I want to begin with what some of you may find a shocking confession: I regret being here – regret having to be here – and I believe you should as well. We should all thank the organizers of this event for responding to what is truly a strange moment in the life of a Church that has seen many oddities in its 2,000-year history. And personally, I have learned a great deal from the speakers who have come before us these two days. Yet even as we are grateful, we need to remind ourselves that we come together dismayed that what we do here is even necessary. In all the ups and downs, there have been certain things that remained steady, seemingly beyond question, in the Church, notably on basic human realities like marriage and family. That we must now defend them, even within the Church Herself, already tells us a great deal.
I’ve been asked, coming at the close of this event, to speak in broad terms about current divisions, and the challenges and opportunities they present. I don’t want to repeat in this concluding session what others have already said – and I fully endorse – to what we probably all already believe. So I thought it might be useful for me to take a longer perspective because given the problems we face, we’re all going to need a great deal of holy patience in coming years. Our problems are mostly not like mechanical breakdowns that can be fixed with relatively easy technical means. Some are, of course, as in when we fight for religious liberties or conscience rights in courts and public forums. But many of our strongest challenges, if I can put it this way, are not so much mechanical as organic. We need to regrow large swaths of organic connections about God and man, man and woman, persons and communities, the human and the natural Church and world. When you’ve left a field, many fields, lie fallow for decades –as has been the case now in the Church – the seeds you plant won’t come up for a while, or bear fruit in some cases for quite a while.
I was struck in the video by John Lacken that we saw yesterday by the young girl, after the vote permitting abortion, saying, “Ireland has come so far in the last ten years. We don’t listen so much to the Church anymore.” A typical young person’s view, of course, but who do Ireland, and America, and other Western nations listen to then? Who taught them that sex between any two consenting people is okay? Or that killing babies in the womb is a freedom to be celebrated? Or who failed to teach them about God and his purposes in creating us? Answering these questions and forging a culture that will form young people from early ages to a different way of thinking won’t be achieved by mechanical fixes, important as those are, but by the slow cultivation of a very different Church and society. We shouldn’t be Pollyannaish about this moment; our Western nations may be entering a New Dark Age in which the economic and technical structures hold for a while, though fall into decay. Or we may be able to save ourselves. The challenges are many, to be sure, but so are the opportunities if faithful Catholics respond with patience but also force, fidelity but also imagination. Remember St. Paul, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds more.”
I’m going to try to lay all this out in three large categories: first, what is the nature of the world in which we find ourselves – because unless we know where we are we’ll have little chance of moving in the right direction; second, I want to speak about the Church in which we currently find ourselves, the central Western institution, which has always been a steadying force when the world needed steadying, a prophetic force when it needed shaking; and finally let’s look at some of the things we can say and do, in both the short-term and long-term. One thing we can be sure of: despite everything we face, God meant us to exist in this time and place. And unless you think He put us here solely as punishment – not a very Christian view frankly – He must believe we are, at least in principle, the right people to accomplish what must be accomplished. As the old poet said, “Praised by God who matched us with this hour.” Let’s pray we’re up to it.
Which brings me to my first main topic: our world at the present moment. It’s useful to remind ourselves that we’re living in a time that has been characterized as “post-truth.” That term first appeared in politics, not with the election of a man whose initials are DT, but I think as far back as the early 1990s, and for a long time it referred to a kind of heightening of media spin on various matters. But even before that, cultural elites were fascinated with deconstruction and postmodernism and seeing truth as merely a will to power. We’ve far beyond even that now. For the first time in Western history, I think, metaphysics, ontology, epistemology have become immediate public questions.
This is not a good thing. Most people, as Aquinas rightly noted, are incapable of dealing with such matters, either from lack of ability or of interest, and so forth. That’s why a kind of settled “metaphysical dream of the world” – the phrase is Richard Weaver’s – is crucial, but as an assumed background for other things that we do. We cannot be always proving everything, especially first principles, which are first because they aren’t proved but seen as foundational truths. Without a common, assumed, steady background, we’re a bit like Wil E. Coyote in the old “Roadrunner” cartoon. We’ve gone speeding over the edge of the cliff. We haven’t fallen yet and our legs are still going madly. But there’s nothing underneath us, no place for our efforts to get a purchase. The plunge is inevitable.
Right now, we have two starkly opposed views of the world and of human being, and not just in philosophical theory, but being played out every day in the media and our public life and – most dangerously – in the Church, the only living repository of Biblical and pre-modern truths. It is not good for ultimate things to be clashing in the always truth- deprived realm of politics. Consider those two views. One still believes that the Creator, the world He created, and our very created human nature involve realities that – however difficult they may be to discern and follow – determine how we will either flourish or fail to flourish. The other denies all this: there is no creator (or at least none who matters much to what we want to do), no natural order to which we must submit, no human nature other than the observation that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (as Anthony Kennedy, an Irish-American Catholic serving as a justice of our Supreme Court, once put it).
In the confused ways of public discourse, especially given the swamp of digital media, these two views don’t line up neatly. So at the very moment that, say, someone is utterly free to define himself as a herself, or vice versa, there is also an affirmation that it is cosmically, outrageously, fatally wrong for someone else to adopt a different – traditional – definition “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The opposition of these two views has existed as long as philosophy itself, but they’ve never been opposed quite so starkly and publicly as they are today. Compared with this, the usual Conservative/liberal political divide, while not unimportant, is kid stuff. And there’s an asymmetry in how this plays out publicly. Under the older dispensation, it was possible to tolerate a number of people who denied basic truth claims. Under the emerging regime, “post-truth,” in the stronger metaphysical and epistemological sense, regards truth as “hate,” bias, evil. We aren’t quite there yet, but persons and institutions – the Catholics and the Church prominently among them – are in this perspective not simply wrong. They threaten the “heart of liberty.” They’re more like the Ku Klux Klan or Taliban than the central Western religious tradition.
No one under the newer dispensation can quite say why we’re obligated to respect other human beings if we’re all free to make it all up; the newer anthropology denies there is such a thing as human nature – unless “born that way” is a useful rhetorical move. Which raises what I think is the most radical threat. In the first pages of Genesis, we read, “in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them.” (Gen. I, 27) Now, we have all been evangelized by modern culture to believe that this is sad and simplistic “binary thinking,” which is, further, akin to “hate speech” and even hate itself. Some in the Church have adopted that view outright, others confusingly half accept it, while still others have remained sane while not knowing why they think what they think. But we should be clear about what disputing this foundational principle means. Put bluntly, it means that we got wrong what human beings are from the beginning. And if the Church – and by extension the Western civilization that the Church helped create – got that wrong, what hasn’t She get wrong?
There’s a lot more at stake here than what many people wearily want to play down as merely a “debate about sexual morality.” As the context of Genesis makes clear, this is more generally about how God formed us as human beings, what that means about how we live individually and with others, both in a family – the basic cell of society as both pagans and Christians have known in the West – and why we defend male and female, husband and wife, parents and children NOT in any way we like. But the way God likes. The way He told us at the outset is our nature. Rare is the Christian who is not embarrassed to say this in public now. You’re the Ku Klux Klan, the Taliban. There’s a good reason for this bizarre overreaction: because it’s the fundamental spiritual struggle between God’s order for the world and the various human attempts to promote a different order.
Yes, and it’s no surprise, therefore, that a prominent American cleric also here in Dublin this week has tried to turn “intrinsically disordered” into “differently ordered.” What’s at stake is not some view of human beings developed by monsignori in Rome with too much time on their hands. What’s at stake is whether we are going to be believers in the first principles conveyed to us about ourselves by Revelation in the earliest book bequeathed to us by our Jewish brothers and sisters. Or are we going to dismiss Moses and the tradition he handed over to us as mere Iron Age primitives, inferior to us postmoderns in our lofty understanding of human life and divine purpose. This is no abstract question: as we see in schools that teach contempt for the West, contracepting and aborting nations experiencing declining populations, we’re looking at potentially the suicide of the West.
This leads to my second large theme: where is the Church in all of this? I’m going to be quite blunt about this, and some of you may wish to disagree. Since the election of Pope Francis, the Church has greatly diminished its essential countercultural role. It has stepped up engagement on poverty, refugees, environment, etc., which were not exactly missing prior to the pope’s election in 2013. The Church has long been the largest provider internationally of relief services – and not just when some disaster strikes but as a steady presence in some of the most challenging places in the world.
Where the Church is missing in action is in a very different struggle [that’s] come to be called in some circles “the culture war,” precisely the clash between the two worldviews, the Truth, as I described earlier. Pope Francis’ striking image of the Church as a “field hospital” contains a good bit of truth. We – even we Catholics – can forget, however, that there’s war even in heaven, that as St. Paul says in Ephesians: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It’s no wonder that we poor creatures of clay are mired in various evils, many of our own making. But the field hospital, necessary as it is, is not enough. To begin with, treatment depends on knowledge. If a doctor is merciful and accompanies his patient, that’s all to the good. We’d say he has a good bedside manner. But if he hasn’t studied medicine deeply and learned how to use that knowledge in given circumstances, he may be a soothing presence and a much appreciated figure when people are in crisis, but he can’t really help anyone.
In the context of this conference, I’m reminded of some unfortunate remarks of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, an Irishman who has lived many years in America and is now head of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. You may recall that he said about the ability of priests to prepare people for marriage: “They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day. . .they don’t have the experience.” There’s a sense, a very limited sense, in which this is true. But for me this is like pitting medical knowledge against the bedside manner. It’s as if moral theology, dogmatic theology, and theory – which is to say Truth – have no effect on anything real. If so, why even study them?
I covered the election of Pope Francis for EWTN television and I’ve always been impressed with his charisma and genuine ability to touch people. But sheer devotion to the truth leads me to say also that he’s been relatively unconcerned with the careful, patient, consistent work of theology and philosophy that’s been one of the distinctive marks of the Catholic Church for 2,000 years. One of his close collaborators, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., has argued that the pope deliberately does NOT take that approach. He prefers, in some Jesuit fashion that I’m not clear about, to look specifically at a problem, pray on it, contemplate it, then act without too much concern for how it is consistent or inconsistent with other matters. I don’t know if this is true, of course, but it would seem to explain why there’s been so much confusion, disorder, chaos is not too strong a word, at many points over the past five years.
Pope Francis seems to believe that the primary problem in the Church is a doctrinal and pastoral rigidity – his word – that prevents Catholics from engaging others in love and mercy. This must correspond to some experience in his own life because he said very early on in an interview with Fr. Spadaro that Catholics had to stop obsessing and insisting on questions like abortion and homosexuality, but instead engage people in the world to work for the common good. This caused no little stir among many people who have sacrificed to defend life, marriage, and family.
More recently, he even denounced people who make an idol of the truth. As he said during the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday this year:
We must be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths. They can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern. Because the “truth-idol” imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words touch the heart. Much worse, it distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.
We can all recognize a real failing here, a way that a Christian thinker may use truth against charity. For me, however, a much greater problem is the one I mentioned earlier: we live in a “post-truth” age. And that characterization is not something that was developed by some small group of obsessive Christian intellectuals. Truth has few close friends in any age, but in my own judgment the world is suffering far more from a lack of real truth that leads to real mercy, real forgiveness, real closeness, and real charity. And looking around America and the several countries that I visit regularly, I would be hard pressed to say that the most immediate problem we face is Catholics too much obsessed with the truth. The task for the future, it seems – to me at any rate – is how, as the phrase goes, to have hard heads and soft hearts.
Furthermore, it’s quite clear that the last time the Church grew unsteady about truth in the 1960s and 1970s corresponded with the great bump in abuse cases. Ideas – truths – have consequences.
Which brings us to our third large subject: what role or roles does all this lead us to play as Christians. There are many mansions in this house. Not everyone can – or should – engage public questions. But everyone should be aware of their power and the challenge in a Post-Truth Age. Plato says at a couple of points that when public affairs reach a certain level of decay, that the philosopher – we might add the Christian or anyone who wants to pursue and live the truth – will have to withdraw from the public realm. And Aristotle, who is usually thought of as the proponent of public responsibilities, fled Athens after the death of Alexander the Great because, he said, that he did not wish the city that had executed Socrates  “to sin twice against philosophy.”
Several of you have probably been following the conversations initiated by Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Rod has been arguing, not for withdrawal from the world necessarily, but for a recognition of the tsunami of anti-religious, and more specifically anti-Christian action that is coming forward. Trying to get the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception is just the beginning. Politicians in America and Ireland – outrageously in my view – have openly been saying the Church must change her moral teachings. As if modern democratic candidates have any expertise or business in any of that. We need to strengthen oases of Christian community, Rod argues, because of the widespread hostility that’s coming, and in some ways is already here. This is easier said than done. The diagnosis, I think, is the stronger part of the book; because if the cultural momentum is so strongly against traditional Biblical beliefs, there’s not likely to be much room to operate even in special enclaves. A sobering prospect indeed. But that is where imagination and courage will show themselves. I’ve seen some of the means here in Ireland that Catholics used to survive under English persecution. It’s been done and can be again.
Besides, there’s something stirring just now in the public realm, both in America and Europe. It’s been characterized by our elite culture as populism. Roger Scruton, the great British philosopher, says that populism is what elites call it when the people vote in ways that the elites do not like. In America, we have, of course, a wild and somewhat incoherent populism at the moment. It remains to be seen if it will effectively push back against the elite internationalism that has prevailed probably since the end of World War II. I’ve noticed something similar here in Europe. Brexit is obviously a reaction to threats to British and European culture owing to unchecked immigration and the multiculturalism elites wish to foster. On the continent, the way that Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, even the Czech Republic, even Austria in part, Italy, and other nations are reacting suggests something is afoot, still in the first stages of formation and troubling in some aspects, but a welcome opening in the secular world.
Just to mention one of the concrete effects, in America, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, he of the “mystery” passage, retired in June. Brett Kavanaugh, another Irish-American Catholic, has been nominated by President Trump, and is all but certain to be confirmed. Kavanaugh, I believe is a strict believer in constitutionalism and the rule of law, and quite unlikely, like his predecessor, to invent rights and liberties on the basis of personal whims.
That may not be all we need in the public realm, but for the moment if Christians can win the right to be left alone to be Christian, it will be a great step forward. So-called “populism” may help us with that.
So what about the Church?
It’s hard to say anything about renewal in the Church at this moment in which the abuse crisis is hanging over all our heads. Absent that, we might talk at length about restoring a better balance between the dogmatic and the pastoral elements in the Church: between truth and charity. I’ll come back to that in a minute. But first a word about the abuse crisis in America.
This is a terrible moment, but also I think a moment of cleansing fire. Our bishops were slow, very slow, in realizing that we have passed what I call an “inflexion point.” The revelations about Cardinal McCarrick – things that were known to me even as a young man when I was editing a small magazine in Princeton New Jersey in the 1980s – has lit a fuse. There will be no way for the bishops now to avoid a serious reckoning, if only because secular authorities will not be content with the old stonewalling. My wife Veronica is here this afternoon and we began to notice several weeks ago that a few bishops started to step forward and say everything now must be open for inspection. We both came to the conclusion that these men were clear, uncompromised. Bishops in our country – I expect the same is true elsewhere – tend to band together like a flock of sheep, with hardly anyone wanting to be out of step with the herd. But the old arrangements won’t work anymore. In my view, it’s already the case that any bishop who merely talks of penitence and shame, without committing himself to openness and action is going to fall under suspicion. That may be unfair, even unjust, but the sheer magnitude of the evils revealed means no more hiding is possible.
There are rumors that the pope has already asked Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to visit America, as he has Chile, and do an investigation. If so, that would be a good beginning. But there’s another question about Rome itself that will be even more difficult to resolve. How, for example, did Ex-Cardinal McCarrick become archbishop of Washington when stories of his scandalous life were widely known? How could Cardinal Farrell, who as former vicar general of Washington lived with McCarrick in the same residence for years, not have heard the rumors? How is it that the dioceses of Newark and Metuchen in New Jersey and the papal nuncio did not report settlements with victims in a timely way and to persons in the Vatican hierarchy who could have stopped a disastrous scandal?
And this is just one case from America. I’ll predict here and now you’ll hear of more in the near future.
We also have similar cases in Chile, where it seems two cardinals are implicated. Honduras, where one of the pope’s closest collaborators, Cardinal Maradiaga, faces credible charges about misuse of funds and failure to respond to a homosexual culture at the Tegucigalpa seminary. Maradiaga, it’s worth recalling, said in the early 2000s that the abuse crisis in America was being manufactured by Jews in the media. He later apologized, but probably still believes that.
I said earlier that we need to re-establish a kind of implicit notion of background truths since most people won’t be able to reason them out on their own. For that, we’re going to need something in short supply these days in the Church and the world: trust. Especially trust in the right kind of authority. When I’ve taught philosophy, I tell students that they may not remember the arguments when they’ve finished the course. But at least they will know that there are answers and that people who are intelligent and trustworthy can provide them.
That used to be the attitude toward bishops and priests, theologians and Catholic philosophers. For reasons too numerous to mention in a brief lecture, the Church has squandered that trust. We’re talking a lot these days about the sex-abuse crisis and the abuse of Episcopal authority up to the highest levels of the Church that allowed it to take monstrous proportions. Catholics are more broadly going to have to help restore confidence in the world’s greatest tradition of truth-seeking and truth-finding. And for that we’re going to have to be ambitious for reason, develop what John Paul II calls in Fides et Ratio a reason of true metaphysical reach. Along with the everyday virtues, priests and people, bishops and their dioceses, popes on a world stage who have earned that rare thing, trust.
Much depends, however, on the Church being allowed to be the Church. We’re seeing religious speech and practice being limited in North America and Europe in the name of tolerance. And with Catholicism, much of Western culture is being curtailed as well. Unless the Church pushes back, forcefully, the space of religious freedom will be strictly limited, soon perhaps to within the walls of churches. Perhaps not even there. Rysgard Legutko, who was the editor of the Solidaritynewspaper in the heyday of the overthrow of Communism, recently wrote a heartfelt plea about how Central and Eastern Europeans have been surprised as they have become more familiar with the Western world:
The picture the Poles had of this civilization was from before all these changes, when Christianity was relatively strong and classical, metaphysics and epistemology were still very much not only in the air, but in the educational curricula. This picture presupposed a continuity—not easy to describe, but taken for granted—between antiquity and Christianity, on one hand, and modern times on the other. Nobility of soul, moral virtue, sainthood, and salvation were seen as continuous with ideals of mobility, liberty, and democratic republicanism. Even the Enlightenment and Romanticism were included as dissenting voices within a civilization that remained classical and Christian. For Eastern Europeans, it was unimaginable that Western civilization could dissociate from all this as if from some burdensome impedimenta, just like Communism did, to the despair of those who lived under its rule.
I find it shocking that an intelligent and experienced person like Legutko can see our current culture in the West as radical departure from our traditions as Communism.
So, a conclusion. It may be an odd reflection – and it’s certainly not something to be proud of – but God has chosen us all to exist in this time, a moment of profound division in society and the Church Herself. All time is God’s time, and therefore ours is a great moment to be a Catholic, if we seize it. Here’s a powerful passage, a powerfully prophetic passage, from Joseph Ratzinger’s Faith and the Future:
The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith. . . . The future of the Church, once again as always, will be shaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.
This is both a daunting and an inspiring vision, bracing because it’s daunting, eye-opening because of its inspiration. It will not be easy. I myself wake up some mornings wondering how to deal with the day. So much seems to be at stake, perhaps even the very continuation of the West and life of the Church. But we can be confident about the role we are being asked to play because God has matched us with this hour. Pray that we are all worthy of it.