Catholics today are in a difficult position. They have come to believe that active involvement in social and political life is a basic part of living the Faith. But the general conditions leading to that view—which include a growing conviction of the importance of worldly things—are also promoting industrial, commercial, and bureaucratic ways of thinking that leave no room for the natural law principles that pervade Catholic social and moral teaching.
Catholic responses to that situation vary. One is to keep plugging away, and present Catholic and natural law arguments in hopes that some will eventually listen. After all, insanity eventually falls apart, and instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy. Also, secular orthodoxy is becoming more imperialistic, and vigorously asserting Catholic positions seems necessary for defending the ability of Catholic families and communities to live normal, faithful lives.
But that approach seems more and more like preaching to the choir. Not many are buying it. To make matters worse, the choir leaves out those Catholics, some in very high positions, whose watchwords are encounter and accompaniment, and would rather adopt or accommodate to current secular ways of thinking than confront them or argue for alternatives.
One response to such difficulties has been to propose bringing back, at least informally, the bastions that were torn down in the wake of Vatican II. Draw Christians together in cohesive communities that would provide a setting from which champions of the Faith could sally forth, and also—at least as importantly—support ordinary people in their efforts to carry on a way of life informed by Christian teachings.
The proposal has helped Rod Dreher sell a lot of books, but it too has problems. How do you set up a bastion when modern communications, transportation, and economic life mix everything in the world together with everything else? Or when our ruling class has made inclusion—“you will be assimilated”—its Prime Directive? And above all, how do you do it when your own leaders don’t much like the idea?
The “bastion” approach nonetheless seems possible, and it’s hard to think of anything else that would reduce the pressure on ordinary Catholics and their families. But none of our problems are new, and Catholics have been thinking about them for a long time. So it may provide perspective to discuss what a couple of intelligent Catholics thought about them right after the Second World War.
Romano Guardini was a Catholic priest, theologian, and philosophy professor. In spite of his Italian name and birth he is considered German, since his family moved from Verona to Germany when he was one year old, and he lived and worked there the rest of his life.
His book The End of the Modern World, which was based on lectures delivered a couple of years after the end of the war, appeared in 1950. It was an attempt to find hope in the technological mass society that was succeeding what he called “the modern world,” the period of humanistic culture that had itself succeeded the more theocentric medieval period.
Fr. Guardini believed technological ways of thinking were reducing everything to function and utility, destroying religious feeling, inherited culture, differences among peoples, and even familial and sexual distinctions. Man was losing his place in the world, and the enormous growth of power without moral responsibility was putting even his survival at risk.
He saw hard times coming:
The new culture will be incomparably more harsh and more intense. It will lack the organic both in its sense of growth and of proportions … it presents a vision of factories and barracks to the eyes of the mind.
To deal with that situation, he called for earnestness, gravity and asceticism, and hoped the very difficulty of the circumstances would provoke these qualities. As he said,
Such a challenge demands … a strengthening of character which we can scarcely conceive. Nothing else, however, can withstand the powers of anonymity which grow more immense day by day.
When ordinary social life can no longer sustain humanity, we will be left with a choice between annihilation of what is human and an absolute turning toward what transcends us. He therefore called for “a pure obedience. Christianity will arm itself for an illiberal stand directed unconditionally toward Him Who is Unconditioned.”
Thus will return a sort of Old Testament God of battles:
…in the coming world, the Old Testament will take on a new significance. The Old Testament reveals the Living God Who smashes the mythical bonds of the earth, Who casts down the powers and the pagan rulers of life…. These Old Testament truths will grow in meaning and import.
So in response to an inhuman world Fr. Guardini called for extreme Christian heroism sustained by nothing but supernatural faith.
The necessary heroes have been slow to arrive. “Not with a bang but a wimper” seems to summarize current developments. The dominant notes of public life are less clarity, danger, or struggle than inertia and insistence on security and ease. Instead of cool realism and uncompromising commitment to dogma we have ambiguity, sentimentality, and compromise.
Life goes on. Human nature remains, and tradition never dies, because what can be made explicit and objective in human life is always embedded in what is implicit, personal, and customary. So if our rulers try to impose a wholly technological society, they will fail. Official rhetoric will diverge more and more from reality, and we will end up with irrationality and corruption set in a mixture of anarchy, tyranny, and social isolation.
And that is what we see growing up around us. So what the future will need may be less the Christian supermen Fr. Guardini envisioned than people who combine strong religious commitments with strong personal and community attachments—in other words, good Catholics and citizens as traditionally conceived, but with less attachment perhaps to official principles and secular legal structures..
Such considerations play more of a role in This Perverse Generation, published in 1949 by the American journalist Carol Jackson Robinson, whose works are now being republished by Arouca Press. Like Fr. Guardini, her big concern was technological mass society. As an American, though, she saw that society from a less dramatic and grandly historical viewpoint.
America had escaped the horrors of war and tyranny, and life in the postwar period was peaceful, prosperous, and complacent. That was the problem. Life wasn’t harsh and dangerous, it was trivial and boring. We were trying to build a happy life without God, based on prosperity, security, and an ever more open-ended principle of doing what we want.
It wasn’t working, and for the Church and Christian life the results were disastrous. We were building on a bad foundation that made life in community in accordance with reason and virtue impossible barring the most heroic efforts. So she agreed with Romano Guardini on the necessity of heroic effort.
What she had in mind, though, was less austere, less individualistic, and less affected by the idea of an unchangeable historical scheme. It involved Aquinas to clarify our thought, the promotion of a Catholic society so ordinary people could live a good life, and Catholic Action to enlist the laity in the task of transforming the social order and restoring all things in Christ.
The project seemed promising, and typical of other initiatives of the time. Even so it has collapsed, largely because Church authorities have given up on it. How can the laity try to restore all things in Christ when the official line is that we should downplay conversion and specific beliefs, and emphasize nonjudgmental dialog with non-believers and technocratic concepts of well-being that provide a basis for cooperation with them?
And that is one reason a well-known journalist who gave up on the Catholic Church because of episcopal corruption and fecklessness has made such a splash with his proposal that lay believers join together to form their own small-scale Christian communities. For the most part, our leadership has abdicated, leaving us little else that offers hope.
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