Peter D. Beaulieu earned a bachelor of architecture degree and a doctorate in urban and regional planning, both from the University of Washington. His career includes a tour as a junior officer in the United States Navy, long public service, serving on the Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese of Seattle, and being a founding member of the G. K. Chesterton Society of Seattle. He is the author of Kristi: So Thin is the Veil (Crossroads, 2006), a meditation on his late wife’s serene path through terminal cancer and Beyond Secularism and Jihad: A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012).
His new book is titled A Generation Abandoned: Why ‘Whatever’ Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, May 2017); it “explores the disruptive cultural events especially of the past half century as these have undermined the confidence of the young in themselves and in civil society, and finally in our place in the universe.”
CWR recently corresponded with Mr. Beaulieu about today’s youth, how social and cultural changes have influence and shaped millennials, the New Evangelization, human ecology, the culture of death, and the upcoming Synod focused on youth and the Church.
CWR: The title of your book is intriguing: “A Generation Abandoned—Why ‘Whatever’ Is Not Enough” (Rowman & Littlefield/Hamilton Books, 2017). What are you getting at and who do you think might pick up this book?
Peter D. Beaulieu: Millennials sometimes confide, finally, that they feel disconnected, lonely and “abandoned”—their word and it’s true. The “tyranny of relativism” and “moral relativism” are terms that apply, but mean something only to those already in the choir. Part of my purpose is to find images and terms that might say things in a new way, especially for the younger generation of “whatever.” It is not convincing to imply or even assert, absolutely, that there are no absolutes. “Does the fireman negotiate with the fire?”
Will young people actually read this book? Possibly, if they are among those who are willing to “un-know” things that we know, but that aren’t actually true. Others who work with young adults should find some hints to fold into their own efforts.
CWR: Given that the culture wars are not yet history, what is different about your book?
Beaulieu: The overall theme is the myth of “social evolution” and the abandonment of the younger generation into the nihilism of identity politics. Discarded is our inborn birthright of more grounded personal worth and the common good. The book beckons a few readers to say maybe nothing more than, “Hey, I never thought of things quite that way before.”
Reliance is placed on real-life, short narratives, mental images and some bits of history that stick. It is not delivered as from a podium. Many of the episodes are unique personal experiences from one who was once younger (a recycled millennial!), from within those signature events that have shaped the past half century: life in the bedroom community that built the first atomic bomb, or the infiltration of boredom into even the shipboard recovery of the first lunar astronauts in the Pacific. After absorbing the message of sexual “readiness” in public schools, media millennial progressives now address the crisis of sexual harassment by proposing clearer signals of extra-marital “consent”, all with the inner moral compass of a fencepost.
CWR: The first chapters begin with “the tiny whispering sound.” What is this?
Beaulieu: The central riddle is how to beckon a sensate world into a reality that includes our birthright—the interior life of the heart in its deepest reaches? Are we really alone or abandoned? The neglected “tiny whispering sound” is heard in the silence noticed by Elijah (or again, Plato) at the head of a cave. It is an Encounter. The opening of informed conscience to make judgments about right conduct is otherwise reduced to the prerogative to simply make private decisions. The true inner voice reminds us of our real selves, as connected with family and other selves, and as embraced by the real and originating common ground we know as God. Modern-day malaise and addictions—aren’t these due less to the lack of therapy than to an even deeper sense of disconnectedness, and our loss of heartfelt belonging?
CWR: You rely on paired ideas or contradictions to put your points in clear relief. Can you give us an example?
Beaulieu: Our prideful scientific age bows into Galileo’s telescope, but then deflects mothers from another real universe visible through the science of ultrasound and fiber optics. Where Galileo saw mountains on the moon, we detect the ridges of real fingerprints on the pre-born child. But as Galileo said to the critics of his time, “nevertheless, it moves.” Or again, where President Kennedy put a man on the moon, not much later another president put an female intern on the Oval Office desk, and then gender-theory president was content to put a man in the girls’ locker room. This book connects the dots.
CWR: You refer to the Big Lie. What is this?
Beaulieu: The Big Lie is mandatory amnesia. It is the political art of leaving disconnected the dots of past decades, all clouded in a Potemkin Village of euphemisms: first the removal of moral reference points, next their word-game substitutes for abortion and euthanasia (etc.), and then broadband gender theory—the progressive undermining of our natural and human world. The task now is less about educating than it’s about the elementary deprogramming.
When asked what he would do first to save his sinking realm, a Chinese emperor said, “I’d restore the meaning of words.” What would move us today to wake from our insipid mess of cultural pottage and say, “Hey, I’ve been lied to; I’ve been cheated. . .” When people get to that point or epiphany, the path ahead is no longer complicated. On a high plane, Etienne Gilson encourages us that “philosophy [in the sense of metaphysics] always buries its undertakers.”
CWR: You highlight recent and formal rulings of the United States Supreme Court.
Beaulieu: The first publicly voted approval of abortion in the world (Washington State, 1970) opened the door to inventive Supreme Court mandates, first endangering all of the unborn, and eventually then corrupting the very idea of marriage and the family (“stereotypical households,” Justice Blackman, 1986). For the upcoming generation, defense of man-and-woman marriage is branded as “homophobic” by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, even as he seems to still concede some philosophical or religious basis for this common sense position. Only weeks before penning his bullying and even fatwa-like majority opinion in Obergefell v Hodges, Kennedy postured that “[The traditional] definition [of marriage] has been with us for millennia, and it’s very difficult for the court to say, oh, well, we know better.” Feint to the right, move to the left…
CWR: The book features historical flashbacks to show that what is often accepted as progressive is actually regressive. Is there any example bearing on Obergefell?
Beaulieu: There’s this on the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France: “…If fiends had set themselves to work to discover a mode most effectually destroying whatever is venerable, graceful or permanent in domestic life, and of obtaining at the same time an assurance that the mischief which it was their object to create should be perpetrated from one generation to another, they could not have invented a more effectual plan than the degradation of marriage into a state of mere occasional cohabitation, or licensed concubinage.” The inventor of the romantic novel, Sir Walter Scott, still detected the non-fiction truth about the late eighteenth century and now the twenty-first.
CWR: Give a vignette that illustrates the younger generations adrift in a cultural meltdown not really of their making.
Beaulieu: In a matter of a few decades we have mainstreamed the routine saline scalding deaths of unborn children, then physician assisted suicide for the old (legalized as an “exemption” from homicide laws), and now for everyone in between, the flippant redefinition of marriage. The baseline question is whether anything is actually real. If yes, then comes the remembrance of differences as between good and evil, and the demand placed on us from within ourselves to know the difference and to no longer pretend “to be like gods” (Gen 3:5).
So here’s a good example. In a Seattle museum one display is the front-page from when the State of Washington in 1970 approved abortion by popular vote (the first time ever). Next to it is a second display. This one reports that in 1994 a Seattle firm became the manufacturer of ultrasound. The text reports that this University of Washington invention has ‘saved countless lives.’” Shown is an ultrasound image (sonogram) of a real child in the womb, but our value-neutral junior-high-school students breeze past the second display without perceiving any contradiction at all. Only this: “that’s cool, really neat.”
CWR: Let’s return to the basic contrast between the “arc of history,” and what you term as the less arbitrary “arc of relations.”
Beaulieu: This is the overall perspective—an ambulatory political consensus at odds with the truth and permanence of human nature and the human person. Much of cutting-edge “social evolution,” or being on the so-called right side of history, is a throwback like a wingless Kiwi, but even a flightless bird does not betray itself. Let’s take the national disgrace of slavery and where we stand now: “[documented in the book] Between the War for Independence and the Civil War, church members from the various denominations had remained generally ambiguous and accepted slavery as ‘not intrinsically wrong.’”
Today, it is abortion and suicide pills for the elderly that are gerrymandered into our mindset as “not intrinsically wrong.” Do we notice the parallel between Black sex slaves in the plantations of the Cotton King south, and now campus newspapers advertising fees to be paid to female students who sell out to egg im-plantation and child harvesting?
CWR: Over half way through the book you switch from the false messaging of a “culture of death” to a more “human ecology.” What is this?
Beaulieu: The term comes from St. Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. He gives us his own paired idea (not equivalency) between the well-vetted natural ecology and the overlooked human ecology. By this he means a proper understanding of the irreducible and “dignity of the transcendent human person” in community, first the forgotten grandeur of the human soul before its Creator, and with this the family and all the human community.
The two kinds of ecology are distinct and yet connected, but Christian anthropology is more than a footnote to natural science or even cultural anthropology: “[Christ] the same yesterday and today and forever’” (cf. Heb 13:8). Morality (the natural law) is not true because religion teaches it, but rather it is taught because it is true as is clearly explained in Veritatis Splendor. The natural law is grounded in human nature.
CWR: You suggest that those who claim to not be religious are under the influence of “default religions.” What are these?
Beaulieu: Those who identify as “None” float atop a sea of their own unquestioned beliefs. I devote the three final chapters to the three substitute anti-religions: Darwin-ism versus Darwin, the deification of efficiency by Technocracy, and anti-theism accreted to Big Bang physics.
Two years before his death Darwin remained less single track in his thinking: “in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” And, “I feel most deeply that this whole question of Creation is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton!”
The mixed blessing of morally ambivalent Technocracy is seen in J. Robert Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb. And in response to the self-sufficient cosmology of Richard Dawkins, we turn to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The little orphaned slave child, Topsy, is asked the ultimate question of contingency: “who made you?” Like Dawkins, Topsy responds: “Nobody as I knows. . . .I ‘spect I (just) grow’d.”
CWR: The book has an original way of turning a phrase, but it is also enriched by fitting quotes from many other sources. Are there any surprises here?
Beaulieu: I turn to G.K. Chesterton over a dozen times, but there’s another unexpected eye-opener about the novelist Andre Gide. It speaks to our modern-day cult of sexual readiness and experimentation. As a conflicted homosexual, Gide was still opposed to sexual license and favored self control and “sublimating sexual energy into desirable moral and artistic qualities.” But his reviewer then adds that Gide “…emphatically protests that he has not a word to say against marriage and reproduction (but then) suggests that it would be of benefit to an adolescent, before his desires are fixed, to have a love affair with an older man, instead of with a woman. . . the general principle admitted by Gide, elsewhere in his treatise, that sexual practice tends to stabilize in the direction where it has first found satisfaction; to inoculate a youth with homosexual tastes seems an odd way to prepare him for matrimony” (Harold March, Gide and the Hound of Heaven, 1952). Admittedly only one anecdote—but what might it suggest about nature-versus-nurture or now about our convenient redefinition of marriage?
CWR: Your book is about the loss of our birthright natural law within the flow of external events. What can you add here about where the Church fits in our moment in history?
Beaulieu: The first order of business for the Church is to be what it is—the sacramental and mystical Body of Christ…and therefore a real companionship with one another, even deeper than our solitude. Especially, in this scientific and violent age, the Church must proclaim a higher God who pervades all things and yet is above all things. The Trinitarian Divinity—unity in communion—enters into our midst even as He sustains all of creation in existence. Might we suspect that in a particularly unique way the suffering Christ is the definitive self-disclosure of divine and unconditional self-donation? Can it be really true that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8) and that in his absolute simplicity God does what he is?
For each personal journey in this Mystery the “law of gradualism” applies—but as “accompaniment,” not the limp handshake of accommodation. In cultural quicksand what is called for is a solid grip toward decision, conversion and redemption. After decades of Beltway solidarity mixed with catechetical infantilism (coloring books and fuzzy banners), the recent accent on subsidiarity, marriage and family restores the path of beauty including the Theology of the Body (a natural law and scriptural context for Pope Paul VI’s earlier Humanae Vitae). And regarding both the natural and the human ecologies, leading up to the Second Vatican Council, St. Pope John XXIII said this: “But whatever be the situation, we clearly affirm these problems should be posed and resolved in such a way that man does not have recourse to methods and means contrary to his dignity . . .” (Mater et Magistra, 1961).
CWR: Extrapolating again beyond the book itself, what do you see on the global stage?
Beaulieu: The “Nones” claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Does this Western ambivalence between materialism and idealism resonate at all with a 1960s remark about historic Islam? In his opinion, Jean Guitton proposed that “Islam has not wanted to choose between Heaven and Earth. It proposed instead a blending of heaven and earth, sex and mysticism, war and proselytism, conquest and apostolate. In more general terms, Islam proposed a blending of the spiritual and the temporal worlds […]” (Great Heresies and Church Councils, italics added).
On a global scale the New Evangelization involves co-existence with the followers of Islam. But just as Christianity is not to be sanded down into any “broadminded” lowest-common-denominator imposed by radical secularism, so too it is not to be converged with any theological amalgam such as historic Islam. The fourth-century St. Ambrose kept the Church out of the cosmopolitan pantheon of imperial Rome just as he kept Arianism from “interaction” within Milan Cathedral. Instead the inculturation of the future Europe.
CWR: Extrapolating again, do you have any thoughts here on what the Church might do to better manage the New Evangelization?
Beaulieu: Recent popes have remarked that the Church needs more saints, not managers. We are to be steadfast “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). The countercultural Benedict Option, but with courageous and precise engagement, requires a reinvigorated educational model with lowered barricades separating the social sciences (and now STEM) from other perspectives. And overall, the times call for something less dated than the open-range autonomy of the “Land O’ Lakes” manifesto. By itself, the so-called law of gradualism has been shown to move randomly in any direction.
What is a well-grounded education under the New Evangelization? Maybe this—that restoring the place of human reason is not Eurocentric, and that objective standards of truth are universal across all human cultures. So, what do we mean by the “transcendent human person”? At the 2013 World Youth Day, Pope Francis counseled our youth with this: “Yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility—that believes you are incapable of true love. . . Have the courage ‘to swim against the tide.’ And also have the courage to be happy.”
CWR: From what you’ve seen so far, what are your thoughts about the upcoming Synod focused on youth, and on the March letter delivered from the youth gathering?
Beaulieu: Some commentators propose that the failing of past evangelization is found in an approach that relied too much on learning bullet points rather than forming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And one joke has it that when a priest was challenged by a Protestant on the Catholic “worship” of statues, the priest responded, “we do not worship statutes; we worship banners!” But our failing toward our youth was not in mouthed bullet points or even eyeball-candy banners, but overall in an evasive theology and incomplete sacramental preparation. Especially prior to the new Catechism (1994/1997) religion text books were routinely and formally approved if they simply avoided explicit error. But a personal connection with Jesus Christ—and the fact of his Redemptive presence—is undermined just as much by what is simply left out.
In a pocket-size 1985 Letter to Youth the late St. Pope John Paul II wrote of hope, maturity, and responsible freedom toward the truth: “Be not afraid!” His witness is both doctrinal and pastoral, neither without the other. We see where the new Synod engagement with youth today works partly from a questionnaire. Yes, but in the pope’s letter and the Gospel it was the young man who did the deepest questioning: “what more must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). The Synod on Youth might assist our younger generation (and all generations)—and confront our “throwaway culture”—by recycling this Letter from a young quarry and factory laborer turned priest and then pope, and then modern-day saint. A simple link on diocesan and parish web sites would be an easy win for all.
Regarding the letter, or “compass” delivered by the youth to the Pope on this Palm Sunday, this might call for a response from the primary educators of youth (parents) as well as the Synod fathers. The youth deserve reason for hope, but my initial thought is that a compass usually shows more consistent direction of where to go. As for where we’ve been and where we are, Cardinal Donald Wuerl got the big picture just about right, in Rome when he opened the Year of Faith in October 2012: “This current situation is rooted in the upheavals of the 1970s and 80s, decades in which there was manifest poor catechesis or miscatechesis at so many levels of education . . .It is as if a tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape, taking with it such societal markers as marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong.”