The Shell Game in Modern Culture Print
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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