Assumption #4: Modernity and Catholicism are diametrically opposed

The Council, I said previously, was largely concerned with adapting the Catholic faith to the realities of modern life. It failed in this endeavor, not because it was hijacked but because its aim was flawed from the outset. Here’s Pope John XXIII again, describing the Council’s vision:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. … We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. [1]

No doubt, good Pope John was motivated by the best of intentions in saying this, and in calling the Council for this reason. It is a tragic flaw of good men that they are so often oblivious to the perils facing them. But oblivious he was.

The Council’s primary error was its judgment of modernity as an essentially neutral or even benign force to which the Church could potentially be reconciled without having to compromise itself. It judged wrong. Modernity and Catholicism are not orthogonal, they are diametrically opposed.

Modernity expresses itself in a number of different ways; in the sphere of aesthetics, as artistic modernism; in politics, as liberalism; in theology, as any of a variety of degrees of denial of ancient Christian values (from high-church Protestantism at its weakest to Hitchensian atheism at its strictest); in epistemology, as any of a variety of minimalisms that seek to discount some field of inquiry as a valid source of human knowledge (scientism being the most popular form today); in ontology, as materialism/naturalism; and so on. [2]

In all of these things, modernity is flatly opposed to Catholicism. Against the Church’s use of art to express transcendental truths, modernity uses it to shock and scandalize ordinary people from their bourgeois sensibilities or even to mock them; against the Church’s endorsement of authority, both political and familial, as divinely instituted for the good of man, modernity denies the objective reality of justice and asserts that power is exercised justly only by the arbitrary will-to-power of the self-creating autonomous superman; against the Church’s trust in the basic reliability of human reason, especially when supplemented by the virtue of faith, modernity asserts the unreliability of reason and the need to rely on arbitrary hermeneutics; against the Church’s belief in the reality of the spirit as an integral aspect of the human person, modernity asserts that reason, free will, and the like are mere epiphenomena of electrical discharges in the brain; against the Church’s articulation of a moral law that arises spontaneously from human nature, modernity calls pleasure and anesthesia the only objective criteria of the good. None of these are recent, either; Hitchensian atheism didn’t form overnight but is a logical development of trends always and vigorously opposed by the Church that have their roots in various Enlightenment actors such as Hegel, Bentham, and Comte.

It is impossible to overstate the naive optimism on offer here: it would require one either to ignore the brutal anti-Catholicism of the Puritans, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and other assorted thoroughly modern affiliations, or else to attribute their brutality to the defensiveness of the Church, which could be repaired only by its unilateral disarmament in the culture wars. History, that “teacher of life,” has made the lesson clear: the modern world does not want the Church’s friendship; it wants her submission, and thus her death.

When I was in RCIA some years ago, the permanent deacon who instructed us told us that the Second Vatican Council had aimed to reform a Church that had become too insular, to tear down the walls that had been built up. Yet it is hard to see how the Church of the last 50 years, with all of its cloying and tedious self-obsession, could possibly be less insular than what came before, and harder still to see how those “walls” were an impediment to an evangelization effort that, fifty years ago, was reaping a bounty of adult converts and vocations to the priesthood and religious life while rendering Catholicism an effective social force even in the United States, and which today is depopulating like a plague-stricken medieval hamlet.

As it turns out, tearing down the walls is a bad idea when you’re under siege.

[1] Pope John XXIII, opening address at the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962.

[2] Industrialization and scientific progress are typically represented as expressions of modernity but it is more appropriate to think of them as consequences of it — as products of the hypertrophied attention which modernity insists on paying to efficient and material causes to the exclusion of final and formal ones.


2 thoughts on “Assumption #4: Modernity and Catholicism are diametrically opposed

  1. Pingback: This blog’s four assumptions | The Strange Council

  2. Pingback: The Council and modernity in a nutshell | The Strange Council

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