The Church is not Putty in the Hands of “History”

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The state of Catholic colleges these days puts me in mind of a bawdy jest in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. When a certain old farmer is asked how he’s doing, he replies that he’s stiff where he used to be limber, and limber where he used to be stiff.

So also our colleges. We are dogmatic where we ought to support free and open inquiry, and we are doubtful or careless where we ought to be sure.

In our time the most virulent heresies have to do with the regions below; not hell, in which people have ceased to believe, though its smoky efflorescences are easy to spy among us, but the Avernus of the groin.

Heretics ain’t what they used to be. Times of serious intellectual fire could produce a Marcion or an Arius. Times of intense mystical experience could produce a Meister Eckhart or a Joachim of Flora, each of them dancing on the brink. All we get now is political correctness and rainbow flags. I want my money back.

Let me give an example from my school. I’ve recently criticized many of my secular colleagues for being uncomfortable with or hostile to the Catholic character of Providence College, and the somewhat diluted classical education in the liberal arts that we still provide to our students through our Development of Western Civilization program.

One of the groups on the other side, stung by the criticism, issued a statement flatly denying the hostility, and yet in the same breath affirming their staunch opposition to “homophobia” and “sexism,” and their determination to battle against those evils.

I concede that those were not the only enemies in their gun-sights, but it struck me as I read their statement that they either had no idea what the Church teaches about sex, or they believed that whatever it was, it was limber; endlessly mutable, like putty in the hands of the great god of History.

They are happy with the Church, so long as the Church thinks about these things just what they think.

If you say, “I believe that homosexual actions are gravely disordered, and that people who encourage children to experiment with them are depraved,” that may get you fired at a place like De Paul, and it will earn you the anger of this group and other groups at Providence College.

If you say, “There are fundamental differences between men and women, physiological and psychological, that reach down to the depths of their being,” you will be accused of “sexism,” and your commitment to “diversity” will be questioned – for failing to believe that when it comes to male and female, there is no diversity.

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We might call it a Theology of the Disembodied Self. You may designate your sexual inclinations by any letter in the alphabet, and perhaps by letters yet to be invented; but you must not align your thoughts and deeds with the diversity that God has stamped upon the real human body, male and female. So might a pamphlet on the Theology of the Body be condemned as sexual harassment.

In sane times, you would be accused of harassment if you tried to persuade a young woman to have sexual intercourse with you. In these times, you may be accused of harassment if you say to young unmarried people generally that they have no business having sexual intercourse with anybody at all.

Truth is a road into truth. We cannot, in any field of the intellect, always be muddling with what has been clearly established. The heart pumps blood, the earth is tilted on its axis, English is a Germanic language, God made the heavens and the earth, and fornication is wrong.

By “clearly established,” I mean “clearly established for a Roman Catholic,” understanding that the Catholic will often have to work to persuade others that these things touching faith and morals are true. Not “true for Catholics,” which makes no sense, but true, simpliciter.

But Catholics also shouldn’t have to spend all their time guiding the weak and clearing the eyes of the half-blind. There is other work to do. Pope John Paul II gave us an example of such work when, beginning with the Catholic teachings as premises, he embarked upon a rich and subtle investigation into what it means to be embodied, sexually, and what the marriage of man and woman entails.

If you have always to bicker about the foundation, you never can build anything. If you have always to wrangle over the destination of your pilgrimage, you never will leave your village square.

Meanwhile, if our secular colleagues are evidence, Catholic schools are to be doctrinaire about a list of social issues a thousand times longer than the Nicene Creed, involving human matters that admit of a wide diversity of approaches. That’s what happens when contemporary politics supplants the faith.

In sane times, if you say, “I do not believe in God,” people pity you and pray for you, or try to show you where you left the road. In these times, if you say, “I think that Aid to Families with Dependent Children has often had the perverse effect of dissuading young people to get married in the first place,” you will be condemned.

If you say, “I do not believe in the category called Race,” you will not only be condemned – you will be condemned as a racist. If you try to understand the childhood traumas that lead certain boys into a life of futility and disease – if you try fearlessly to enter into that pain – you will be accused of irrational fear or outright hatred.

The true faith has its mysteries that transcend reason. Politics, the false faith, has its confusions that do not rise to the level of reason.

But are these colleagues of mine also hostile to the liberal arts? On that, more to come.

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Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

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