The Church and Modernity

It is an uneasy relationship, especially since many aspects of the “modern age” run counter to Christian thinking and living.

(CNS photo/Mike Crupi
(CNS photo/Mike Crupi)

(CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)The great sin of journalists is in their reducing everything under the sun to a subject suitable to mere journalism. Their coverage of the national debate over which reproductive mechanisms and procedures conscientiously objecting institutions ought to be made to pay for under the new national health care plan is a conspicuous example of their presumptive shallowness.   

The journalistic treatment of the controversy opposes an ancient reactionary institution (the Church of Rome), retrograde in its moral teaching (in particular where human sexuality is concerned), with a postmodern world in urgent need of an updated moral system in conformance with our enlightened times. The formulation reflects the starkly simplistic terms in which journalists view the world, allowing them to present current events and the history from which they issue as a morality play cut free from a fixed moral code.

Pull it inside out, however, and you have quite a different proposition to deal with, this one on the metaphysical rather than the political level and as such entirely unsuitable to journalism and the journalistic mind. The revised formulation goes as follows. An upstart, materialist, shallow, ignorant, willful, and willfully misinformed age has thrown down the gauntlet at the feet of an Institution founded two millennia ago by God Himself, Who has been infusing it with divine Grace and understanding ever since. If Church teachings no longer correspond with the social conditions of our Brave New World, then we need to compare the circumstances of the building Utopia with those of traditional Christian societies (the sniveling Old World) in previous ages to enable us to see where and how the new world is wanting. It is for the modern age, in other words, to be judged by the Church, not the Church by the modern age. 

Evelyn Waugh’s Scott-King had it bang on when he asserted that it would be a very wicked thing indeed to prepare a boy for the modern world. I, for one, should like to see how our marveled media would deal with the reversed argument. Perhaps they would have to give up journalism for a spell and take a sabbatical at a good Catholic college where they might be taught to prepare themselves for a better world than the one they know only too well.

Secularists, anti-Catholics, and the lately acclaimed “social justice” Catholics insist that the circumstances and conditions of modern life have a logic of their own that traditional moralists need to recognize and reconcile themselves with. They believe that at stake in the battle over the Obamacare mandate are human decency, the psychological health and social well-being of families and “nontraditional relationships,” social and political order and economic efficiency, generalized human happiness, international peace, and the survival of “the Planet.” (Flannery O’Connor, an old-line, old fashioned Catholic who died in 1964, would have begged to disagree. The Church’s teaching on contraception, she thought, was among Her most spiritual doctrines. Practice restraint, she suggested, or be prepared to live piled deeper and deeper on top of one another, until the trumpet soundeth at last.)

The new social circumstances modernists point to in respect of sexual mores and the medical practices related to them are largely shaped by the possibilities offered by modern medical technology, a product of the capitalist industrial system that began to develop toward the end of the 18th century. Modern apologists for this system seem to believe that industrialism arose as a kind of evolutionary force—a natural, not a human force—with whose problematical results a previously passive humanity must now cope willy-nilly or suffer, perhaps even perish. The human species has reached a crisis of survival (they argue) produced by overpopulation and the resulting unsustainable human “footprint” upon the natural world, a situation that dispenses us from every form of morality but a survivalist one. Why (they wonder) can’t the Church recognize the obvious by giving Her blessing to contraception and even abortion as necessary tools, handily provided us by industrial technology, to reduce and limit what Dickens’s Scrooge called the unwanted surplus population? Listening to these people, you might conclude industrialism from the beginning was a vast Popish plot to breed and support as many billions of people as possible for the purpose of hastening the Apocalypse, and after it the New Heaven and the New Earth.

Yet it was their ancestors, the early modernists and modernizers, who fixed their will on applied science, industrialism, high finance–the whole Promethean project. The Church had nothing do with the business. In medieval times She condemned usury, and since that era She has produced a large and luminous literature expressing Her skeptical and substantial unease with the spiritual motive behind industrialism and the results of industrial development in regard to society and to the individual. Rerum novarum, issued by Leo XIII in 1891, represented the summation to date of the Vatican’s response to the industrial economy. In the early 20th century, the Catholic authors Deny Fahey, G.R. Stirling Taylor, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Vincent McNabb, Amintore Fanfani, and Arthur J. Penty, among others, developed a critique of industrialism that was more or less the last word in Catholic intellectual circles until the last decades of the 20th century, when a small number of Catholic apologists for liberal capitalist-industrial democracy, many of them working according to a substantial political agendum inspired in Washington D.C. rather than Vatican City.

The rise of industry (mechanized mass production) was a virtually inevitable development from the historical peculiarity of the Western mind and the civilization it produced. There is no possibility of a deliberate reversal of the career of global industrialization, though it is surely possible that it may in time run down or even destroy itself through technological warfare, the depletion of natural resources, or other means. And it is impossible to deny the many and profound benefits of modern industrial society, without which life for most of us is simply unimaginable. Yet industrialism, an almost boundlessly creative force, has been a fundamentally destructive one as well. Thirty years ago, the nature writer Edward Abbey, replying to the often heard objection that we cannot be selective in our approach to scientific discovery and technological development, warned that the survival of the human race depends ultimately upon just such conscientiously considered selectivity.

However that may be, the moral law, like scientific inquiry, has a life and a direction of its own, and so do the human beings who are at once subject to that law and sensitive to it. It is not beyond the power of the human intellect to perceive that certain ends to which industrial science is put—for instance, forms of genetic tampering such as human stem cell research, cloning, and chemical contraception–are in fact immoral ones, and that these ends ought therefore never to be realized. The alternative is to conclude from modern technique’s inherent capabilities that human nature needs to be re-conceptualized and the basic moral code of untold millennia rewritten to conform with the convenience and desires of an historically unprecedented, and perhaps unsustainable and transitory, society. That conclusion is as unrealistic in objective terms as it is morally monstrous.

The truth is that the Church is very far from having been, for the past two centuries and a half, industrialism’s single solitary critic. Indeed, secular liberals’ enthusiasm for advances in industrial medical technique that have contributed to sexual freedom (the pill) and what is called personal fulfillment ( in vitro fertilization, design fetuses, sex-change surgery) has been balanced by their condemnation of the damage industrial development has wrought on nature (especially, nowadays, the global climate) and on rural life; on society (the exploitation of the working class, child labor, the growth of slums, family disintegration, increased social and economic inequality); on the individual (atomization, alienation); on political institutions (the corruption of money); on business and financial institutions (concentration, monopoly); on craftsmanship and general cultural excellence, and so on. The Church, by contrast with liberalism, has not been selective in Her critique of the fundamentally unnatural and artificial civilization with which the industrial system has replaced traditional societies around the world.  She has not reserved Her strictures for what in the early 20th century, early in the sexual revolution, was called “the sex question.” Rather, She has been from the beginning a keen observer of the progress of industry and of its manifold effects on everything that pertains to the kind of existence She considers to be genuinely human existence.

The moral code divinely transmitted to the human race is an absolute code, immune to time, refinement, and alteration, however convenient it might be. Yet when liberals and secularists argue that traditional prohibitions such as those against contraception, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, divorce, remarriage, and lending money at whatever interest the market will bear are obsolete do not conform with the needs and exigencies of the present era, they are, more often than not, speaking the plain truth.

For example: Owing to industrial technique, millions—if not indeed billions—of human beings who in the absence of modern medicine would not have survived infancy have lived to raise the global population to above seven billion people. Whether this is a “sustainable” number or not, the probability is, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, that the population will continue to grow until it becomes, by any ecological measure, truly unsustainable. Human reason argues that population control, by means of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia, are, or soon will be, necessary to avoid population or environmental collapse, perhaps both. Therefore, reason says, to rescue the planet (as well as, incidentally, ourselves), one or more of these measures is required. But Christian Catholics think, or rather they are expected to think, otherwise. They are not allowed by their Faith to be complicit in population control (other than by natural means), no matter the consequences of uncontrolled growth to civilization and to the world itself. Liberals insist that no one (not even a pig-headed Catholic) deserves to be placed in a situation confronting him with such a choice: Transgress the moral law or perish in a series of mass suicides. But they—we, all of us—do find ourselves in that situation; a situation we may all agree to some extent is an unnatural, certainly un unprecedented, one. The unnatural aspect, however, directly reflects the unnatural nature of the industrial system we adopted three centuries ago, to which the divine law itself is naturally unconformable.

Another example: Industrialization, by transferring the vast majority of Western (and now, increasingly, non-Western populations) from feudal or family farms to the cities where family members find their separate jobs in the factories and offices of businesses and corporations, has destroyed the pattern of small familial economies and the traditional cooperative family structure itself. The inevitable result of the transition has been the gradual erosion and eventual breakdown of the family as an institution through divorce, the alienation of children from one parent or the other, the necessity for the mother to find work, single parenthood, remarriage or cohabitation, and other dysfunctional miseries. The widespread destruction of the family (today more the rule than the exception) inevitably replaced traditional sexual roles and sexual practices with the nontraditional ones that predominate in modern societies today. Among other distortions, children are no longer economic assets, as they were in agrarian societies; they are potential economic liabilities instead. Similarly the mother has become, more often than not, an essential secondary—sometimes even the primary–breadwinner. Advocates of replacing the traditional moral code with a nontraditional one are absolutely justified in concluding that this would be the logical response to the new social realities, to which the second is arguably better suited—more practical, more convenient; altogether more desirable, in fact. Yet the logic at work here is the logic of the industrial system, not the logic of human nature.

The industrial revolution is obviously irreversible by concerted political action. No political means imaginable exists to draw modern civilization into agreement with man as he comes from the hand of his Creator, modern society into an approximation of its pre-industrial self. There seems to be a consensus in this active pragmatic era that understanding is not only futile but even potentially harmful unless it can be translated into direct and comprehensive action. This prejudice overlooks entirely the human benefits, intellectual and spiritual, that a clear awareness of our situation can be made to produce. Ignorance may be bliss. It is certainly the result of apathy and the deadly sin of sloth. To be satisfied to live in ignorance is to be content to live as something less than human. Whereas who knows how far, with the grace of God, the principled and heroic awareness of reality may lead us?

Secularists are careless from where they take their logical systems, so long as those systems work (or appear to work) for them and for their interests. If they are persuadable by right reason at all, it can only be in the relatively distant future. Catholics today should ponder the keen remonstrance of Montaigne, who wrote, in “Apology for Raymond Sebond,”

If this ray [of Christian divinity] touched us at all, it would appear all over: not only our words, but also our works would bear its light and luster. Everything that came from us would be seen to be illuminated by this noble brightness. We ought to be ashamed that in human sects there never was a partisan, whatever difficult and strange thing his doctrine maintained, who did not to some extent conform his conduct and his life to it; and so divine and celestial a teaching as ours marks Christians only by their words…. Our religion is made to extirpate vices; it covers them, fosters them, incites them.

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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 18 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at