The Catholic Thing
The Shell Game in Modern Culture Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 25 March 2012

The day before John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) said: “a new moralism exists today whose key words are justice, peace, and conservation of creation – words that call for essential moral values of which we are in real need. But this moralism remains vague and thus slides, almost inevitably, into the political-party sphere. It is above all a dictum addressed to others, and too little a personal duty of our daily life.” This was in his speech on the Europe’s Crisis of Culture. It was really a speech on the continuing effects of the Enlightenment.

If you are a religious in the United States, however, his words also describe some religious life right now. We hear about justice, peace, and creation. But something is missing. We see religious orders and dioceses riven by political affiliations. Ratzinger deliberately spoke of “moralism.” For example, religious who focus on interior decorating more than on prayer. It is the spirituality of the restaurant rather than the community table. These are Enlightenment religious. This Enlightenment effect can be discerned in Enlightenment bishops, Enlightenment dioceses, Enlightenment clergy, and Enlightenment laity.

Ratzinger was speaking of a morality that does not include God: “Political moralism, as we have lived it and are still living it, does not open the way to regeneration, and even more, also blocks it. The same is true, consequently, also for a Christianity and a theology that reduces the heart of Jesus' message, the ‘kingdom of God, to the ‘values of the kingdom,’ identifying these values with the great key words of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, as a synthesis of the religions.” (Emphasis added.) This is the result of losing God as the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, to whom all must be referenced. Failing that words become part of a shell game. They can mean anything that we want them to mean.

This produces a culture of calculation where “it is the calculation of consequences that determines what must or must not be considered moral. And thus the category of the good, as was clearly pointed out by Kant, disappears. Nothing is good or bad in itself, everything depends on the consequences that an action allows one to foresee.” We have, what, half of the U. S. Church calculating when to follow the Church and when not? How much calculating went on in creating the scandals? This is not just sinfulness, but a knowing Church teaching and deliberately acting against it.

Moreover, as Europe and America might discover, we have “the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundations.” Then further, “Enlightenment culture is essentially defined by the rights of freedom,” which are good up to the point where they start contradicting each other, such as the rights of the mother and the unborn child within her. The contradiction lies in the lack of a reference to God, as the God of life.

The forgotten outside reference point also produces a weird notion of freedom that “leads to dogmatism, [and] which is showing itself increasingly hostile to freedom.” He means real freedom as it is referred to God.

Before Ratzinger lists some of the intricacies of Enlightenment culture, “we must first finish describing it. It is part of its nature, in so far as culture of a reason that, finally, has complete awareness of itself, to boast a universal pretense and conceive itself as complete in itself, not in need of some completion through other cultural factors.”

The pretense of this intellectually, morally, and spiritually closed culture is opposed by the Catholic Church, which is intellectually, morally and spiritually open to God because it conceives of intellect and will in ultimately theological terms.

Ratzinger concedes that “the Enlightenment is of Christian origin” in the sense that it seeks a society with a certain egalitarian vision of man. But it was also a reaction against Christianity as the religion of the state. In Christianity, however: “Only creative reason, which in the crucified God is manifested as love, can really show us the way.” This is the alternative to the irrational Enlightenment view of the world in which the nature of the world cannot teach us anything so we can only think in terms of values or rights, imagined our way.

In broad strokes, then, is there any move to identify the Enlightenment currents – in that narrower sense – in the American Church? How about looking at such Enlightenment influences on the disciplines taught in seminaries? How about looking at how Enlightenment thinking has influenced decisions to teach Catholics throughout their lives. Or how it influences the way dioceses choose and design their programs? Ratzinger’s speech should be the start of something and not a footnote in history – which would be the Enlightenment way to handle it.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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written by Other Joe, March 25, 2012
The enlightenment is built on some faulty supports. The cornerstone is probably the idea that if knowledge is detailed enough, we can manage outcomes expertly. It assumes that we can know more than we do (and ignores free will and creativity) and thus that we can know the consequences of our choices and evaluate them correctly. Post-modern thinking (and contemporary physics) has revealed the faults in the premise as has the experience of history. The green movement is a perfect example of unpredicted consequences and contradictory initiatives. Once morality has been politicized, it devolves quickly into legalism and moral patronage. The law becomes technical - all letter and no spirit. It becomes impossibly intricate and requires the equivalent of Pharisees to interpret and apply to the “masses”. Bills in Congress run to thousands of pages. Their yoke is indeed burdensome, and the modern Pharisees exempt themselves from the effort they impose on others. We are living in a time of great biblical resonance. Thank you father Bramwell for the reminder.
written by Dave, March 25, 2012
I wish I could imagine a movement within the Church's intellectual organs to understand the Enlightenment thoroughly, take what is valid from it, and chuck the rest, but I cannot: the Land-o'-Lakes declaration of the late 60s effectively severed the Church's great American colleges and universities from the Magisterium, saying in effect that given a choice between fidelity to the Church or fidelity to a secular mindset inimical to the Church, "respectability" would be chosen ten times out of ten. The good news is that small Catholic colleges that did not acquiesce to this disastrous capitulation are imparting superb educations and graduating students who are deeply informed in and by the Faith and deeply educated, too: Thomas Aquinas, Dallas, Steubenville, Belmont Abbey College, St. Thomas More, Christendom, Wyoming Catholic College all come to mind, and I am sure there are many others. Their students do just fine in the great graduate schools, thank you, and not at the cost of checking their faith at the door. We owe the leaders of these schools an immense debt of gratitude.

The major religious orders, too, are in disastrous shape, having made the same capitulation to the spirit of the age, which is, let us be brutally honest, the spirit of antichrist. The Jesuits as such are hardly worth discussing, save for the great ones here and there who live in full fidelity to their founder's charism, such as our own beloved Fr. Schall; the sisters who run the hospitals consider themselves more or less a counter-Magisterium and have no difficult whatsoever publicly contradicting the shepherds of the Church, who take no steps to reel them in. The good news here, however, is those orders struggle to find members -- who wants to live a life of half-measures, especially in the spiritual life? -- while the new orders, fully faithful to the Magisterium and to the ancient canons of religious life, are bursting at the seams. One looks to the Dominican Sisters of Nashville, the contemplative orders of traditional usages -- the Carmelite nuns of New Jersey, the sisters in Michigan, the Carmelite monastery in Wyoming, Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico, Clear Creek Abbey. God is not finished building the Church in America, and His word never goes out in vain: it will always find a home somewhere, and build and grow within that home.

So there are grounds for hope. Our Lord Jesus promises the fullness of life to those who seek it fully and without reservation, and his promise holds true for all time. As our Holy Father writes in Jesus of Nazareth, " if you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of the terrible things that will happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge" (p. 38). One has to note the sober realism of that statement -- true discipleship does not exempt one from terrible things happening, and it even can entail them, as the servant is not above the Master.

What we don't know is whether the landmark colleges, universities, and religious orders are reformable: they will not turn until the culture itself turns, and that could be a very long time in coming. Or not: they may never turn back to a full and deep embrace of the Magisterium. Or, depending upon the arrival and the effects of the springtime of the New Evangelization, they may indeed turn back and sooner rather than later. We just don't know, and, may I suggest that except for those of their alumni who are faithful to Church and school, it doesn't really matter.

What we do know is how to form ourselves in the perennial philosophy and in the Magisterium of the Church. Literature abounds and thanks to the Internet we have daily access to the teachings of our Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him. And we do know there are people who caught in the vicissitudes and uncertainties of life are still looking for an anchor and a rock on which to build or to rest. There should be all kinds of groups springing up to study the faith, right in the domestic churches throughout our lands, and in faithful parishes, too.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it." Those words are true even if vast portions of the Church have capitulated to the darkness. And so, despite the darkness of the hour, and the growing darkness descending upon us, I choose to embrace hope.
written by Brian A. Cook, March 27, 2012
"...justice, peace, and conservation of creation – words that call for essential moral values of which we are in real need..."

Clearly he sees that liberals are human beings who do have redeeming qualities. Clearly he sees that the "spirit of the age" is not "the spirit of the antichrist," that is, completely and totally opposed to Christ. The Enlightenment is not pure darkness. I've been trying to point out that fact on many different Catholic websites.
written by Achilles, March 28, 2012
Brian A.
What odd things you say. We Catholics know that all humans are worth more than the entire physical universe and that the very image of God in which we were created is everyone’s single greatest redeeming quality. However, most things about the “spirit of the age” are anti-Christ, especially the leftist liberal politics. The Enlightenment is worse than pure darkness because it gives those of us with a lesser intellectual capacity the impression that it is in fact light when it is not. The Enlightenment experiment failed and as it erodes the pillars of our society and continues to siphon away all the moral capital amassed by our forefathers, it is only a matter of time before we see our civilization collapse.

You have misunderstood what the good Fr. Bramwell is saying, but you are seeing it through very tinted lenses. Good luck to you Brian.
written by Tony Esolen, March 28, 2012
Add to the sources of hope: the Dominican order in the US, especially in the eastern province, is strong, and is growing exceptionally strong. I have also been informed that in twenty years we will see a wholly renewed and reinvigorated Society of Jesus.
written by Brian A. Cook, March 29, 2012
Has the Enlightenment experiment failed? I'll listen to level-headed, honest arguments. I won't listen to smears of liberals as demons or as the Enlightenment as pure evil. Look at the Civil Rights movement. Look at the abolition of slavery. Look at the movements to allow women into public life. Look at the movements for health care and decent labor.
written by Achilles, March 29, 2012
Either the Enlightenment has failed or it has not. That some things have gone right in America has much less to do with the Enlightenment and more to do with the traditional ethics of the Great Western Civilization shouldn’t be too far a stretch.

When you mention what you will and will not listen to, it strikes me that perhaps you learned too well from the public schools to “think for yourself.” Telling someone to think for themselves is like telling someone to breath air. My dear mentor told me “don’t teach children to think for themselves, teach them to think correctly!”

Good luck Brian.

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