An old philosophical question concerns the relationship between the Many and the One, which seems like the kind of abstraction that only troubled long-dead philosophers and theologians. But there’s more at stake – much more – in the question than first appears, everything from living a life of integrity to the meaning of heresy.
Most of us assume that everything just fits together – somehow – until we encounter deep divisions, in ourselves and others. And realize things do not much fit together at all, particularly in times of trouble, which means all times. That’s why every civilization, until our own lately, has labored just to keep from falling to pieces.
The Church was once the universal institution in the West, the one body that tried not just to include but to reconcile all truth, so far as humanly possible. That reconciliation allowed for legitimate differences and freedom, but also wisely insisted that there are limits built into the nature of things. (LGBTQ+. . .has no limit.)
The Church’s absence from the living center of our civilization explains why there’s so much that’s ec-centric and worse in our world. And it’s regrettable that, even within the Church, there’s also been a steep decline lately in valuing the fullness of truth.
W.B. Yeats famously wrote, “the center cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Lots of people today, for various reasons, don’t want the center to hold – with entirely predictable results. You can understand that, given the centralizing power of globalist economics and politics. And why God’s commands, too, transmitted by the Church, can look like just another global tyranny. But merely invoking “diversity” and “inclusivity” doesn’t eliminate such dangers, and in fact may make things worse.
The digital revolution once looked like sheer magic, bringing the many into close contact, a kind of global unity – until we actually saw the results. A new Tower of Babel, for all its uses, is rapidly going the way of the old one: people in greater contact but speaking unintelligibly to one another, multiplying misunderstanding and division, scattering into warring tribes.
This was all but inevitable given the false foundations the digital revolutionaries built on. They profess openness and the desire to do good, but are shocked to find differing and not easily reconcilable notions about what we should be open to – and what not. Let alone what is Good. No algorithm is of much use for those purposes.
Our late colleague James V. Schall, S.J., was buried Friday in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, alongside fellow Jesuits and not far from the graves of his father and mother. And also not far from the headquarters of the behemoths of Silicon Valley – Google, Facebook, and their multiple collaborators and spinoffs.
Google and Facebook process immense amounts of information, orders of magnitude beyond anything conceivable in the past. The Many is strong in them. They can transmit billions of images and messages, nearly instantaneously, all over the world. But it’s an illusion to think they are creating some kind of unity or multicultural harmony. Or could.
Similar illusions have infected many in the Church, as well. The kind of wisdom that tells you what – if anything – to do with all that information, how even to conduct a satisfying and meaningful and integrated life, is not to be found amid the digital flood of 0’s and 1’s.
For that you need a mind, like the wise old priest just buried.
The Church, of course, has little to say about quantum computing, digital platforms, or cutting-edge medical technologies. But as an “expert in humanity,” as St. JPII put it, has a pretty good grip on human nature, the virtues and social practices that lead to real human happiness and a good human life.
And ultimately why the suffering and death of Jesus, God Incarnate, reveal the only true unity. All the more reason why the eclipse of the Church’s wisdom behind the massive abuse crisis and the maladroit handling of the whole mess here and in Rome is a disaster, not only for the Church, but for a world in search of a unifying center.
The Church needs a stable center as well. Last week, about twenty Catholic thinkers issued an open letter calling on the bishops of the world to do something about what they consider the “heresies” that, either openly or ambiguously, have been introduced by Pope Francis. Their judgments are sometimes ambiguous themselves, but the significance of heresy, if present, should not be.
Heresy means nothing to most people today, even Catholics. It sounds like just a different opinion, the kind of thing we blithely tolerate in pluralistic modern democracies.
But if Catholicism means a true universalism – not the false universalism of science, technology, or various ideologies – then selecting one truth (haeresis in Greek means selection) and setting it against others, or exaggerating it beyond its proper place has consequences for the One that rescues us from the chaos of the mere Many.
Many think, for example, that the way mercy, accompaniment, discernment are being exercised in the current papacy distorts the roles of truth and justice, and risks turning mercy into sentimental indulgence in matters such as divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and the death penalty. Unity can’t rest on nice feelings.
Similarly, current emphases on synodality and evangelization over unity and doctrine often seem to be promoting mere local preference and personal emotion, but little substance in a world where Christianity has already been reduced to a few tired buzzwords about love and inclusion – which the world long ago showed it finds uninspiring and is tired of hearing.
Reconciling the proper multiplicity of human liberty with the demands of consistent truth is never easy, and it’s become harder now that technical reason has become so powerful that it has all but crowded out reflection on the good, true, and beautiful.
But true wisdom is always there, like a seed under the snow, waiting for the right conditions – and right people – to blossom again.
*Image: Saint Augustine Disputing with the Heretics by Grup Vergós, c. 1463 [Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona]