Thinking about what to share today, one sentence kept coming to mind by novelist extraordinaire Evelyn Waugh. It appeared in a disarmingly casual account that he gave to a newspaper in 1930, about the reasons for his conversion to the Catholic Church. Waugh summarized that momentous decision in twenty-eight neat words. He said, “In the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos.”
Christianity, or Chaos: In a sense, the choice between the two has been perpetual since the Resurrection. But to say that it’s ever thus, and to throw up our hands before the world, is a dodge – especially for Catholics, especially now, in a moment when many are tempted to do just that. We’re called to read the signs of the times, not to whine about them. So let’s start by staring this thing in the face, and setting out the distinctive characteristics of Chaos in this moment — our moment. What can we see?
The first thing we see is that we continue to live in the age spied by Matthew Arnold and Henri de Lubac and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other religious clairvoyants, the modern age, whose drama consists of successive waves of secularization, encroaching ever more insistently on territories previously thought to be God’s, and God’s alone.
The second certainty, equally conspicuous, is that the forms of Chaos characteristic of our time are unlike those that preceded us in modern history. Compare this era, for example, with Evelyn Waugh’s. In 1930, the year he entered the Church, one World War was already behind humanity, even as another impended. In the lifetime of people like him, spanning roughly the first half of the twentieth century, Chaos had a different signature. It resided in war, dislocation, and stupendous carnage.
Despite that carnage, though, many social pillars still stood firm. Individual families were ravaged by the wars, but the institution of the family was not. Demonic Nazi anthropology had its day, as Communist anthropology would, too; but outside those malignant precincts, a Christian understanding of Creation and redemption and meaning still prevailed across the West, and within the Captive Nations of the East, and elsewhere on the globe.
The Catholic Church was steadfast as well. In 1930, Pius XI, the visionary for whom this award is named, was pope. He would go on to found Vatican Radio the very next year, “to proclaim the Gospel in the world,” as he said with jubilance. Though Chaos was starting to insinuate itself in novel forms into some Protestant churches, the Catholic Church appeared exempt – as Evelyn Waugh pointed out when he cited the “coherent and consistent” nature of Catholic teaching as the predominant reason for his conversion.
As even that short summary shows, although we are only 90 years removed from 1930, it feels more like 90 light-years. Consider a quick checklist of the scene today.
First, there is compounding family Chaos, brought on by a radical social experiment now six-plus decades in the making. Elemental human bonds have been frayed and cut, and the institution of the family has been weakened, on a scale never seen before.
Second, and symbiotic, there is also compounding psychic Chaos of all kinds. For decades, the rise in mental illness has been documented beyond dispute. Anxiety, depression, and other afflictions resulting from disconnection and loneliness have become endemic, especially among the youngest, and most frail. Irrationalism has come unbound.
Third, there is political chaos. Though its causes are many, the dissolution of clan and community leave their marks here, too. To put it rhetorically: how could the unattached and dispossessed people of our time produce anything but a disordered public language?
Fourth, there is anthropological chaos of a wholly new order. The Western world is gripped by an identity crisis. In its latest form, magical thinking about gender has escaped from the academy and now transforms society and law – magical thinking so preposterous that little children could call it out. In a shocking descent unlike any in recorded history, many people today no longer even know what little children know – namely, who they are. Once more, irrationalism is unbound.
Fifth, there is intellectual Chaos. Outside a few faithful institutions, American education, especially elite education, has been hiding in a postmodern cuckoo’s nest for decades. People who do not believe in truth now run institutions charged with discerning it. A little while ago, an atheist was elected Chief Chaplain at Harvard. Why not? If there is no truth, there are no contradictions. In much of the academy, irrationalism is not only unbound. It rules.
Sixth, and most consequential: there is Chaos of a new order and significance among Catholics across the Western world. It arises from people who want to transform Church teaching – and their animus against other people who hold to the truth of that teaching. It is excruciatingly visible in public life, as leaders proudly brandishing the Catholic label just as proudly defy the Catechism and key points of canon law, day in and day out. Magical thinking drives this kind of chaos, too. The label “pro-abortion Catholic” makes as much logical sense as “atheist chaplain” or “former man.” All participate in the same signature irrationalism. All demand that we cancel Aristotle – that we believe “A” and “Not-A” at once.
Now, what can we discern today by staring into this void – the void whose existence has become an inescapable fact of everyday life and public life alike; the void that makes many anxious for our descendants, as American Catholics have never been anxious before?
We discern a truth that should stiffen our spines. In every one of these cases, Chaos has been whipped into catastrophic strength by secularization itself. In the time to come, however long the reckoning may take, this spells trouble for the secularized order – and capital-V vindication for the Church.
The rise in mental distress and the decline of organized religion, for example, are not randomly occurring phenomena. Social science confirms that people who have robust social bonds are more likely to thrive than people who don’t. Religious faith confers those bonds. Social science also shows that the fractured family and other forms of isolation increase the risks of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, loneliness, and other vexations. All have been exacerbated by the Western flight from God.
Consider once more that the most un-churched generation in America, the “Nones,” is also the most mentally afflicted. Again, the loss of the capital-F Father, and the contemporary loss of so many earthly fathers, are joined at the root.
Secularization is also behind today’s family Chaos. In embracing divorce, fatherlessness, and abortion, humanity has inflicted wounds on itself whose measure has only begun to be taken. We are only beginning to grasp that what starts at home doesn’t stay at home. The feral children of family Chaos now pour into the streets, frantically trying to substitute identity politics for the primordial bonds of which they’ve been deprived. Identity politics is a pitiful attempt at emotional alchemy by souls desperate for connection. It signals tacit vindication for the Magisterium’s uncompromising teachings about why we really are here, and what really is best for us.
As for the Chaos besetting the Church, this, too, has roots in secularization. It has become standard to speak of “conservative” Catholics and “liberal” Catholics. But political labels deceive. The real Catholic divide in our time is between people who try to stand as signs of contradiction in this world, and people who capitulate. It is between Catholics who want powerful secular trends to influence and transform the Church, and Catholics who don’t. It is between souls who believe the Catechism is true – and souls who want to edit it with a red pen, supplied by a disapproving secularism. The real divide is between Catholics who want temporal demands to trump the Cross – and Catholics who know that the Cross cannot be trumped.
The point here is not religious triumphalism. (I wish we could engage in some religious triumphalism, but as the kids say, too soon.) It’s that secularization is exacting costs in one realm after another – and secularized tastemakers, inside or outside the Church, refuse to acknowledge that fact. And so it falls to others, including the scholars present today, to illuminate that record instead. Your work is vital in this moment for two reasons: first, because today’s Chaos causes multiple forms of suffering that might be ameliorated, if only we can understand their true origins. Second, because today’s Chaos amounts to inadvertent proof that Christianity, and the Judaism from which it drank, get humanity right.
There is a truth amid today’s confusions that has gone too long unsaid. Our secularizing culture is not just any culture. No, our secularizing culture is an inferior culture. It is small of heart. It defines suffering down. It regards the victims of its social experiments not as victims, but as acceptable collateral damage justified by those experiments.
This is secularism’s unspoken secret. It is also secularism’s greatest vulnerability.
This mission to define suffering down can be seen, for example, in efforts that would recast the horrors of prostitution as anodyne “sex work.” It drives the attempts to normalize pornography, ignoring the calamitous costs to men and women and romance. It powers the push to shut down emergency pregnancy centers and adoption agencies, indifferent to whether babies and children and poor people need them. It whitewashes data about suicide rates, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other indices of mental distress among the transgender population — and about other populations where acknowledging human damage might jeopardize political agendas.
Again: the Chaos unleashed on the West has spread acute forms of misery across society. But the architects and defenders of an a-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, social order turn a blind eye. It falls to faithful scholars to tell the truth about the costs of secularization – because scholars who are part of the Chaos can’t or won’t.
In closing, one more quotation helps to summarize the importance of your collective missions in academia. Historian Christopher Dawson opened an essay on “Christianity and Western Culture,” with this sentence: “The survival of a civilization depends on the continuity of its educational tradition.”
This is where the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and the rest of the fellowship represented here today come in. The secularized academy has abdicated its vocation. It repudiates continuity. It makes a mockery of the Western patrimony. In the struggle to hold fast to the Cross amid today’s Chaos, countercultural scholars are the first line of defense. This is true not only for those who need your work now, but also for those to come – those who will read the record of 2021 in the future.
Scholars of tomorrow will look back in astonishment, and perhaps pity, at today’s magical thinking. They will need facts, figures, arguments, and evidence, especially about the human costs of today’s experiment in secularization. They will find that library in your collective work.
Someday, a re-evangelized civilization will contemplate the beginning of the twenty-first century, and try to take the measure of its Chaos. Those people of the future will understand, as many today do not, that you are speaking truth into the void of this time, and giving voice to the voiceless in a defiant moment. It is an honor to stand with you today, and ever, in that same mission.
Image: Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1596 [Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid, Spain]