Catholicism in a Time of Dissolution

We live in a time of dissolution. Many people find it hard to take such claims seriously because people have always complained about the degeneracy of the times. And in any event, life involves change, which means the old disappears to make way for the new. So a time of new life would also be a time of dissolution.

But dissolution isn’t always accompanied by new life. Times differ, and we won’t understand our own by saying it’s like every other. We have specific problems now, and won’t deal with them properly if we deny them or say they aren’t really problems.

With that in mind, it’s evident that we suffer from the dissolution of social and cultural connections. People are less tied to each other than they used to be. We’re all “free and independent,” which means we have weak family connections, religious commitments, and ties to anything identifiable as “home.”

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This is a real problem, one that’s fundamental enough to mark the age as a whole. Man is a social and cultural being who depends on society to live well. Aristotle tells us that someone who doesn’t need this would be either a beast or a god. And we’re not gods.

Normally, the culture of a people helps them go beyond their personal limitations by providing workable solutions for everyday problems. What are men and women? What obligations do they owe each other? How about neighbors? Young people and old? And what should we aim for in life? Solutions to these questions that work out badly get a bad name, while those that turn out at least tolerably well survive and become established. Thus social tradition normally makes us better people and gives us a better life.

This process no longer works well. A basic reason is that durable local connections have given way to transitory distant ones. Under such conditions the machinery of publicity substitutes image and dazzle for long-term familiarity. Our heroes are celebrities whose actual lives no one should imitate. Social media turn our fellows into a kaleidoscope of momentary images, disrupting the mutual concern that attaches to lasting face-to-face relationships. Human exchange becomes snark and civic engagement a matter of sporadic lynch mobs, and when we get tired of people we can drop them effortlessly.

The result is a pop culture that is not the product of the everyday experiences of people living their whole lives together and dealing with the consequences of how they live them. It is the fruit of a world of electronic fantasy pervaded by manipulation.

To make matters worse, the abolition of culture has become our official ideal as Americans. That is the meaning of the Supreme Court’s assertion in Casey v. Planned Parenthood that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Culture involves a common understanding of life and the world, while the Court’s version of liberty makes that impossible by telling everyone he should invent his own.

Multiculturalism points in the same direction. Culture is a system of cooperation that evolves and allows a community to function. As such, it’s a network of common attitudes and understandings that are accepted as authoritative or at least presumptively correct. Multiculturalism wants to put all such systems on an equal footing. However, if this happens then none of them will have any authority, and there will be no basis for social cooperation.

People think we don’t need common traditions or culture because we have experts, education, and law, which are expected to provide a more just and efficient way of dealing with issues. However, academic expertise can’t tell us how to live, education no longer passes on civilization or indeed much of anything, and law does not function without reference to the culture of those who enforce and live by it.

The cultural chaos that results from such tendencies prevents people from thinking coherently and leads them to believe they are making their own choices while following fad, impulse, propaganda, or the degraded pop culture around them. Some keep their lives mostly in order through careerism, high-end consumerism, and political correctness, while others pursue short-term distractions and then grumble about the situation in which they find themselves.

Those tendencies also mean the end of politics based on discussion and consent, which can’t exist outside a community tied together by social trust and a reasonably coherent understanding of the common good.

Our political parties display the consequences. In general, the Democrats are the party that favors the new social order. This is why they are called progressive. As such they are the party of careerists who feel themselves at home in a world based wholly on commercial and bureaucratic relationships, and of people who have few reliable social connections and look to formal public institutions for protection. Their insistence on the principles of the new order is becoming more intolerant, with all the hostility to religion and natural human connections that it implies. This is why elected officials now believe that membership in the Knights of Columbus disqualifies a man for a judicial appointment.

It’s also why they’re not interested in talking to the Republicans, who are the party of the old society and therefore of people attached to a disappearing social order—one that was less abstract and global than the one to which the Democrats have given their allegiance. In fact, they may not need to talk with them. Every year there is less and less of the old society for the Republicans to conserve, and the domination of public discussion by their opponents would make it difficult for them to articulate a coherent position even if their leaders wanted such a thing. The result is that the Republicans lack definite principles and offer no real opposition to the direction of events.

Trump represents a reaction against this situation. He is apparently immune to intellectual culture, which today is mostly misdirected, and therefore he acts on intuitions that often reflect normal habits of thought. That’s why he won, it’s why he’s been the target of nonstop defamation, and it’s why he retains a great deal of support. It’s also one reason, apart from his isolation in ruling circles, that he’s unlikely to achieve anything solid. The sporadic gut feelings of one man aren’t enough for statesmanship.

The same problems appear in the Church as in secular society. The current pontificate has put an end to what had seemed to be a slow but definite recovery from a post-Vatican II low point, and it has profoundly disrupted discipline, doctrine, and unity. The low quality of the pope’s associates, and the growing sense that the Church needs reform that he can’t or won’t provide, may limit the consequences of his pontificate by limiting his support. But how are leaders to move things in a better direction?

Social decline affects all of us. Today most of us are lukewarm in religion as in other aspects of life, and we don’t want to do any heavy lifting. This is one reason for the attention devoted to figures like Mother Teresa and the last two popes: we thought they could do the heavy lifting for us. But such figures have become scarcer and less well-placed. Without institutional momentum to carry us forward many drop out, while others who intend to do better find it hard to keep pushing forward.

Still, the Church has more than nine lives. She arose during a period of dissolution under a wealthy cosmopolitan empire with a declining culture and horrific popular entertainment. Loyalty to the city no longer held human life together. Gods were multiplying, but people were taking them less seriously. And while mystery religions appealed to people in their private capacities they couldn’t hold society together. Christianity provided a solution for that situation.

Today our situation is somewhat similar, and the question Walker Percy asked is still to the point: apart from the Church, what else is there? And there are good signs as well as bad in today’s Church; people can’t help but notice that they need more than they’re getting, but, at the same time, the traditions and doctrines of the Church are still as they were, and all things work together for good for those who love God. However gloomy the outlook may seem at times, hope is eternal and even well-founded. Not everything falls apart.


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