In a book written just prior to becoming Pope called Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger describes the present day crisis of faith as coming about from a “collapse of the old religious certainties.” This collapse affects more than just faith, but leads to a total “collapse of human values” (Truth and Tolerance, p.140). So connected are these religious certainties with our conception of human values, that we treat certain truths of the Christian ethos as self-evident. Or at least, we did. What we are witnessing is not just the death of a Christian culture, but also, what one author has called, the collapse of the self-evident.
The Enlightenment and the Collapse of the Self-Evident
Those who have been victimized by the project of the Enlightenment, the same project which promised to liberate reason from the constraints of religious truth, have seen reason collapse instead. Rather than liberating reason, it has enslaved it to feeling and the scientific method. There are no longer first principles, truths that we all hold as self-evident, from which reason and society might proceed. Freedom reigns supreme, unfettered even by reason itself and it is every man for himself in this brave new world. It seems that the only self-evident truth is that there are no self-evident truths. Descartes’ skepticism has won the day—we now know nothing for sure.
Nevertheless, this is our reality and a failure to adapt to it only exacerbates the problem. For those who desire to spread the Christian ethos they must come to accept the consequences of the “collapse of the self-evident.” When we encounter another person who fails to acknowledge what is self-evident we assume that they are either stupid or wicked. We assume that they are either unable or unwilling to see the truth. They are the swine upon which we should not cast our pearls and we counter with indifference and/or hostility.
Our Lord’s admonition regarding our pearls and the world’s swine is not without merit, but we miss a great opportunity when we fail to grasp that, in a culture in which the self-evident has collapsed, they may be neither stupid nor wicked. In fact, in Christian charity, we should assume they are simply ignorant. Rather than being, as we should all be, slaves to the self-evident, they become slaves to the fashionable. There was a time when the Christian ethos was the fashionable, but those days are long past.
An illustration will help to drive the point home. Many Christians find themselves absolutely flummoxed by those who support abortion. The self-evident truth that acted as a cornerstone for our country, that no one may directly kill an innocent person, makes it practically self-evident that abortion is immoral. Therefore we assume that abortion supporters are either stupid or wicked, marking them as enemies to be conquered rather than potential allies to be won over. It is no longer self-evident what a person is. Even if we are able to grasp that, then we run into a second “self-evident” roadblock, innocence. What is an innocent person; one that poses no threat to my well-being or one that does not deliberately seek to harm me, or what? That a child in the womb is innocent should be self-evident, the fact that so many people can’t see it is because of the collapse of the self-evident.
Every pre-Christian culture had abortions. This was not because they were less enlightened but because they were pre-Christian. Likewise with the dignity of women, slavery, euthanasia, and nearly every other societal ill. It is only in light of the Christian conception of man that we can even speak of the value of every human being. It is the fact that we are made in the image of God and worth enough for the Son of God to die for that we can even conceive of human dignity. Throw out those two truths and the collapse of the self-evident is sure to follow.
We argue and argue, but our voice is lost because no one understands us. We are, quite literally yelling into the wind. Sure individual conversions still occur, but nothing on the massive scale that the Church is used to. And that is because the smattering of individual conversions cannot sustain a Christian culture.
The Necessity of a Catholic Culture
Our Lord won a grace for the ignorant to see the truth on the Cross—“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” But His Mystical Body, His visual presence on earth has been given a grace and a task. This is the same grace and task that the early Church was given to “instruct the ignorant” through the foundation of a decidedly Catholic culture. It started with a tightly knit sub-culture but before too long blossomed into an entire culture. Constantine may have “legitimized” Christianity by adopting it as the state religion, but he was only acknowledging what every Roman already knew—the empire, thanks in no small part to a lifeless pagan worship, was in steady decline with the most vital part of society being the Church. I am not calling into question the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion, there is no good historical reason to doubt that, only pointing out that it also turned out that a healthy Church has a unifying capacity in society, even if not everyone is Christian. What follows from this is the rise of a Christian culture.
The Church may not be in favor of divorce, but they must finally admit that the marriage of the Church with liberalism is a failed union. We have been trying for over a century to show how the Church is compatible with liberalism rather than showing how liberalism is compatible with the Church (or mostly how it is not). Pope Leo XII may have been ahead of his time in declaring the heresy of Americanism, but he wasn’t wrong.
Culture, as the liberals (not in the liberal vs conservative sense, but in the sense of liberalism of which both liberals and conservatives are a part) know is built from the bottom up in the education of the young. Why have Catholic schools adopted the liberal model and dropped the classical liberal arts model? Catholic education was a battlefield in the 1950s when the Supreme Court put parochial schools in its sight. Rather than continuing the fight, the Church schools simply adopt the liberal model. There is no longer a uniquely Catholic education, except among a very small remnant.
Likewise, we are urged to call our Congressmen to protect the Dreamers, many of whom are Catholic immigrants, from being deported. But if we are honest, they would probably be better off in their Catholic homeland rather than having their eternal salvation at stake as here. Oppose Trump’s wall? Fine, but how about building a wall around these young people so that they retain their Catholicism and not Americanism. There was a time when there was enough of a Catholic culture to sustain many Catholic immigrants.
The examples could be multiplied, but the point remains that until we remain committed to building a Catholic culture, we will lose, not just the culture war, but eternal souls. The collapse of the self-evident leaves many blinded by the fashionable and unable to see the truths of the Faith as livable and coming from the hand of a loving Father.