On receiving the Frederic Ozanam Award, Society of Catholic Social Scientists, Steubenville, October 23, 2020
When he invited me to be here this evening, Professor Krason asked me to speak – just briefly – about the state of the Church and the world. My first thought was quite brief: It’s Bad, for both. But that’s too brief and could always be said. My next thought was: It’s “Terrible.” Again, for both. We use that word “terrible” so often, though, that it hardly conveys anything specific anymore. So I pondered a bit further and I think the right term, a technical term, came to me: It’s Apocalyptic.
If that seems an extreme view, I’m not the only one. Cardinal Czerny, a close confidante of Pope Francis’ said just before Fratelli tutti, the latest encyclical, came out, that the Holy Father believes we’re – I’m quoting now – “on the brink.” He does so for different reasons than mine, but you’d have to be somewhat numb to what’s going on in the world not to be thinking in something like such large, almost cosmic terms.
Rod Dreher says that his momma, who lives in southern Louisiana, seeing the pandemic, the economic crisis, the radical protests, the riots and looting, the wildfires out West, and her state about to be hit by yet another hurricane, said to him, “Rod. . .we in Revelations.”
When you get agreement on a large thing like this crisis from a simple woman in Louisiana as well as the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, it’s probably worth paying attention.
I‘ve been interested to see some of the political topics that you have been discussing during the conference these past two days. We need to continue examining those subjects with ever-greater intellectual power and depth in light of Christian principles, to be sure. But I don’t believe our biggest challenges stem from our politics. Rather it’s our politics that reflect some deeper, more fundamental problems, and problems now that have also entered into the bloodstream of the Church herself.
Very briefly, I trace the great upheavals roiling both Church and State at this moment to the stark confrontation that has now come to full fruition between, on the one hand, the Christian vision of human beings and the world, and on the other hand, the anti-Christian – not merely post-Christian but now openly anti-Christian secular culture – that has arisen as Christianity has receded and pushed out of public spaces.
In other words, our problem is one of what you could call anthropology, or if you’re more philosophically inclined ontology or metaphysics. These are important subjects, and are always worth debating. But they are now being debated in our politics, which is not good, sometimes openly, sometimes under the guise of proxies. Either way, it’s not a good thing when fundamentals clash in politics, which is not a good place to handle them. Deep corruption by presidential candidates seems, in comparison, almost negligible.
If you look at the most burning public issues, you can see that there is in many of the high places of our culture a return to a kind of pre-Christian set of practices, starting with sacrificing children to neo-pagan myths about power, Mammon, women’s bodies, and a great deal else. We don’t call the new gods by the old names anymore – Zeus, Plutus, Venus, etc. – but they’re returning, under assumed names, so to speak.
Even the natural world is too imbued with old truths for many of us. Where we once knew the labor it took to wrest food and livable conditions from the Earth, we now seem to believe – contrary to Genesis – that the Earth would be bountiful for us if we just left it alone. Or that “male and female he created them” – also in Genesis – is bronze-age bias and not biological fact.
But throwing out Genesis also means throwing out things like the truth all of us are created in “the image and likeness of God.” And what we will then take as the basis for our responsibility to respect one another is, to say the least, unclear and highly uncertain.
And note that – absent the Biblical anthropology – we already don’t show each other much respect now anyway. There’s a reason why people believe they can insult one another in a way online that we’ve never seen before. It’s not only anonymity or the algorithms that Google and Facebook and Twitter use to get us riled up and keep our eyes glued to partisan screens. It’s because we’ve lost the sense that the person at the other end of the worldwide web is a real person, a human being, God’s image.
The slightest deviation from an ideological line, on either side, therefore leads almost inevitably to our current cancel culture. It’s a stance that threatens everyone. Just as an example, I don’t think Barack Obama and Joe Biden were fully on board with LGBTQ+ until their second term in office. I pick them not to be partisan. But to show that if you’re going to cancel people for stances they took in the past, a past heavily influenced by the Christian ethos, essentially everyone who ever lived up until a few years ago is in danger of being canceled.
It’s not only Columbus and Jefferson and Washington, now it’s Lincoln, Frederick Douglass; even Dianne Feinstein is not looking woke enough. Many of you work on university campuses and doubtless have your own horror stories.
The columnist Brett Stephens wrote in the New York Times the other day that what we are now seeing in public is akin to a new secular set of “blasphemy laws.” Certain things have been declared so utterly inadmissible in public – so unwoke – that it invites shunning even to try to raise certain questions. And I mean even questions, let alone a full-blown, let-the heavens-fall commitment to truth wherever it takes us.
We have to break through that malign orthodoxy, however long it takes and however hard the slog, to truth. Many people in our culture, and not only university-educated elites, believe that we must speak of “truth” with ironic quotation marks and a lower-case T. But I would never believe that a group such as is here assembled tonight would allow itself to be intimidated by such attitudes, which are more appropriate to freshman and sophomore bull sessions than to discussions among free and mature people.
I’m so naïve that I believe racism, for instance, is simply wrong, no quotation marks, because it says what is not true about human beings, that we’re all created in the “image and likeness.” Other than a sentimental attachment to that truth, which Christianity brought to a world that earlier was awash in various kinds of slavery and racism, I don’t know how else our post-Christian friends are going to support such truths.
I suspect many other truths everyone claims to hold will evaporate before long, and are already doing so, in the very same way that anti-racism is becoming as one-sided and prejudicial as the older racism.
But I am not here tonight to give a lecture or to trace out how all these things have brought us to “the brink.” I’m here to thank you for this award.
And even as I thank you for this undeserved honor, I want to urge you to work harder, be smarter, think with greater and more wide-ranging imagination, because the world is “on the brink” for lack of the kind of knowledge and wisdom that, in your several professional disciplines, supplemented by the light of Christ, you are able to bring to a world that is hurting badly, knows it, and doesn’t know where to turn.
The potential harvest is great. The sheep are without a shepherd. To be a Christian at this moment is a hard and complicated task. But God put us here at this moment, for reasons only He knows. He knows what He is about. So thank you all again for this award. I leave you with the words of the poet, “God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour.”