“How were we able to drink up the
sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do
when we unchained the earth from its sun?” Friedrich Nietzsche
“Men have forgotten God; that’s
why all this has happened.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn
What lies behind
the radically anti-Catholic form of society to which we are tending, one in
which Catholic beliefs count as patently delusional and Catholic moral doctrine
as an outrage that must be suppressed? The power and durability of the tendency
show that some basic issue is in play, while the difficulty of opposing it
suggests that the issue is somehow hidden, so that people have trouble
grappling with it directly.
In fact, the
issue is the most basic of all: God or no God. What we see around us are the
results of excluding God from how we understand the world.
The very size of
the issue makes it hard to see clearly. It’s difficult to stand back and get
perspective on something that changes absolutely everything. Western people are
mostly practical atheists who see God as an add-on to a world that can pretty
much get by without him. Everyday habits and practicalities carry life forward,
so ultimate beliefs seem beside the point. When problems do come upwhen our
neighbor leaves his wife or starts picking pockets or whateverit is easy to
find particular causes: it’s because of the economy, it’s what people see on
TV, the guy’s got personal issues, and anyway there have always been problems
and religious people are no different from anyone else.
So the link
between ultimate causes and their effects becomes obscured, and people who
insist on a connection between religion and how we live together seem like
cranks. Still, man is rational in the long run, and the basic principles he
accepts eventually take hold and determine actions and attitudes. We deal with
life as we see it, and how we see it is determined by what we think is real.
Since God is the ens realissimum, the most real being, getting rid of him
For example, most
of us want to deal with life reasonably. To do so we need to be able to stand
back and ask ourselves whether what we think and do really make sense. And to
do that we have to see the world as ordered not only physically, but
intellectually and morally, so that some beliefs and purposes make more sense
than others by standards we don’t invent but are implicit in the way things
are. That creates problems if we take God out of the picture. We can’t make
sense of the world if the world does not make sense, but why should it? Why
shouldn’t it be blank incomprehensible chaos?
response, to Catholics anyway, is that the world exists and makes sense because
ideas, meanings, and intentions went into its making: “The heavens show forth
the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). There are influential people who do not agree,
however, and public discussion has to be based on what such people generally
are willing to treat as knowable and real. In an age that rejects God in favor
of physical demonstration, and rejects natural moral law for the same reasons
it rejects God, the knowable and real turn out to be the objects of modern
natural sciencethe things that can be observed, measured, and described
But if that’s
what’s treated as real, there’s no place for purpose or meaning. That’s a
problem: if the world does not itself make sense, to make sense of it is to
falsify it. Indeed, if the world is purely physical, we can’t even talk about
it. Speech is something within the world, and if it’s purely physical it can’t
have non-physical properties like “meaning” or “aboutness.” (See philosopher of
science Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of such issues in his “Disenchanted
Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” and Ed Feser’s comments on same.)
These areto put
it mildlymajor problems. We necessarily view our speech as meaningful, our
thoughts as directed toward knowledge, and our actions as guidedat least
somewhatby reason. So what do we do? If neither God nor natural law gives us a
setting that is morally and intellectually ordered, so that speech, knowledge,
and rational action make sense within it, we’ll use main force, and try to
impose order and meaning on a purely physical world through our own will. We’ll
say that the meaning of the world is the meaning we give it, and its order is
the intellectual and practical order we establish to control and shape it to
our wishes. In other words, we’ll make will and technology the supreme
principles of life and thought.
So it’s Man the
Maker instead of God the Creator. We manufacture meaning and order as well as
frying pans. Not surprisingly, the substitution of man for God causes problems.
If there is no natural order and purpose, because nature lacks those features,
the meaning and order we impose on the world will be our own arbitrary
inventions. There is nothing to draw on that can make them otherwise. At the
level of politics, that means tyranny. Nothing has an intrinsic order and
meaning, so those in power invent their own and force them on everything,
silencing anyone who spoils the fun by pointing out the emperor’s nakedness.
Hence totalitarianism, which is not so much government by terror as government
that recognizes no standard outside its own will and purposes: Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello
Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything within the State, nothing outside
the State, nothing against the State”).
liberalism and its consequences. Liberals note that if no purpose makes special
sense then all purposes must be equally good. The obvious result, since there’s
nothing but force and fraud to say which purposes should prevail, is a war of
all against all that ends only when one faction wins and forces its preferences
on everyone. To avoid that result, liberals propose an alternative: we want our
own purposes to be accepted as worthy of support, simply because they are our
purposes, so we agree to say that all other purposes are equally worthy. The
result is a social contract that takes equal freedom as the highest standard,
and makes giving everybody what he wants, as much and as equally as possible,
the highest political goal.
liberal state expresses that contract. It tries to give everybody what he
wants, so it is thought to promote all good things, and outside itself it sees
only war, oppression, and ignorance. Liberals believe it delivers on its
promises, to a large and increasing extent, so they find it monstrous and
incomprehensible to reject it. Since it is based on equality and technological
thinking, it is considered the only legitimate and rational form of political
association. It is therefore, people believe, our duty to spread it throughout
the world, and in our own society to develop its principles and apply them in an
ever more detailed and comprehensive way.
But does it work?
Does the present-day liberal state succeed in avoiding the totalitarianism that
seems implicit in rejecting an authority above human will? Does it avoid the
nihilism implicit in rejection of knowable objective goods? And if it respects
everybody’s purposes, how about the purposes of Catholics? On the face of it
there are obvious problems: how can purposes be given equal status when they
conflict? How can equal freedom be the basis of government, when government
means command? And assuming there really are basic problems with present-day
secular liberalism, so that it doesn’t work as advertised, why do people
believe in it, how does it really work, and what do we do about it?
Those are big questions. When influential
jurists, theorists, commentators, and politicians insist that Christian moral
doctrine is fundamentally immoral, something is askew and it’s important to
figure out what it is. We started the exploration last month by discussing problems
with the secular liberal conception of freedom.
There’s much more to do, though. I’m not going to run out of topics for columns
any time soon.