Editor’s note: The following is the full text of the inaugural Religion and Public Life Lecture delivered today at the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University.
We live in complicated times. It’s easy to be angry and distressed. Earlier this month a friend sent me an email with a message of exactly four syllables: “Worse is better.” He was quoting a famous line from Vladimir Lenin. And his message did have some merit. The worse things get, the more painful they become. The more painful they become, the more urgently we ask why. And when we know the reason “why” behind our troubles, we can start to fix them.
But there are two problems with the Lenin quote. First, it’s not clear that he ever actually said those words. And second, even if he did say them, they’re not true.
Parents of the students massacred last week in Florida don’t think “worse is better.” They know what worse means. It’s unbearable. Murders in Chicago have been getting worse for years. They’re now so common that the rest of the country sees them as routine. Worse is not better. And one of the tasks of the Church, and each of us as individual believers, is to live and work in a way that does help to make the world around us better. What that means and how we do it are questions I hope we can talk about this afternoon.
The subtitle of my remarks is “faith, state and society in a new world.” Each of those categories – faith, state and society — is important. They’re all closely connected in thinking about the shape of our country’s future. But I want to reverse their order. I’ll start with some thoughts on society and end with the role of faith, and especially the mission of the Church. The reason is simple. There’s no healing without a good diagnosis. If we claim that we need the Church as a source of healing and hope, then we need to show what our culture’s illness is, and why. So let’s turn our focus to that work.
We’ll begin with a fact. The United States is the most powerful market economy in the world. We can probably agree on that. And most of us would probably agree that since World War II, American democratic capitalism has reshaped much of the world; in effect, created a new world of political and economic relationships.
We can also agree that Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, is a valuable addition to Catholic teaching. I think that’s obvious. It builds on the great talks and writings of Benedict XVI about the environment. It extends the body of Catholic thought on the beauty and stewardship of creation in some important ways. But one of its vulnerabilities to critics is this. It’s seen by a lot of people – decent and ethical people — as undervaluing the good that global market economies have done worldwide. So let’s just admit that.
Capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions people out of poverty. It’s radically improved their standard of living. It’s increased their opportunities and lifespans. These are very good things. Historically unique things. They’re facts, not propaganda. Unless we acknowledge such facts, unless we voice some real gratitude for the human ingenuity they express, we rob ourselves of the credibility to criticize the damage that market economies have also done. That damage is real and often very serious. It goes well beyond wounding the physical environment. And we don’t need to be economists to see how it happens.
Seventy years ago the economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote a book called The Great Transformation. For readers like me, and maybe others in this room, it’s a very dense work. But it’s also very important. Polanyi showed how the industrial revolution disrupted and reorganized the entire fabric of English life. It revolutionized the structure of the British economy. That much was obvious. But in doing so, it also reshaped every other aspect of the nation’s culture — from family relations, to politics and education, to the use of time, to patterns of thought and behavior.
The same thing is happening right here, in our own country, in our own time and space. A consumer market economy tends to commodify everything and recast all relationships as transactional. In practice, it depersonalizes a culture by commercializing many of our routine human interactions. It also very easily breeds a practical atheism by revolving our lives around the desire and consumption of new things.
In our own case, the trigger has been the microchip and everything useful that comes from it – the internet, robotics and artificial intelligence, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and a thousand other new tools. My point is, we use our tools, but our tools also use us. They reframe our assumptions, imaginations and appetites. They rewire our relationships with each other and the world around us. And in the process, every major new technology also creates a new class of winners and a new class of losers. Ask your local blacksmith.
So where am I going with this?
Our country is built on change because we’re a nation of immigrants. Change is natural. It’s also healthy, as long as a nation remains linked in some key organic ways with its past. A nation’s identity fractures when it changes so rapidly, so deeply and in so many ways, that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. We’re close to that point as a society right now — if not past it.
I’ll turn 74 in September. In the span of my adult life, the entire landscape of our economy, communications, legal philosophy, science and technology, demography, religious belief, and sexual morality has changed; and not just changed, but changed drastically. In many ways, our world is different in kind from the past, and not just in degree. There’s no way to “un-know” what we’ve learned or experienced, even if we wanted to.
A lot of the changes have been good. Medical progress is just one example. Many of my friends have children with disabilities. The lives of their children are longer and richer precisely because of innovations in medical technology. But it’s also true that the benefits and deficits of change have been very unequally shared. The result has been a deep dislocation in the American sense of stability, security, common purpose, and self.
As a country, we have one of the highest standards of living in history. We also have one of the worst rates of violence, and a growing problem with youth suicide. Wealth increasingly congeals in the educated elite. Meanwhile the gulf between the very rich and everybody else gets deeper and wider annually. The sexual freedom that progressive-minded wealthy people can afford, and which they strongly affirm, is not allowed to interfere with their own pattern of protecting their advantaged position through stable marriages and the best schools for their children.
Meanwhile the lower classes are wrecked by the same sexual license, and – unlike the wealthy — they can’t buy their way out of the consequences. They’re saddled with destroyed marriages, fatherless children, angry and rootless young males, increased poverty and crime, and all the social crippling that results. Philadelphia is one of the premier cities in the most powerful nation on earth. And we still have deep and chronic problems of drugs, unemployment, inadequate schools, and inner city hunger. Hunger, in the United States of America. Think about that for a minute. In my experience, this moment in our country’s history is the most conflicted and divided since the 1960s.
All sorts of bromides are proposed to fix these problems. When our leaders talk about providing a guaranteed family income against poverty, or some form of national “income equality” – as they sometimes do, depending on the party in power — we can be quite sure that it doesn’t mean taking the wealth of the rich to give to everybody else. At least, not in this country. Effective aristocracies don’t work that way. They make other people pay for their ideas. And our merit class – the new aristocracy that actually provides most of our country’s leaders, both progressive and conservative – is very good at masking its own status.
I’m not saying anything new here. Christopher Lasch, George Parkin Grant, Patrick Deneen and others have made some of the same points, earlier and better. So the question then becomes: If our society is really so stressed, why does anything hold together and work? There are two answers to that. Here’s the first. This is a very big country with a lot of good people, a lot of good laws, a lot of good talent, and a very deep well of strong character and virtue. It takes a long time to use that up. Here’s the second answer. The more a civil society splinters and fails, the more government will intrude to keep order and fill in the cracks. And that leads us to some thoughts about politics and the state.
I’d argue that we now have a Donald Trump, at least in part, because we had a Barack Obama. Mr. Trump is a reaction. He’s a gift from the people who felt, or more accurately knew, that they were treated as stupid and irrelevant by both wings of our political leadership class in the last election cycle. In other words, the “basket of deplorables” – and I know quite a few decent people who were lumped in that basket – showed up to vote. So for better or worse, President Trump is what we now have. And the responsibility for that surprise is shared by both our national parties.
Looking back over the past decades, the Obama White House may be the most influential we’ve had since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. But Roosevelt dealt mainly with the economic and administrative structure of the country’s affairs. The Obama White House seemed to go much deeper in seeking to shape the nature of our daily life, on issues ranging from religious liberty to transgender rights. And these issues of course, and others like them, are not morally neutral in the light of Catholic belief.
In a sense, the Obama administration both reflected recent social data trends, and actively encouraged them. Americans who self-identify as atheist, agnostic or having no religious affiliation at all went from 16 percent of the population in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014, barely seven years. The Obama presidency embodied the same, more secular spirit.
That has political and legal implications. Religious liberty is a good example. Religious freedom — as the nation has traditionally understood it — can’t be a major concern for people who don’t respect the importance of religious faith. And human rights, without a grounding in God or some higher moral order, are really just a matter of public consensus. They’re an act of government largesse, dressed up in pious language about human dignity.
The point is, the country we thought we were living in, isn’t the country we’re actually living in now. The administrative state we now have bears little resemblance to the limited republic we had in 1789. Our institutions and civic vocabulary may seem the same. But the underlying facts of power and process are different. Most Americans seem oblivious to the change because nostalgia and distraction prevent us from thinking outside the box of our present reality. That should worry us all, because the social welfare state we seem to like, and the surveillance state we seem to need, more and more overlap.
So where does faith fit in this story?
Some 200 years ago, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that, “Fixed ideas of God and human nature are indispensable to the daily practice of men’s lives.” We human beings have a primal need to organize ourselves around someone or something that provides our lives with meaning. We have an instinct to sacralize some form of authority.
For America’s Founding generation, that authority was the God of the Bible – not just any god, as Tocqueville stressed, but the God of Moses and Jesus Christ. Our humility before a just and personal God is the cornerstone of American ideals of limited government, whether we want to admit it or not. For historians like Crane Brinton, even the Enlightenment and its Deism — which also played a key role in the Founding — were children of Christianity. They could only emerge from a pre-existing Christian context.
The point is, God’s authority ensures human freedom. If our faith in him is weakened or destroyed as a source of authority, we’ll look for another master. In Tocqueville’s words, “If faith be [absent in a man, then] he must serve; and if he [seeks to] be free, he must believe.” Life abhors a vacuum. When God leaves the stage, the state inevitably expands to fill his place. Without the biblical God, we end up in some disguised form of idolatry. And it usually involves politics.
This is why anything that enfeebles the believing community from within is so hurtful, not just for the Church, but also for a culture of true freedom. There are no new paradigms; no new hermeneutical principles; no revolutions in thought; and no possible concordats with the world and its alibis, that can erase the radicalism and liberating beauty of Christian anthropology.
Key to that anthropology is the nature of our sexuality, expressed in the complementarity of male and female, and ordered to new life and mutual support. Human sexuality and relationships have a God-given purpose. That purpose is a source of true freedom and joy. It can’t be changed, or reinterpreted, or medically reimagined away.
This is the truth about who we are as embodied creatures, no matter what our personal confusions or weaknesses might be. We need to affirm that truth for our own sakes, and the sake of our whole society, because the meaning of our humanity depends on it. And while truth spoken without love and patience can be a weapon, not speaking it is a form a theft. Mercy without truth is not mercy.
My hope is that great universities like Villanova will always be jealous in protecting their Catholic identity. And not just protecting it, but asserting it. This isn’t a time for Catholics to be weak or apologetic. It’s not a time to compromise on principle. The witness of faithfully Catholic higher education is vital for the whole public square. This is why scholars like Jessica Murdoch, Mary Hirschfeld, Mark Shiffman and the Humanities faculty, Luca Cottini, Dr. Sheehan herself, and so many others here are so important not just for the Villanova community, but for the life of the wider Church.
Last week, as I was writing these thoughts, I got an email from Charles Camosy, the Fordham theologian and ethicist. I’d like to quote the whole thing here, because it was exceptional. But I’ll share just this brief part. Dr. Camosy wrote:
Ours is a deeply fractured and alienated culture. Many people, especially young people, are desperately looking around for something to ground and claim them. A place to discover and express their true identity.
How should the Church approach such a cultural moment? With confidence. And as a huge opening.
There is a political realignment underway that gives us a new opportunity to be faithful to our traditions and teachings, apart from the idolatries of the secular left or the secular right. Many young people today are looking for precisely the kind of practiced, ancient, comprehensive version of the good that the Church has to offer. One that is not beholden to the political assumptions of their grandparents. They want their house built on solid ground in the midst of a culture that is at sea.
The Church should enter confidently into this fragmented reality — as we have in ages past — not only with a powerful and attractive message of love, non-violence, and special concern for the most vulnerable, but with the goal of giving the culturally homeless a place to call home.
There are some who in this cultural moment would call us to retreat. To capitulate. To make a dramatic shift in our paradigm. To those I respectfully say that you are missing the signs of the times. Far from shrinking from our tradition, far from looking for ways to sidestep the ancient teaching and wisdom revealed by God through the apostles and their successors, it’s clear that this moment calls for us to embrace the gift of the deposit of faith that has been handed down to us, offering it in humility and love to a culture in desperate need.
I can’t improve on that. So I’ll end with just a few final thoughts.
When you get to be my age in this work, you know and understand a lot of things, because you’ve experienced a lot of things and developed your skills accordingly over many years.
But the same experiences that give you a little wisdom and mature judgment can also tend to narrow your ability to recognize new possibilities and solutions. You can end up very good at naming the illness, and explaining its nature and cause, and knowing what doesn’t work in treating it, but not so good at imagining or bringing about a cure. That diagnostic talent still does have value. People need to wake up to the reality of a problem before they can begin to fix it. But the fixing belongs to a different set of faithful eyes and skills – like yours.
We live at a time when science and technology can make the sacramental and supernatural seem implausible. They don’t and can’t disprove God. They render people indifferent to him instead. They make the language of faith incomprehensible. But people still suffer and die — all of us. So do the persons we care for. Which means that all of us, sooner or later, ask the question of why. We have an instinctive need for meaning. People still love, which means we have a deep longing for intimacy, completion in the heart of another, and the fertility of new life. And people still have a need for beauty, which means that beauty has the power to evade the machinery of logic and reach right into the human soul.
The Church is expert in all of these things, and all of these things prevent human affairs, no matter how confused, from becoming permanently inhuman. Augustine would remind us that history is the great destroyer of national illusions and vanities – even the American kind. But it’s also the great wellspring of personal and ecclesial hope. We mustn’t be captured by the world. But we very much need to love all the good in it, serving the people who inhabit it, and inviting them to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. We should never underestimate the power of personal witness. Because, without a living example of love that people can see and follow, truth is just sterile ideas.
What we do as individual believers matters, because our personal witness shapes others; and each of us, as a child of God, is forever. And what we do as communities of Christian friendship matters just as powerfully, because friendship shapes cultures and creates the future. This is why things like Communion and Liberation, Focolare, Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, the Christian Life Movement and similar charisms are so important. They’re a source of renewal in the Church, which is the sustainer of God’s presence in the world.
Leon Bloy, the great French Catholic convert, liked to say that, in the end, the only thing that matters is to be a saint. If we’re willing to listen, the Church has lots of good reasons why people should believe in God, and in Jesus Christ, and in the beauty and urgency of her own mission. But she has only one irrefutable argument for the truth of what she teaches: the personal example of her saints.
So the task tonight, when each of us leaves here, is to begin on that path. And may God guide us all in pursuing it.
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