(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Archbishop Charles Chaput’s forthcoming book Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (Henry Holt and Co.). The book will be available February 21.)
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen 1:3-4)
Light is the beginning of creation. Light grows our food. Light helps us see. Light warms our faces in the summer.
Dark is a very different matter. In Scripture, the “outer darkness” is a place we want to avoid. The dark, even when it’s thick with silence and scents and romance, can also be thick with carnivores—a fact that imprinted itself very early on our species’ memory. Put simply: Light is good. Dark is not. Thus, moderns speak of the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment, the light of reason and the darkness of ignorance. It’s hard to imagine anyone confusing the two. But given the right circumstances, odd things can happen.
Here’s an example. It’s night. We’re walking down a corridor. The lights are intense, so we squint. Then they suddenly go black—all of them. For a few moments, we’re blind. After all, it’s dark. But just as our eyes adjust to the dark, the lights snap back on. And now we’re squinting again. The jolt from bright to pitch black to bright again is a vividly conscious experience.
Now imagine we’re walking down the same hallway. This time, the lights dim slowly. This time, we hardly notice. By corridor’s end, the dark is so deep we can barely see the signage on the walls. But the change has been subtle, the fading of the light gradual, and we humans are adaptable. We can adjust. In fact, we can survive in the dark a long time if we need to or choose to. We can even learn to prefer it …
That, arguably, is the story of our past three hundred years—not a history of the whole world, but a history of our world, the singular Western world that shaped the modern era, the world we call our own. Consider the following:
In his masterwork After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre starts with a thought experiment. It goes like this. Picture a world where a massive, unforeseen disaster has wrecked the environment. The survivors blame science. Mobs lynch physicists. Books are burned. Instruments are trashed. Labs and computer networks are torn to pieces. Teaching and practicing science are banned. Even the memory of science is attacked, and where possible, stamped out.
Time passes. Eventually, enlightened minds try to resurrect science. But all they have to work with are pieces; the half-memories, partial theories, and fragments of a much larger (but lost) organic body of knowledge. The new scientists forge ahead anyway. They speak confidently and get some fine results. They use many of the same words crucial to the old science—neutrino, mass, velocity, and so on—but without fully understanding them. They also push competing and incompatible ideas about what the old science was and meant, and how science should be conducted. They share a common vocabulary. But the same words mean different things. The result is disorder—a disorder no one can heal or even adequately recognize, because no one possesses the older body of knowledge that has been lost.
For MacIntyre, the point of the fairy tale is simple. Today, “in the actual world we inhabit,” he writes, “the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science” in the fantasy world he describes. “We continue to use many of the key expressions” of traditional morality, but “we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” In effect, “the language and the appearances of morality persist, even though the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed.”
What that means is this: The moral conflicts that permeate our public policy debates are endless and irresolvable because our culture no longer has a rational, mutually accepted way of getting to moral agreement. The answer of the liberal state (including our own) to these stubborn disputes is to remove morality to the private sphere. But that course of government is itself a value judgment, a morally loaded act disguised as neutrality. All law and all public policy embody someone’s idea of what we ought to do, including the notion that we “ought” to keep personal moral beliefs out of public debates.
The underlying assumption of our public discourse today is that facts and values are radically distinct. “The plane crashed” is a statement of fact, and therefore “real.” Crash evidence is tangible. Nobody can argue with debris. On the other hand, “Don’t kill the disabled” is a statement of value. It’s an expression of opinion and sentiment—so the logic goes—and therefore not “real” or “true” in the same solid sense. For example, the importance of protecting disabled persons is an admirable and widely shared view; surely that’s obvious. But some people might disagree. Some people might argue quite sincerely that disabled persons are a waste of precious resources, and we’d be better off without them. Some people did argue that way in Germany in the last century, with great effect.
Of course, for most of us, murdering the disabled, starving the poor, or deliberately targeting innocent civilians in war is an appalling idea; a crime against humanity. But apparently sucking the brains out of unborn children, or trading in their body parts, is not so appalling. It may even be “good,” because we already do it. We not only do it, but we also build a fortress of pious-sounding chatter about reproductive rights to surround and bless it.
This is the kind of obscenity that comes from reducing a nation’s politics to a clash of allegedly equal values. What it masks is a transfer of power from proven traditions of moral wisdom to whoever can best lobby the media, the courts, Congress, and the White House. It’s the reason MacIntyre warned that today’s barbarians “are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.”