The indictments of our modern age are many. We are intellectually exhausted, the willing victims of our own success, as Ross Douthat argues in his recent book, The Decadent Society. Our world is hyper-individualized and disdains traditional sources of morality, as Patrick Deneen observes in Why Liberalism Failed. And, much to social planners’ consternation, recent developments have aggravated, rather than ameliorated economic inequality, as Christopher Caldwell explains in The Age of Entitlement.
French novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos anticipated much of this in The Diary of a Country Priest , written a few years before the Nazis invaded France. Thankfully, Bernanos also offered solutions.
Diary is the story of a recently ordained priest assigned to a rural parish in France. He is pious and passionate, but also clumsy, naive, and socially awkward. He is also fortunate in having as a counselor the experienced and wise Curé de Torcy.
“Present-day society is no longer content merely to administer our common patrimony,” the curé tells him. Though spoken by a fictional character in 1937, it could have been uttered in 2020. The academy routinely labels America’s Founders ignorant, bigoted, sexist, and racist “dead white men,” unworthy of honor.
Christianity, the deepest source of our nation’s laws and cultural norms, is termed oppressive and intolerant. The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” represents a false and cynical view of America.
Such skepticism towards one’s patrimony inevitably leads to skepticism towards one’s neighbor, promoting a paradigm of individualism. The country priest writes: “At all events, in our part of the world, distress is not shared, each creature is alone in his distress; it belongs only to him, like his face and his hands.”
Severed from a shared cultural identity with religion as its ballast, modern life consists of banality, boredom, and a barren imagination that passively accepts secular platitudes. “The resignation in all these people puts me to shame,” notes the priest. “They express it in their own language, and that language is no longer Christian. Or rather they don’t express it, they don’t express themselves any longer. They make do with a few well-worn sayings, and phrases out of the newspapers.”
That secular progressivism, tethered to agnostic consumerism, undermines the very humanity of individual persons by treating them as cogs in the machine. The priest observes:
Instead of making him a beast of burden or wiping him off the face of the earth, they’ve got the notion of turning him into a small rentier or even – supposing things should really go ahead – into a low-grade government official. Quite the easiest thing to manage, the most orderly and submissive!
Contrary to what progressivist ideologues tell us, their world is not one of freedom, but slavery. “The world does not stand for revolt, but for submission, submission to lies, first and foremost.”
The solution, argues Bernanos through his characters, is a return to our patrimony, mediated through institutions, such as the Church, that orient us toward both each other and the transcendent. As the curé de Torcy bluntly puts it: “A people without the Church will always be a nation of bastards, foundlings.”
The Church, rather than secular technocratic institutions, is equipped to perform the role of mother and guide because it does not offer something dreamt up in a philosophe’s cafe or government office, but its very self: “After all the Church is not an ideal to be striven for: she exists and they’re within her.” The Church engages cultures and peoples as they are, in their givenness: “Our Father takes our poor world as it is, not like the charlatans who manufacture one on paper and keep on reforming it, still on paper.”
Part of “taking the world as it is” means recognizing the inherent dignity of every person, rather than people as a means to some materialistic, utilitarian end:
Christianity had let loose a truth in the world that nothing would ever stop again because it was already there, right down in the depths of human consciousness, and man had instantly seen himself mirrored in it; God saved each one of us and each one of us is worth the blood of Our Lord.
Which is why the Church is so insistent on defending the rights of the most vulnerable in society: the unborn, the elderly, the disabled. Just because a child will be born with some genetic defect, or just because someone has a debilitating ailment that limits their activities, doesn’t give anyone the right to destroy that life.
The Church is not weakened by this “preferential option” for the weak: “A Christian people doesn’t mean a lot of little goody-goodies. The Church has plenty of stamina and isn’t afraid of sin. On the contrary, she can look it in the face calmly and even take it upon herself, assume it at times, as our Lord did.”
The Church makes no allowances for self-destructive behavior but recognizes the dead-end of absolute personal autonomy.
Bernanos was not naive. He knew that a Christian society will not be free from problems, mortal sin, even corruption within. But it offers the best opportunities to pursue the good and find transcendent purpose:
If only they’d let us have our way, the Church might have given men that supreme comfort. Of course they’d each have had their own worries to grapple with, just the same. Hunger, thirst, poverty, jealousy – we’d never be able to pocket the devil once and for all, you may be sure. But man would have known he was the son of God; and therein lies your miracle. He’d have lived, he’d have died with that idea in his noodle.
Bernanos accurately indicted the evils that plagued not only his own pre-World War II France but also much of what has happened to our twenty-first-century America. France, unfortunately, did not listen. Will anyone today?
*Image: The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise by Vincent van Gogh [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]