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1968 at 50

A wise priest/professor at Notre Dame told me recently that the great Catholic historian Philip Gleason (now emeritus at ND) often counseled people to keep calm: “Remember, at least it’s not 1968.”

I’m not so sure. We’ve just had an archbishop [1], head of two pontifical councils, praise a nasty Communist China with a recklessness not seen since Hanoi Jane Fonda visited Communist North Vietnam. We’re seeing the return of priests, bishops, and cardinals teaching contradictory things, sometimes even claiming that what was once “intrinsically evil” is in some cases now required [2] – and certain they’re riding a new outpouring of Spirit. Centuries of moral theology seem in peril when the pope steps on a plane. And the message out of Rome hasn’t been so confusing since Paul VI.

A remark I just came upon by a well-known American priest (not Fr. James Martin) took me back to those troubling days. He claims that belief that human beings are divided into male and female is the product of our “binary” minds.

This priest’s other work has some spiritual heft and, until I look further into what he meant, I’m not going to name him. Besides, my concern is less with him personally than with a way of moral reflection that now seems everywhere in the Church, from ordinary laypeople in the pews to Rome.

[3]

Because it’s important to recognize that some people now think such statements are a Christian approach to neuralgic sexual conflicts. For time out of mind, the question never even came up; it was settled “by inspection.” Our creative species has produced some exotic blooms across cultures and millennia, but never until now LGBTQQIAAP. . . .

Hegel, as Benedict XVI often reminded us, said reason has a wax nose that may be turned in any direction. Smart guy, but he didn’t know the half of it.

In a religious perspective, it was enough to recall the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible:

God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female – he created them. (Gen. 1:27)

*

It wasn’t rigid Roman monsignori or legalistic moral theologians – still less brain structures resembling digital devices – that gave us this fundamental insight into human nature.

All the historical-critical approaches to Scripture – to say nothing of the bizarre interpretations [4] people like Fr. Martin frequently Tweet out these days – should not distract us. There are lots of very smart believers with the requisite credentials who are: 1) not Fundamentalists, 2) understand the complexities of understanding portions of the Bible, and 3) still believe that, in such matters, we can be plain readers of the Word.

Contradiction is not spiritual development. If the Biblical tradition has gotten something so basic as male/female wrong from the beginning, what can’t it have gotten wrong?

And if you believe that, why not just chuck it and make up whatever you want in some new “faith community”?

Years ago, I invited an Orthodox Jewish friend, the White House Jewish liaison, to speak at a conference. (Whenever he had to stay late on a Friday evening, the start of the Sabbath, he would empty his pockets, take off his belt so as not to be “carrying anything,” and walk home as the Sabbath rules prescribed.) A group of Jewish feminists attacked him after his talk. I will never forget his response: I’ll discuss anything with you, but you have to show me first where in the Law the argument begins.

A Christian will have a different view of the Law (while remembering Jesus’ words that he came not to abolish the Law). But I was – still am – struck by that Jewish sanity. If you don’t have common starting points as a Jew or a Christian, you can claim anything. Many people these days do.

That’s because they begin thinking not from common Biblical or theological categories, but from what people now assume is common sense: that being male or female is malleable, that everyone should be free to marry who they want, that love is all you need, that past ideas on these and other matters are socially constructed, power relations – in a word, evil.

Even in the Church, people now use the strange assumptions of post-Christian culture to make it look like orthodox Jews and Christians are dissenters. And haters. Let’s be clear, this is not an indictment of a few graceless people on fire for the Gospel. It’s an indictment of our whole tradition.

All this only became possible because of the long process by which what people think of as common sense was altered radically. It’s been called many things: historicism, the long march through institutions, cultural Marxism.

The common thread was a desire to “free” the human will from limits, whether in God or nature. An Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote the book [5] (literally) on how to do this while in a Fascist prison. Many of our cultural radicals followed his advice.

Curiously, Gramsci took a lesson from the Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation. They didn’t just seek to sway leaders, in Church or state. Those gains could easily disappear if different leaders came to power.

No, said Gramsci, their genius was to create una cultura capillare, a fine network of institutions and opinion that, like the capillaries in our bodies, reach every nook and cranny.

Wonder why religious liberty or marriage hangs by a single vote in the Supreme Court? The counterculture has burrowed away in education, law schools, media, and culture.

During the Reformation, as even an Italian Communist could see, the Jesuits made Protestantism virtually unthinkable for many Catholics. Their shaping of what counts as common sense formed an immoveable barrier.

I’m not expecting today’s Jesuits to lead the counterreform we need now. But someone has to – vigorously, over the long haul. Maybe you, in whatever place you find yourself. Or we’ll continue hearing even Christian leaders dismiss the simplest facts of life as the illusions of “binary minds.”

 

*Image: The Joining of Adam and Eve (left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights) by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500 [Museo del Prado]

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.