the truth and completeness of its premises, and Aristotle tells us that a small error at the beginning can lead to big problems very quickly. That perhaps is why, as Clifton Fadiman noted, “the German spirit has the talent to make no mistakes except for the very largest.”
In that regard, as others, the Germans may lead the way but they have many followers. People today want to build a technocratic world, and the Germans simply do it better than the rest, engineering a system that is apparently so functional and well thought out that it offers no flaw through which anyone can escape other than a genius, a madman, or a fool. (In fairness, they have produced as many such people as anyone.)
Nonetheless, it seems that they—along with other moderns—have overlooked something.