The Church’s Answer to Cosmopolitanism


May 8, 2018

We can’t know the shape of things to come with any certainty. Even so, we have duties as citizens, and our understanding of the way things are headed affects how we carry them out. That makes any given issue something to take seriously.

With that in mind, perhaps the most striking tendency of the present day is cosmopolitanism. Advances in communication and transportation have led to the growth of world trade, globalization of culture, mass migration between countries and even continents, multiplication of connections that don’t regard geography, and increasing cooperation among national elites.

Such tendencies are solidly based on conditions that don’t seem likely to change. We won’t eliminate jet travel, the Internet, container ships, or the growing power of money and bureaucracy. Nor can we change the tendency of those things to bring everything into a single worldwide system.

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Also, the results are difficult to reverse. Once business becomes international, protectionism loses its most influential advocates. And once millions of Muslims from Africa and the Middle East have settled in Europe, with millions more on the way, Europe can no longer be understood as Christian or even as ethnically or culturally European. Indeed, the difficulty of making the new arrivals part of an integrated industrial welfare state means that their concerns will receive special attention. No matter how much nationalists protest the ratchet goes only one way, so the long-term prospects of their cause seem bleak.

Such tendencies are also supported by institutional and class self-interest. The EU, for example, is best understood as a union among ruling elites that helps them run things without serious regard for their constituents’ views. The same could be said about globalization in general. The powerful become more powerful, and the people are expected to do as they’re told and like it.

The upshot is that all established voices today favor cosmopolitanism and consider it a basic part of political sanity and moral decency. If you favor borders or “populism” you’re considered an idiot, an ignoramus, and probably a Nazi. Absorption of local societies into a global order, and their consequent radical transformation or even dissolution, have thus come to count as unquestionable goods. For proof, consider the horrified response to Brexit among respectable people in the UK.

All these tendencies nonetheless seem odd. However strong they are, there must be some limit on how far they will go, because cosmopolitanism has weaknesses as well as strengths. One is an inability to attract loyalty. That is why empires fall apart, although collapse may be deferred if they are thought to stand for noble principles—religious, as in the case of Byzantium, cultural, as in the case of China, or civic, as in the case of Rome.

Economic efficiency and stability, the standards motivating the world order now emerging, are not particularly noble. Some idealize them by calling them “freedom and equality,” because they would allow more people to satisfy their wants in a more reliable way. But the overall system imposes so many restrictions and inequalities that most people aren’t likely to take the rhetoric seriously for very long.

Lack of loyalty would be even more of a problem for a world government than for empires of the past, because people define themselves by oppositions. European colonialism was sustained by colonial rivalries and a sense of superiority over the rest of the world. And America’s role as a global superpower seems to require a sense of her universal mission and the need to carry it out over opposition from malicious enemies: the Soviet Union until 1991, and thereafter Russia, China, radical Islam, the Axis of Evil, and other Third World Hitlers. Such motives would be absent in a truly global society, and the regime would have to rely for solidity on a constant struggle against real or supposed internal enemies.

Also, independence has substantive benefits: that’s why we celebrate Independence Day. Until recently, for example, commentators associated ethnic nationalism with democracy and liberal government, both considered good things. That’s why national self-determination was thought good and the map of Europe was redrawn the way it was after the First World War. There were good reasons to make the connection. Common language, customs, history, and loyalties make political discussion easier and probably more productive. They also make opposing parties more likely to feel united by something deeper than the issues between then. Such conditions make principled government based on popular consent more workable.

Even today progressives continue to value local particularities in some cases. Complaints about “cultural appropriation” show continuing concern for the integrity of ethnic cultures. And conventional opinion views the older form of globalism—European colonialism—with horror and outrage, so much so that a recent academic article that proposed a more favorable view had to be withdrawn due to death threats.

Loss of independence also imposes severe cultural costs due to its disruption of particular local patterns. Greece, Italy, and Germany gave far more to civilization when fragmented than unified. And the “European Project”—the recent attempt to unify Europe that has led to the EU—has coincided with a radical decline in cultural productivity.

These costs come home in daily life. With no coherent culture to provide workable patterns of life, people in a multicultural cosmopolitan society lose the ability to live their own lives and feel they need elaborate formal arrangements to go about the most ordinary affairs. The result is that markets, bureaucracies, and certified experts dominate all aspects of life. People don’t find that satisfying. How many are better off when family life is replaced by fast food, daycare, and child psychologists?

Every action has a reaction. Cosmopolitanism gives us global unity but also radical social divisions. The Middle East and Central Asia, crossroads of civilizations, are composed of inward-turning ethno-religious communities. People respond to the absence of common standards and loyalties by huddling together in closed-in groups based on primal human connections like blood and religion. Their borderlands, the Balkans and Caucasus, are places of perpetual ethnic and religious conflict. The societies of Western Europe and Northeast Asia, long protected by geography from large-scale movements of peoples, have been more stable and united.

So cosmopolitanism fails to achieve its goal of comprehensive unity, and ends in a search for some more concrete unifying principle. Our rulers believe a combination of careerism, consumerism, inclusion, individual psychological therapy, and social welfare programs can serve the purpose. Those principles may be enough to motivate well-placed people and justify how they live but don’t offer ordinary people a remotely satisfactory life. Nor can they motivate the public spirit or sacrifice on which government must rely. We can therefore expect something else to emerge.

The ultimate outcome is likely to be a new or restored religion as a social ordering principle. What else would be sufficient? In Rome that religion was Christianity. In the Middle East and Central Asia of the early Middle Ages it was Islam. But will we get something new or something renewed? Novelty is incalculable, but creative novelty in religion grew rare long ago, and to all appearances has vanished. Otherwise, a successor to Christianity would have appeared at some point in the past two thousand years. It’s evident the Church has been right to “await no … new public revelation” (Dei Verbum 4).

When we consider existing religions, it seems that Eastern religions, for all their philosophical interest, aren’t able to spread. Islam has the advantage of simplicity and the obstinate adherence of its devotees, but suffers from an anti-rational understanding of God. The Church has the advantage of standing for something more adequate to life and the world that is capable of speaking to all men. We shall see if Catholics capitalize on this advantage with anything like the self-confidence of the Muslims. So the greatest contribution we can make to public life in the years to come is to present and live by the Faith in all its specificity.

The outlook is complex. Things look bleak for a civilization that increasingly rejects its religion and heritage. But life goes on, human beings remain human, and we have a Church that won’t fail. So as always, we have grounds for hope and plenty to do. And since that is so, why worry or complain?


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