How the world works usually matters more than what we’re trying to accomplish.
We see that in politics, with democracy as an obvious example. It wants the people to rule. But the people can’t possibly rule, certainly not in an immensely complex global society dominated by huge organizations with worldwide interests. How can they collectively know enough or find enough unity to make coherent decisions and see them through?
So they don’t. Even so, claims of democracy justify what’s done, so how things really work becomes disconnected from how they are said to work. What is called “democratic politics” thus becomes a matter of manipulating opinion and procedures. Our rulers rely on popular consent, but they can almost always secure it for their goals because the people are fragmented and individually powerless, and governing elites do their best to control the choices on offer and how they are presented.
Technological ways of doing things provide other examples of the subversion of intentions by realities. These methods attempt to use comprehensive rational organization to achieve exactly defined goals. That approach has conquered much of inanimate nature, but attempts to apply it to human society run into trouble.
Thus, liberalism wants equal freedom. Technocratic liberalism responds by trying to control all human interactions so that nobody can oppress anyone else. If people are committing microaggressions, it sets bureaucrats to go after them. The result is comprehensive tyranny.
Inclusiveness wants to bring us closer together. When made technocratic, it replaces particular connections such as family ties, which don’t include everyone, with bureaucratic or contractual arrangements that do. The result is that people think family should include whatever anyone calls family, and it shouldn’t be allowed to affect anything. Family and other natural, traditional, and informal ties lose definition and function, and people become disconnected.
The socialist impulse, recently in eclipse but now back in full force, wants to provide everyone with an environment that supports his well-being and development. In a technocracy that means comprehensive social control so that everything humanly important for anyone is effectively looked after. But the crudeness of bureaucratic ways of knowing and acting means that such a regime ends in poverty and universal dysfunction.
Many of these problems are on view in the ongoing Synod on Synodality. That effort appeals to democracy, equal freedom, and inclusiveness. Everyone is to take part, speak with authority, and learn to walk together. These goals, it seems, are to be achieved through a worldwide bureaucratic process involving discussions of lived experience, hand-picked delegates, facilitators, and relators, and buzzwords devised by apparatchiks.
But how will such a process promote anything but the views of those running it? Will privileging the idiosyncratic stories of individuals and groups over Catholic tradition bring Catholics closer together? Or will the destruction of knowable standards lead to anything but domination by formal structures of control supported by officially favored activists who claim to speak for the people—in effect, an absolute clericalism poorly disguised by astroturf?
The response from proponents of the effort is that distrusting it is distrusting the Holy Spirit. The claim is presumptuous. Whatever happened to fear and trembling? Or “thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”?
Noticing that there are problems does not tell us what to do. Technocratic progressivism may have failed, but conservatism has conserved nothing. MAGA has failed to make America great again. Politically, Catholic societies including Spain, Ireland, and Quebec have turned emphatically secular, and even Poland, where Catholicism and nationalism have gone hand in hand, is rapidly softening. And in the Church herself, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have ended in the current situation.
How can we get out of the black hole into which we have fallen?
First, we have to identify the hole. Since we’re all in it together, I’ll be ecumenical and appeal to a formulation by a communist-leaning French philosopher Alain Badiou:
The fundamental ontological hypothesis of every oppressive system of any kind … affirms the unlimited supremacy of finitude, which is tantamount to saying that everything that is, all multiplicity, is constructible.
In other words, if you put anything but God at the top, you’ll end up thinking you can remake the world to your own specifications, and you’ll establish a tyranny to do so.
That is a big problem today because God has disappeared from consciousness. He’s not there, at least not enough with enough people to matter. Larry Chapp recently discussed this issue in connection with religious life. Badiou tells us it’s also of basic importance in politics.
We have discussed its consequences there, the proliferation of attempts to transform society for libertarian, egalitarian, and hedonistic ends that lead to the exact opposite of what was intended—in part because of the methods chosen, in part because of defects in the goal.
The disappearance of God has also affected “mission,” the Church’s engagement with the world. Ever since Pope Saint Paul VI, in his address closing the Second Vatican Council, spoke of “a simple, new and solemn teaching to love man in order to love God,” the Church has emphasized secular social betterment in its efforts.
That tendency has reached a peak in the current pontificate, with its downplaying of specific religious and moral claims and its emphasis on inclusiveness and environmental protection as signature Catholic issues. Laudate Deum, the recent exhortation on the environment, says a lot about social and scientific matters, but very little about praising God.
We need to put God explicitly at the center, but that is easier said than done. Larry Chapp believes the solution to our crisis will involve “a clear preferential option for life in the world and solidarity with that world.” But we need all the help we can get, and I can’t help but believe it will also involve a new monasticism.
The longest way round is the shortest way home. Post-Vatican II devotion has dreamed of a life in the world that is for the sake of the world but not of the world. It seems to me that has been too much to achieve without preparation. Christ himself went off into the desert for forty days at the beginning of his ministry. And Saint Benedict helped found the Christian civilization of the West by literally heading for the hills.
Life today is thoroughly Godless. How do we deal with it when we’re awash in images, sound bites, propaganda, and practical and social interactions that draw us into its concerns? Saint Paul warns that evil communications corrupt good manners, and Saint James wants us to keep ourselves unspotted from this world.
Are we stronger than those they were addressing? Are our circumstances more favorable?
Roman Guardini said that today we need “a strengthening of character which we can scarcely conceive.” But I don’t see that anywhere, and how is it to come about? Withdrawal, reflection, focus, prayer, discipline, and conversion of mind and spirit seem necessary.
Life must go on, and the famous “Benedict Option” seems a way to provide something of that to people living ordinary lives with ordinary responsibilities. But we also need people who become models through more decisive action, who withdraw from the world not to prepare themselves to return to it but simply, like Saint Benedict, to draw closer to God.
I cannot advise such people what to do. But it does seem to me that however important the vision of helping transform the world by living in it as Catholics, a vision of transforming our minds, hearts, and spirits by focusing on God as a self-sufficient end in himself must come first.
God is not a means. He is the goal. When we forget that, our faith no longer does anything for us. We need to do whatever is necessary to keep it in our consciousness.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!