The Catholic Thing
Broadening the Conversation Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 21 July 2012

Catholics of a conservative bent are concerned about everything from how the philosophical trajectory since the Enlightenment has produced the modern and post-modern mindsets, to how Vatican II has played out in catechesis and liturgy, to the departures from natural law and the failures of pluralism in the American polity.  These and associated dangers are assuredly the right concerns.

But I worry sometimes that we can, in thinking carefully about these questions, isolate ourselves unnecessarily. We may come to descending into the catacombs sooner rather than later, and several of us have already come to thinking about small communities that, like Benedictine monasteries, seek to preserve order and even advance truth in a chaotic world of failed philosophies and politics.

Still, we should make sure that those communities are not self-limiting, exclusive ghettos. There are sources outside our usual range that have much to offer.

A great example is Robert Zubrin’s recently published book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism

Zubrin is best known for his support of space exploration and sending people to Mars. He founded and still heads the Mars Society and has written extensively on the whys and hows of terraforming, or altering other planets to make them habitable for colonization. But he is not an idle dreamer. His feet are on the ground, and he has been an engineer with Lockheed for much of his career.

Merchants of Despair, though, is about humanity on Earth. And he writes about humanity, in the abstract, without ever losing sight of the concrete individual person.   Zubrin’s probing cast of mind, willingness to question conventional truths of some supposedly scientific movements, and engineer’s capacity for testing propositions give him formidable reach.

Zubrin opens with contrasting quotations. First, Shakespeare, around 1600, in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…”

This Shakespearean passage always reminds me of Psalm 8: 

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and stars which thou hast established;
What is man that thou art mindful of him,
And the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.
Thou hast given him dominion over the work of thy hands…

Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair

Over against man’s noble reason and faculties, Zubrin points to the words of the Club of Rome, the famous anti-growth organization whose predictions from the 1960s and 70s have proven spectacularly wrong: “The World Has Cancer and the Cancer is Man.”

From these radically different views of man and his place in creation, Zubrin proceeds to demolish many of the most popular pseudo-scientific creeds of the last two centuries. He shows the catastrophic human results of Malthusian thinking, the belief that populations would inevitably outgrow the resources needed to sustain them. He takes the British treatment of Ireland and India in the nineteenth century as tragic case studies (noting that government policy in those cases ran contrary to the general sentiments of the British people).

He describes “Darwin’s Moral Inversion.” Zubrin assures us, “Evolution is a fact.” But he points out that Darwin did not discover evolution but rather presented a plausible explanation of it in the form of natural selection. Darwin’s extension of his new view of nature’s means of evolution into the idea that “civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations” would prove as utterly awful as any theory in all of history.

Darwin (and Malthus) laid the groundwork, in turn, for the infamous eugenics movement, with its belief that the elimination of inferior peoples and nations would lead to paradise on Earth. Here, the United States comes into play. The American Museum of Natural History turns out to have had a facilitating role in bringing together early supporters of eugenics.

Zubrin draws the causal line between British, American, and German support for Malthusian and Darwinian eugenics, and the Holocaust and the post-World War II variant of eugenics called “population control.” From there, the same intellectual tradition extends into the green movement and radical environmentalism.

Zubrin believes unapologetically and enthusiastically in man’s creative capacity in all domains from agriculture on this planet to agriculture on Mars. Some may see in his writing a hint of materialist pretension to the same god-human status that the Darwinians and their successors presumed.

I think, rather, that he is attempting to restore the view of man’s place on Earth and in the universe that the Psalmist and Shakespeare gave us, and that such a view represents the culture of life versus the culture of death. 

I do not know Zubrin’s religious views. But I know that he wrote this:

We must reject antihumanism and embrace instead an ethic based on faith in the human capacity for creativity and invention. For in doing so, we make a statement that we are living not at the end of history, but at the beginning of history; that we believe in freedom and not regimentation; in progress and not stasis; in love rather than hate; in life rather than death; in hope rather than despair.

There is much in that paragraph that is strikingly similar to the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. 

In an age when Catholics find few congenial fellow travelers, we should look carefully at this book and others like it for what they can add to our understanding of our current predicament.

Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Frank, July 21, 2012
I humbly wish the author could extend the explanation behind his thesis about how conservatives in general and conservative Catholics do or show a proclivity to isolate themselves. In his book "Radical Son," David Horowitz provides what I think is the finest definition of conservatives and liberals and how in this dialectic, both operate and argue from two skewed planes, one real and one imagined. And given this, it is now evident to me and perhaps to others, such skewing will produce no common ground since there are no intersecting values from which we can derive ANY common point of communion. Thus only the intervention of God through the Holy Spirit and the Church can effect any reconcilement.

Conservatism writes Horowitz, "Is an attitude about the lessons of an actual past. By contrast, the attention of (liberal) progressives is directed toward an imagined future.

One is an attitude of caution and the other is an attitude of an unencumbered "liberation" unguided by the benchmarks of the past but liberated to include the dangerous potential of human depravity masquerading as a fair set of values so that all my achieve equity in human terms. Thus it is necessary in achieving such equity to employ expedient actions even though such actions (as we have all too often seen) expose and utilize the dark side of humanity. Or to put it another way, "You have to break a few eggs to make mayonnaise."

I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that there is NO reconciliation with the Left from the foundation of secular values only. I can't say for certain that God is on the side of conservatives. What I do know is that I make it a point to pray and keep the lessons of the past at the forefront of my mind and part of the aegis of my actions. I can therefore, get a good night's sleep. For now, that just might be as good as it gets.
written by Manfred, July 21, 2012
I think this is a great article and I would like more information. After reading that Catholic Relief Services gave over $5 million to CARE which promotes abortion in Third World ountries, in 2010, I think I have been supporting the wrong team. Is it possible that I could be on that spaceship heading for Mars? My ultimate goal, of course, is Heaven but it appears that can only be attained on this earth through martyrdom. If the spaceship could conveniently "miss" Mars, perhaps I might find Heaven after all. It's worth a shot.
written by Joe, July 21, 2012
Mr. Wood,

When you mentioned Psalm 8 two works came to mind:

1) An essay by Marilynne Robinson "Psalm Eight" from The Death of Adam

2) Richard Wilbur's poem, "Psalm" (see below)

Give thanks for all things
On the plucked lute, and likewise
The harp of ten strings.

Have the lifted horn
Greatly blare, and pronounce it
Good to have been born.

Lend the breath of life
To the stops of the sweet flute
Or capering fife,

And tell the deep drum
To make, at the right juncture,

Then, in grave relief,
Praise too our sorrows on the
Cello of shared grief.

written by Joseph Wood, July 21, 2012
Frank, thanks for your comment. I don't think conservative Catholics are uniquely self-isolating. But like any group with shared thoughts and practices, we can tend sometimes to talk mainly among ourselves. Others outside the conservative Catholic camp are pursuing similar lines of reason to ours. Without compromising our own beliefs, we should see where the planes cross, to use your phrase. As one of Evelyn Waugh's characters supposedly said in Officers and Gentlemen, "It's going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it with friends." (I owe Geoge Weigel for that reference) I just want us to look for friends wherever they may be. And some people do switch from one political or spiritual plane to another, as I keep in mind as a convert.

Manfred, for more information, I can only suggest getting the book, which is both thorough and highly readable. If you buy it through the link in the book's title in the column (Amazon/Catholic Thing), you'll help Bob Royal and Brad Miner keep the project going. It's the kind of book that you may want to pass on to others, as well. If you like the idea of headng for another planet, you might read, if you haven't already, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, or Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, or the science fiction trilogy of CS Lewis (Perelandra, etc). I'll admit I find the idea appealing myself sometimes, though I'd still be myself after the trip. And as Chesterton once wrote to a newspaper in answer to the editor's invitation to answer the question, "what's wrong with the world?," I am. Just not in the way the antihumanists think I am, as Zubrin brilliantly explains.

written by Louise, July 21, 2012
Your article was a good reminder that Catholicism finds and embraces truth wherever it can be found, thanks for the refreshment.
written by Gabriel Austin , July 21, 2012
But we are both the end and the beginning of history. Go back but two decades. Is it not evident that whatever date one chooses is the point at which history arrived; and whatever date one chooses is the point from which history departs?
written by Graham Combs, July 21, 2012
Perhaps it's where I live or have worked, but more often than not merely to stray from what someone has jokingly called the "timeless tosh of current wisdom's past" is to invite rebuff. Mention casually attending mass or something interesting monsignor has done or a bishop has written or, heaven forbid, the Holy Father himself and it's that sudden freeze of the face. Hard not to feel isolated. And many Catholics are now discovering that if the institution has "public" in the title it only means some of the public.

I'm familiar with Robert Zubrin but not this book so I'm grateful for the heads up. I will check the library. As they used to say when I was a boy in the 60s, I believe in the space program in all its manifestations. Despite this administration's disasterous policies, both private and US Air Force efforts are helping us keep on top technologically. Sadly, after Curiousity lands safely on Mars in August (we all hope and pray) there is no new mission in the pipeline. As in all things, the president is busy "building yesterday's future" as Baroness Thatcher once put it. Except without Col. Dan Dare of the International Space Patrol...

After entering the Church in 2009, I had an idea or perhaps "received" an idea for a story, a novel, very much in the spirit of Joseph Wood's column and different and more personal than anything else I had attempted. Now a manuscript I hope to self-publish it on Kindle and iPad. I think that the more technologically feasible it is to pioneer the solar system for human habitation, the more resistance there will be to it. This administration is only one example of how this might happen. England let her dissidents and dreamers leave and take great chances; I wonder if that will be the case with technologically advanced nations as this century progresses. The Chinese think they will control human exploration. But will they be able to abuse their people in this as they've done in all else in the past? Stephen Hawking is right; it is a matter of survival. But something more. I disagree with the late Ray Bradbury's wonderful MARTIAN CHRONICLES in this; once people leave Earth and settle elsewhere they won't go back. We may very well have a moral obligation not to.
written by Gian, July 23, 2012
The disengagement with the Polis is, what was called Familism during English Reformation, the idea that the bonds of family love suffice to build a Christian City.

The denial of the City is analogous to that of the Economists. They assert only the Individual and seek to reduce the political to the pre-political.

The Catholics of the Right appear to be susceptible to the Misean Cult in particular, as it is expressed in a logically rigorous form.

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