Against the “Evolutionary Now”

As part of the vast and unpredictable game of guiding children towards adulthood, parents often say – especially to teenagers – “think for yourself.” They don’t exactly mean it, of course. Under cover of this seeming appeal to freedom, they mean, “don’t think (let alone act) like the boobies you’re hanging around with.” But thinking like their friends – and not like their parents, teachers, pastors, coaches – is precisely what immature kids believe is “thinking for yourself.”

Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but this sad fact of human nature came to me when I read LCWR President Sr. Pat Farrell’s recent interview with NPR during which she said that the conflict between her organization of American nuns and the Vatican boils down to: “Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?” Sr. Farrell, let it be noted, faced dangerous years in Latin America, from which she came away, like many others, with what seems to me a mistaken liberation theology. But she put her life on the line for what she believed, and that’s acting like an adult.

Still, there’s something more than slightly adolescent – and patronizing – about her question. LCWR begins its annual conference tomorrow in St. Louis, whose general theme is: “Mystery Unfolding: Leading in the Evolutionary Now.” Only people holding on to a perspective that passed its sell-by date around 1978 could propose a theme like this in 2012, which seems to belong more to a “reactionary then.” Sr. Farrell and her sisters are big on evolving and changing ideas to respond to the times – especially when the new ideas aren’t traditional Catholicism. And that will be in the mix at the conference when they discuss the Vatican’s criticisms of LCWR.        

All this gets great play in the mainstream media, which haven’t interviewed the different breed of religious women who belong to orders that are actually likely to exist in twenty years. But by celebrating Sr. Farrell and LCWR – or Nancy Pelosi talking about how her Catholic faith enables her, as a woman, to make her own decisions – the media practice a subtle ventriloquism. They can make it appear that real Catholics think for themselves, precisely because they think like, say, NPR.

My own take on this is that a certain segment of an older generation of Catholics were sold a pup in a period of chaos – those years after Vatican II when the Church seemed not to know what it believed anymore. Thinking for yourself is fine in many respects. But it’s not all that easy to think and it’s never only you doing the thinking.

The most famous case of someone trying to think solely for himself was Descartes and his cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” An old French story, probably apocryphal, has a featherheaded Parisian bimbo approaching Descartes, “But Mons. Descartes, what about me? I do not think. And I exist.”

More seriously, how could Descartes have written cogito if he had not learned Latin from the Jesuits at the College Royale in La Flèche? Or why would he make the argument if there wasn’t a crisis in epistemology in the European society of his time? It’s only because human communities exist and others teach us to talk that anyone can think.

This may seem abstruse, but it has a serious bearing on the question: “Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?” Forget the hidden insult in how this is formulated. The serious way of putting it is: “How can you be a Catholic in your quite necessary questioning and other intellectual pursuits?”

To be a Catholic thinker or questioner is not – pace LCWR – to believe that what passes through your own head therefore deserves attention. There are questions of judgment and experience and belonging to a specific community that come into play.

One of TCT’s founders, Michael Novak, says that when he read in Aristotle that no one can be a philosopher until forty, he asked himself: “Okay, what can I do until then?” That’s youthful promise.

The Church, which absorbed ancient pagan wisdom into its own thinking, has been a living incarnation of this kind of realism. The Latin tag sentire cum ecclesia, “to think with the Church,” can seem to some a limitation on intellectual freedom. But it all comes back to whether you are a Catholic, meaning someone in a living tradition, asking questions.

Catholicism does not have answers for everything, to be sure. The Nuns on the Bus may think they know how to solve poverty or the economic crisis. The Church as a whole doesn’t. But if in 2000 years, she hasn’t accumulated real wisdom, then it might be better to give up the whole thing.

I attribute a lot of the rash judgment, even in the Church, to an attitude that got going around the time of Kant (1724-1804), a very great thinker and serious moralist. But his own Latin motto, Aude sapere, “dare to know,” which was often coupled with the notion that humanity has finally “come of age,” had some unfortunate consequences.

I was too young to follow Vatican II, but I do remember, a bit later, Catholics talking brashly about a world “come of age” (which actually appears in the Conciliar documents) and striking out boldly on what they thought would be the path of renewal.

Well, we’ve had two centuries since Kant and a half-century since the Council. We’ve had serious material improvements: contrary to the liberationists, capitalism, industrialism, and technology have raised the living standard of ordinary people and moved more than a billion out of destitution. Are there profound problems with this entire process? Absolutely. But it’s unequalled in human history.

As far as human maturity goes, however, we’re always pretty much the same. And if, as a Catholic – or a human being – you want to do some thinking for yourself, you’d do better to forget the Evolutionary Now and come to terms with that old, but indispensable truism.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.