Our Present Discontents


Father James V. Schall, SJ, in a brilliant essay at Catholic World Report, examines the current sickness that afflicts the Church:


Vatican II presented itself as a massive effort to retain tradition but also to reconcile the Church with the modern world in such a way that they harmonized with each other. It was not noticed at the time, as Tracey Rowland pointed out in her Culture and the Thomist Tradition, that the word “culture” was not neutral. Modern “culture” already contained some good things, but it also had with in it principles and techniques that could eliminate both faith and even the structure of man as we had known him. In many ways, “to conform oneself to the culture” was a form of religious and intellectual suicide. 

In this mix, the thought of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI stood as a corrective. They carefully sorted out the subtle principles and tendencies motivating the modern mind. They identified where these ideas and customs were leading. Under their guidance, it was clear that the mind of Catholicism knew what it was about. Neither of these two popes had many intellectual peers. Those who were their peers usually recognized their genius. Catholicism understood where it came from in history and tradition. It clarified what it meant in relation to basic modern ideas, ideas that the two popes often defined more clearly than their advocates. 

This papal teaching was profound and incisive. Not a few, however, came to think it was over the heads of most people, even most bishops. There is a kind of clericalism, as Fr. Mark Pilon has pointed out, that assumes that the laity cannot think. The request for clarification, which is their due, is often taken for disobedience. We needed a return to the original Gospels, it is said, to the simple life of faith.

Catholicism did not have to present itself before the world as understanding it. It is better to leave things more open, undefined. In this light, however, with Pope Francis’ more recent emphasis on mercy and the poor, his many off-handed remarks, his hesitancy about explaining doctrine, the Church now, to many, seems confused, unsure of itself. It no longer seems to be a “rock” on which we can build.

The faithful are told that they are too “rigid”. The divorced and the homosexuals are, rightly or wrongly, convinced that the Church has changed its doctrine at least implicitly, if not explicitly. Divine positive law does not seem to hold against what people “do” do. Everything must be discerned. Every act seems an exception, which in a way it is. But there can be no “law” of only exceptions. 

Many recent converts begin to wonder whether the Church is not reverting to positions that they thought, in the name of truth, that they had left. It is difficult to see why anyone should convert or even be preached to. To many, the Church seems to present itself as a kind of modern humanism in culture and socialism in political preference.

In the meantime, some three thousand mosques, with much Saudi money, have been built in the United States, probably more in Europe. They are mostly closed enclaves. The decline of population of European citizens has been often noted. Traditional European  national populations are being replaced by a more fertile group of Muslims who, for the most part, do not assimilate or convert, either culturally or religiously. Some predict that Sweden will be Europe’s first Muslim country; others think it will be England. And if there is a first, there will be a second. 

Islamic thinkers themselves shrewdly seem to opt both for terrorist and for democratic means to expand into Europe and America. The martyrdom and expulsion of so many Christians from the Mideast have gone largely unaccounted for. They appear more as an embarrassment than as objects of justice. Their specific witness seems almost lost. 

It is a rare commentator or politician who notes the connection between Humanae Vitae, the decline of population, and the rise of Islam in Europe and America. “Refugees” fleeing into Europe can probably more accurately be described as “invaders” than immigrants, however sad their tale.

We are now experiencing something new, an incipient reaction. With Pierre Manent and Joshua Mitchell, we see that the nation-state and the family are the heart of true civilization. Globalism and world-state notions constantly reveal totalitarian tendencies. Emphasis on the poor has neglected the old Aristotelian notion of the middle-class, by far the majority in any decent society.

What are we to conclude from these considerations? The title of these opinions, and opinions they are, concerned “confused Catholics”. The conclusion is that the confusion of Catholics about the unity and consistency of their faith has dimmed or even taken out of the public order a firm voice that has connected in our civilization the present and the past, time and eternity.

Few seem certain about where the Church stands on many core issues that once were thought to be settled. Practice does not really replace thought. It merely produces another kind of practice that seeks justification in a different line of thought. Practice, overtly or covertly, depends on thought. The origin of all deviant practice is deviant thought. The knowing why it is deviant is a function of mind based on a standard of reason. It is the steady “knowing why” that, before anything else, we are missing. Continue Reading


The Claremont Reviews Advent Interview with Fr. James V. Schall

Since 2002 Ken Masugi, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and lecturer in Government at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, has conducted Advent interviews with James V. Schall, S.J., author of over thirty books on political theory and theology. Fr. Schall teaches in the Government Department of Georgetown University.

The interviews themselves are a delight to read and span a variety of topics from current events to the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI to issues in philosophy, theology and ethics — and sometimes, in addition, what books Fr. Schall himself is reading at that particular moment in time.

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