The Great Unraveling

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019