It’s a commonplace today that people have lost faith in institutions. And it’s no wonder. Wherever you look – politics, culture, education, even the Church – the institutions that normally provide us with stable identity and points of reference have become sources of disorder and disorientation.
Hillary Clinton famously wrote a book: It Takes a Village. She was expressing something not so much wrong as deceptive. It does take a village – and a family, and a church, and a school, and a community – to form children into mature and responsible adults. The “village” that progressive politicians talk about, however, is not an assembly of these natural civil society institutions, but an array of government programs designed to replace and, often, hasten the demise of real human connections.
In healthy times, people identify with family, faith, nation. At least among our cultural elites, identity these days revolves around race, class, and gender.
The paradox, of course, is that those elites say that they want to eliminate differences owing to race and class, and the woozy recent notions of gender fluidity. But if they did, what would people identify with other than their own individual choices? That’s a very weak reed on which to build a truly human life, especially given the social chaos that such radical individualism inevitably produces.
So in times like these what do we do? To begin with, we don’t despair. We make whatever efforts we can. And if the institutions we have are failing, we either fix them or create new ones. It may seem a massive, nearly hopeless task, but we never know when or how they might succeed.
I’m in the Slovak Republic this week for our annual Summer Seminar on the Free Society. Michael Novak, one of the founders of The Catholic Thing, started it almost two decades ago. We’ve been running it at Faith & Reason Institute since around 2010 and will have our 20thanniversary next year.
Over that time, we have formed literally hundreds of students: about one-third have been Americans, but the rest are Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, Croatians, Poles, Ukrainians, the occasional Brit or Canadian, and even a few Filipinos.
They all come here to try to think through what it takes to create and maintain free political, economic, and moral/cultural (including religious) institutions. Many have gone on to careers in journalism, law, academics, and business. A few of the hardier sort have even tried to inject notions of a virtuous and authentic liberty into national and international politics.
An unexpected fruit: one of our earliest alumni, a Catholic with the improbable name of Martin Luteran, went on to do a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford, and then returned to found a residential Catholic college, Kolegium Antona Neuwirtha  (KAN), where we now hold the Free Society Seminar.
This year’s faculty is well known to TCT readers: William Saunders, Joseph Wood, and Fr. Derek Cross. KAN also organizes the publication of TCT in Slovak translation , one of the five foreign languages in which we regularly appear.
One of our first efforts each year has had to be – and still is – to remind people of the very un-free society that existed here not that long ago.
On the other side of Bratislava, the Slovak capital, the Morava River flows into the Danube under the ruins of Devin Castle, which was first built more than a millennium ago. But during the Communist era, the site where the rivers meet was notable because it was the dividing line between the repressive Eastern Bloc, and a free Austria, part of the West.
People braved vicious guard dogs and border patrols with automatic weapons, trying to cross into freedom – via makeshift scuba gear, hang gliders, and other desperate contraptions. Few made it. There’s now a monument there with the names of scores of people who died, desperately trying.
This may seem like ancient history, but it’s not. Rather, it’s a reminder of what can happen when repressive ideas – however “progressive” they may seem at certain moments in history – gain ascendancy.
But there’s also a positive side to this history. This year is the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which replaced what was then Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime with a free society led by playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel. Similar revolts took place in Poland and other countries in the region.
No one thought prior to that heroic uprising – neither the academic experts in international relations nor the desk officers of the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies – that the mighty Soviet Empire was about to collapse in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan believed it could happen. So did Margaret Thatcher. And of course, so did St. John Paul II.
So though the struggles of our time are not as clear cut as the East-West division during the Cold War, we plant the seeds that we have at hand, and leave the rest to the Lord of the Harvest.
As T.S. Eliot wrote in circumstances very different from ours: “Make perfect your will./ I say: take no thought of the harvest,/ But only of proper sowing.”
All times have their struggles between Good and Evil, and the more challenging the struggle the more we must hold to the truth that the remedy is ever the same:
The great snake lies ever half awake, at the bottom of the pit of the world, curled
In folds of himself until he awakens in hunger and moving his head to right and to
left prepares for his hour to devour.
But the Mystery of Iniquity is a pit too deep for mortal eyes to plumb. Come
Ye out from among those who prize the serpent’s golden eyes,
The worshippers, self-given sacrifice of the snake. Take
Your way and be ye separate.
Be not too curious of Good and Evil;
Seek not to count the future waves of Time;
But be ye satisfied that you have light
Enough to take your step and find your foothold. – from Eliot’s play The Rock
*Image: the Gate of Freedom Memorial