How should Catholics think about the modern world?
Basics don’t change, so on the whole our attitude toward the world should be the same as it’s always been. That’s complex, but not mysterious. God created the world, so it’s essentially good, and we should try to do what’s good for it. But it’s fallen, so a great deal of caution is needed.
Even so, today’s world thinks it’s special. We know better than our ancestors, and the world they left us isn’t worth keeping. So if we want to transform marriage, the population of the Western world, and the very nature of what it is to be a man or woman, we should go right ahead. The more we change things the better it’s thought to be.
Such a view is remarkably arrogant, and not likely to end well, but its influence among educated and responsible people shows that the modern world is indeed different in some way. But how?
To start with obvious points, we have the modern natural sciences, which give us much more exact knowledge of the physical world. That knowledge facilitates modern technology, and the result is that we are much richer materially. People live longer, communication and transportation are quicker and easier, and whatever can be manufactured is more readily available.
We also have more systematic, uniform, and comprehensive methods of organizing social life. These methods, together with material prosperity, have generally made day-to-day life less cruel, violent, and subject to vicissitudes of disease and poverty.
These changes all have to do with increased control over the material conditions of life. Even so, the most important aspects of the modern world are intellectual and even spiritual. The material changes depend on changes in the way people think about things.
Serious and responsible people today are technocrats. They reject the contemplative ideal of knowledge and natural law understanding of morality, and view thought and action as ways of getting things organized so that we get what we want as much, as equally, and as reliably as possible. And the way to do that, they think, is through technology and industrial organization.
The Church hasn’t been able to deal effectively with that situation. She likes knowledge and material progress, but doesn’t believe that modern natural science is the model for all knowledge, or that the point of thought and action is helping people get what they want. And she worries that the technological approach to getting things done, as exemplified by fast food, the EU, the pop culture industry, and the modern welfare state, tends to squeeze out practices and institutions that are as basic to human well-being as the family, the Church, and inherited cultural tradition.
Nor are the benefits of modernity unequivocal. Statistics suggest that violent death has become less common as modernity has taken hold, but developments like the communist movement and the two world wars make such benefits seem unreliable. So modernity reduces everyday disorder at the cost of sporadic catastrophes of unpredictable magnitude. Who knows how it will play out?
At a less dramatic and more everyday level, modernity separates people from their natural, social, historical, and spiritual setting. Transgenderism tells us our bodies have nothing to say to us. Nor do traditions and social conventions, which are now dismissed as stereotypes. Religion has become optional and private, with no connection to truth or authority. And human connections are considered a matter of private choice, to be kept up only while all parties agree.
Such attitudes have become basic to public morality: anything else is thought oppressive. But that has meant a radical decline in family life, cultural community, and religious belief and practice. So people are cut adrift, and fall into various addictions, obsessions, and ideological delusions. The last are a serious problem even among the educated and successful. Such people mostly keep their private lives in order through everyday prudence and devotion to career, but they still need to orient themselves with regard to the world at large.
Modern technological thought gives them no intelligent way to do so. It can’t talk about good, evil, or the purpose of life, only about satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and who gets more than whom. The result is a view of man, society, and morality whose destructive results we see around us, and has no principle of moderation to keep it from going to extremes.
The Church once pressed vigorously her objections to such tendencies. More recently her voice has been somewhat muted and her interpretation of secular initiatives and aspirations insistently optimistic. Humanly speaking, that’s not hard to understand. It’s hard to keep arguing with power and an ever-more-pervasive system of social organization propagated by education, economic life, print and electronic media, and what now counts as expertise.
The consequences are pervasive. More and more, Catholics feel ashamed of what the Church has been. They treat the Faith as subjective opinion, take the natural sciences and opinions of media personalities as the model for knowledge, accept current social trends such as those relating to family life, and believe that inclusion, tolerance, support for human aspirations, and human rights as currently understood are the key points of morality.
What does such a Church add to the world? The ceremonies, sacraments, and formal doctrines remain, and are a great help to some people, but for most they have lost their connection to a way of life and understanding of the world that is taken seriously.
For the sake of her mission, then, the Church needs to re-emphasize her opposition to basic aspects of today’s world. But how far should that go? The Church has never objected to modern science and technology, for example. She just doesn’t want people to identify them with knowledge and rational action as such, and objects to using them in ways contrary to natural law.
As the example shows, basic practices are often less the problem than the outlook associated with them. But what parts of the modern outlook should be rejected? We are told we need to accept modern insights. But moderns want clarity, public verification, and certified expertise, while insight by its nature is hard to pin down. So it’s not clear what modern insights would look like or how they can be distinguished from the ingrained attitudes and prejudices of the present day.
A lot of what’s at stake has to do with social and moral issues. The modern world, for example, is thought to have discovered freedom, equality, and tolerance. But how much of the supposed progress is real or based on insight? From the news it appears that social divisions are growing, social controls are becoming more intrusive, and respected public figures harbor more and more contempt and hatred for large parts of the population. And in any event belief in the essential unity of humanity isn’t new, nor is the belief that man is free and his decisions important. Those views have always been basic to Christianity.
The most obvious thing that’s changed are the institutions and relationships considered authoritative. Family, church, local community, and inherited culture have been downgraded to irrelevancy and replaced by money and bureaucracy. From that point of view the emancipation of women seems less a matter of new insights than replacing the network of social relations that once gave them a place and way of life with paid employment and social programs. It’s not obvious how many are better off as a result.
Similarly, religious freedom seems mostly a matter of changing what is considered sacred. When the West was Christendom it was criminal to deny or minimize the importance of the Resurrection. Now that Christendom has become the EU, other past events have taken on a sacred and exemplary status that is guarded by the criminal law. What has changed in principle?
Modernity has increased human power and so made great achievements possible. But power combined with arrogance and narrowness of vision are likely to lead to ultimate catastrophe. A thoughtful response to current trends is necessary, slogans are useless, and the depth of the problem suggests that much will have to be be put in question. Under such circumstances, we can only do our best and trust in God.
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