Disorder on the March

The last week or two have shown the forces of disorder on the march, in the full momentum of their triumphs in recent years.  A quick review: 

• Former Disney Corporation commodity/child star Miley Cyrus gave a pornographic performance at the televised MTV Video Music Awards.  Her explicit sexual depictions, for an audience that she and the producers knew would include children, drew the excited buzz that her money managers probably longed for.  Despite some criticism, the fact of her “accomplishment” advances the argument in favor of “sex as entertainment” as the cultural norm, for those of all ages.

• The Internal Revenue Service announced that same-sex couples married in states permitting such arrangements could file joint tax returns wherever they move, including in states that do not acknowledge their marriage. In line with the Supreme Court’s invalidation of parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, the progressive state and its collection agency have created another “fact on the ground” with regard to the legal legitimacy of same-sex marriage and the strangeness of those who might oppose it.

• Hadley Arkes reported the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision to uphold penalties against a couple who refused, on religious grounds, to photograph acts of same-sex affection in a wedding.  The authority of the state to dismiss religious and conscience-based objections to its view of equality thereby grew.

• Huffington Post alerted us to the rapid entry into the medical market of easy, non-invasive screening tests for genetic abnormalities in pre-borns as early as ten weeks after conception, especially those with Down syndrome.  “These tests … grant women more time to make an educated decision on whether to continue the pregnancy, or to prepare medically and emotionally to raise a child different from the one they might have expected.”  A doctor described these new tests as the “entrée” that might, if necessary during a pregnancy, lead to the “main course” of more definite, invasive testing.  Interestingly, the report included interviews and photos of mothers who had either rejected more invasive screening (due to risk of miscarriage) or chosen to have a child with Down’s syndrome.  But the autonomy of a mother’s choice over the life or death of her children is thus enlarged. 

• The Middle East has descended further into chaos.  The American administration, which has resisted acting in Syria to implement its own stated policy that President Bashir al-Assad must go, accepted the truth of allegations that Syria, a Russian and Iranian client, had recently killed hundreds of non-combatants with chemical weapons.  Among the estimated 75 -100,000 deaths in the civil war there since early 2011, Christians – many of whom were already refugees from Islamist violence in Iraq following the American removal of Saddam Hussein – have faced particularly dire consequences.  At this stage, it is impossible to sort out whom America might reasonably support among Assad’s Ba’athist henchmen or the Syrian opposition groups, which include both fans of Western liberalism and Jihadi fighters.

Reality bites back . . .

Likewise, in Egypt, America has faced a choice between a Muslim Brotherhood government, duly elected and industriously implementing an Islamist agenda both in Egypt and across the region, and a less Islamist military’s re-taking of power.  And Christians, who in recent decades had found an uneasy modus vivendi with the military government, have been the focus of Brotherhood rage.  Again, the confusion is so complete at this point that the consequences of any action or inaction are completely unpredictable.

• At home, Catholics have been troubled by the Jody Bottum Affair, or Bottumgate, which has produced a bottomless cauldron of discontent.  Bottum, for intellectually flaccid and possibly other reasons, concluded that Catholics should accept same-sex marriage as a fact in the public square.

As several critics have pointed out, though, losing the political argument on marriage will not mollify those whose final purpose is the elimination of any reference to an order of living they themselves did not create.

That said, I’m sympathetic with Bottum in one regard.  The confusion of the moment is so comprehensive, as demonstrated in just the recent examples above from popular culture, law, science and politics, that any kind of coherent political or public square response is difficult to envision.

As a friend recently reminded me, a famous physical scientist once said that as science goes off on various excursions, “reality always bites back.”  We have reached a point, in our collective cultural and political abandonment of true order, where reality is going to bite back – maybe slowly and gently, maybe quickly and violently.

The question is how to witness for truth in the meantime. One answer is Alasdair MacIntyre’s advocacy of small communities that by and large withdraw from the national public square.

That stance is uncomfortable for Catholics – and many have rejected it – because the Church is interested in all aspects of truth, including how truth shapes political action. But until our nihilistic culture and the power politics of secular progressivism are reformed by some sort of spiritual renaissance, or collapse of their own dead weight, there will be severe limits to what can be accomplished in the public square.  And participation in that public square has to be weighed against the risk of legitimizing and perpetuating all that is wrong with it.

We will have to learn from Christians in the Middle East, from Christians in central Europe in the communist era, and most of all from first century Christians.  They all survived a great deal of reality’s biting back.  And they witnessed for Christ, first and always.


Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.