The Catholic Thing
The Great Unraveling Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Reflecting in First Things on the death of Father Richard Neuhaus, R. R. Reno recalled a pithy Neuhaus sentence: “Where orthodoxy is optional; orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” Neuhaus did not imply that, if orthodoxy is not optional, it will flourish. Still, in this land, we must be approaching the proscription of orthodoxy – hate-speech legislation, coercion of medical practitioners, tolerance of almost everything but orthodoxy.

During the 2006 congressional elections, Reno worried that the Republicans might lose seats thereby jeopardizing the pro-life movement. Neuhaus acknowledged that Reno had a legitimate concern. Still Neuhaus remained optimistic. He told Reno: “Relax, Rusty, the Republicans will eventually betray us anyhow.” This is prophetic. We can only relax in orthodoxy. Chesterton would be pleased.

In Caritas in veritate, Benedict asks: “How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what is put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated.” (75) Yes, we do confuse what is important and what is insignificant.

This is what I call the “great unraveling.” Human “being” is not put together by itself either bodily or spiritually. It is designed to reach an end, a transcendent end, in each person. Nothing about what we are is “in vain.” Indeed, everything about us is there in abundance, itself usually brought forth because we have intelligence. We are given minds to reflect on what we already are. The thigh bone is connected to the hip bone, or however the old spiritual connected them. And we human beings are connected with one another. Yet, we are each individual persons who are offered ultimate happiness as a gift that itself has something directly to do with how each of us chooses to live, whether in truth or in fabricating our own norms.

Human nature unravels with the aid of human intelligence, just as it perfects itself with the aid of its own intelligence when it discovers an order of being already operative within each person’s own being. In general, the unraveling of human nature takes place gradually, step by step. Its goal is the elimination of any order and condition within the human person, which is not self-produced.

But in order to make one’s own imprint, each deviant step has to replace the order already found and operative within the human being as it is received from nature. This order is generally called the natural law. The very phrase implies an “unnatural” law.

The term “unnatural” was used because we understood what was normal or natural, even if we did not do it. The very concept of sin or crime implies that the sinner is aware of what he ought to do in the very act of choosing not to do it.

But we seem to be confronted with something that is, to put it oddly, even more dangerous than “unnatural” sin. If there is nothing we cannot do to ourselves, particularly in keeping our species alive in this world, then we become objects of experiment. We seek to cure what seems wrong with us by redefining what we are.

We no longer need marriage or even intercourse to have children who are genetically what we think we want them to be. We want to design our children so that they will have the brains or looks that we somehow missed because of our benighted parents’ genes. Sex has nothing to do with children. It is more like tennis when that game is used as an exercise. Children are costly, especially when begotten, defined, and cared for under the aegis of the state and science.

Plato had a good deal to say of this system. He seems in fact to have foreseen most of what we are proposing to do to ourselves. Some think he warned us not to do these things to ourselves, and if he didn’t Aristotle certainly did.

This brings me back to Father Neuhaus on orthodoxy. Recently a Catholic nurse in New York was told that she would be fired if she did not participate in late-term abortions. Everyone knows this is the logic of the current administration. Of course, if abortion is a right, the nurse should be fired. Does she have any duty to the aborted child? What child?

We have arrived at a point where that question no longer concerns us. The very structure of our nature is unraveled to such an extent that we cannot even recognize ourselves. We are free to do whatever we want – just so long as it is not “orthodox.”

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
Authoritarian Elites
written by Fr Tim, August 19, 2009
Wow! Talk about powerful!
We are entering a new "dark age" that will relegate humans to "things" that only an intellectual elite will decide is worth keeping or getting rid of (yes, killing). Plato spoke of his Philosopher Kings and these elite believe they are just that. The church must stand uncompromisingly for truth and sacredness of life. Never back down, never surrender.
Orthodoxy be Damned
written by Willie, August 19, 2009
Excellent article. This new found freedom from orthodoxy has permitted us to redefine human personhood. Are we getting to the point whereby science and the State will decide human value? Are defective infants and mentally impaired adults to be discarded like broken toys? There are some Catholic ethicists who would have us believe that a person who is mentally unable to appreciate the Creator, is not a person. Yes. In this age of genetic engineering, we must simply redefine human personhood.
...but we are objects.
written by L Kramer, August 19, 2009
Schall rightly points out hazard in valuing others as objects rather than ends. Except we are products of natural selection objectively 'valuing' survival -- a natural world wherein men are objects in an already unraveled ethical frame. Every day we make choices with limited intelligence. How does a triage nurse, for example make the moral choice between critical patients. Or the man who has to layoff one of two employees? It seems to me that the moral way is really an un-natural law.
written by Joseph, August 19, 2009
There is an old Southern parable which applies to our culture. How do you boil a frog? Not by throwing him into boiling water but rather by placing him in lukewarm water ans slowly raising the heat until he dies and he never suspects what is happening.
written by Diane Korzeniewski, August 19, 2009
Excellent article. By virtue of how these things have permeated some Catholic spheres, we have a generation of people trying to make a designer religion out of Catholicism. Magazines and periodicals cloaked under the guise of Catholic, are advancing it all as are some bands of theologians (the pseudo-magisterium), still unsilenced in spite of their public dissent.

There's no greater time to pray. The change I hope for is only that which is aligned with Truth.
written by watcher, August 19, 2009
That is where we find ourselves. Does anyone out there not think that a reckoning is coming? Reality has a way of reviving the verities. Historically it has always been a painful process.
written by Bradley, August 20, 2009
Fr. Schall correctly diagnoses the mess of modern society: truth is relative, evil is indeed real, and souls are at risk. That being said, I would repeat a prior observation of the visible absence of Christian hope in columns like this. I think Martin Luther (gasp!) provides an appropriate theological conclusion in the hymn A Mighty Fortress: "And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us."
written by Jacob, August 21, 2009
You're silly Bradley...the writers here have more than likely read far more Luther than you ever will.
Why does everyone who comments on this page or First Things have to be so hopelessly pedantic?

Also I think you need to learn more about Christian hope if you think that it somehow has something to do with accepting the mass genocide of innocent children.

Hope is up and being assimilated to evil is definitely not (and if it is at the church you go to ..find a better one!)

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