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The moral dimension of our national trauma

In this year without a spring, events have repeatedly driven home the truth of Romano Guardini’s warning that our capacity for control over the material world far exceeds our capacity for controlling ourselves.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) was an Italian-born German Catholic priest whose many books included "The End of the Modern World" (1957). [Images: Wikipedia]

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is one of the most remarkable documents in American history–a serious theological meditation by a president as well as a work of great literary art. Speaking March 4, 1865 to a deeply moved crowd just weeks before his death, Lincoln suggested that “this terrible war,” the Civil War, was God’s punishment of America for the sin of slavery.

The theology may have been overly Calvinistic, but Lincoln’s fundamental insight was profoundly correct and remains so today. The roots of our national crisis—or, more precisely, our interlocking crises—are moral and must be addressed as such. Neither the familiar triad of more money, more programs, and more institutions, nor changes in police policy and procedures measure up to the need..

Yes, money, programs, and institutions are necessary and police reform may be needed. But so is more attention to the moral dimension of our national trauma. And although there is no new Lincoln on the national horizon, we have a right to ask our leaders and those aspiring to leadership to begin thinking along those lines.

Here I am reminded of something another wise man, Romano Guardini, said: “Man today holds power over things, but we can assert confidently that he does not yet have power over his own power.”

Monsignor Guardini, a distinguished German theologian, said that shortly after World War II, a conflict that witnessed the systematic firebombing of civilian populations, the mad pursuit of genocide epitomized by the Holocaust, and the first use of nuclear weapons. His analysis took the form of a frightening, prescient book called The End of the Modern World (it provided much of the inspiration for my own book, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity).

In this year without a spring, events have repeatedly driven home the truth of Guardini’s warning that our capacity for control over the material world far exceeds our capacity for controlling ourselves. Hours after an unarmed black man died in the custody of Minneapolis police, two American astronauts were launched into space in a display of ultra-sophisticated technological genius. Protests–and in some places riots and looting–erupted across the nation after George Floyd’s death. Americans, nerves frayed by fear of a deadly virus and weeks of lockdown, trembled at the thought of what might happen next.

Guardini would have understood all this. To the question “What can be done?” he gave this reply: “First of all, man must accept the full measure of his responsibility; but to be able to do this, he must regain his right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God.” We are disastrously far removed from doing any of that. As a friend of mine, reflecting on recent events, put it, “we’ve been living off the fumes of a Christian culture, and we’re seeing now what happens when even the fumes evaporate. No logos, no ethos, no nothing.”

Guardini, agreeing, would have added this further thought: at the heart of our national crisis something demonic is at work. Not “demonic” in a merely metaphorical sense, but demonic in full, literal truth–the handiwork of evil spirits who “rule man once he has abdicated his responsibilities.”

And then? Then, Guardini held, it is much to be feared that “in the final analysis only violence will be used in an effort to solve the flood of problems which threaten to engulf humanity.”

God grant we turn back before it comes to that.


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About Russell Shaw 211 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

5 Comments

  1. Absolutely right.

    When a people turns away from God, chaos and death ensue. We have indeed been “living off the fumes of Christianity.” But those fumes have dissipated. And now we are choking on the poisonous, sulfurous reek of sin.

    A nation cannot expect to dispose of some 80 million of its own children and not face consequences.

  2. We have given ourselves over to the evil one. The mystical Lincoln said our civil War was God’s punishment for slavery. I agree.

    Now we are being punished for abortion, which is far worse. 3 millions slaves. 60 million aborted babies. The black population is 1/2 of what it should be due to abortion.

    • This is because there is no effective leadership. True solutions aren’t being proposed and widely publicized. The truth is that people need to unite behind effective policies (e.g. call your representatives). The wealthy and/or wicked have the national microphone (MSM) and a big part of their message of despair is what you have shown that you have accepted.

      This article is largely correct. The problem is religious. However, the solution is to abandon Protestantism (and certainly atheism) and embrace the Catholic Church as it was widely known and practiced before John XXIII. This means (among other things) being militant, uncompromising, and intolerant in the public square. Light your light shine, and make no apologies for your apologetics and logical attacks on the errors of the infidels and heretics.

      What needs to happen is that we have to consciously “legislate morality” (which is actually what a just law is) and VIGOROUSLY ENFORCE the laws. Especially revised laws on perjury and new laws against and preventing fornication and adultery. Abortion should be a CAPITAL CRIME.

  3. THIS IS A TREASURE OF TREMENDOUSLY POWERFUL INSIGHT!

    AND WE NEED TO PRAY AS WE TAKEE ACTION FOR THE CAUSE OF LIGHT – WITH GOD’S BLESSING ON ALL OF US AND ON AMERICA. I WAS A YOUNG GIRL AT TH E TIME OF WORLD WAR II, READING AND LISTENING TO THE DAILY HORRORS OF THE WAR , AND PRAYING WITH ALL OF MY FAMILY AND WITH THE RURAL COMMUNITY AND CHURCH WHERE I LIVED, FOR AN END….I FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT ALL OF THIS WILL END, AND THAT THERE WILL BE PEACE ON EARTH AND “GOOD WILL TO ALL MEN”

    AND SO WE PRAY

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