Democracy and the threat of self-destruction


The corruption of a culture and the consequent corruption of a democracy which owes so much of its validity and integrity to the essence of a culture is a frightening prospect. It is a prospect facing not a few democracies in our time.
George Weigel hopes that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s comments in the aftermath of Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum were misquoted. The Cardinal said: “A democratic state has the duty to respect the will of the people, and it seems clear that, if the majority of the people want such homosexual unions, the state has a duty to recognize such rights.”
That comment, taken at face value, Weigel says in a First Things article last week, “would suggest that a distinguished theologian-bishop has seriously misunderstood the nature of democracy and the Church’s teaching about just political communities.” Weigel also, “delicately” he says, without being too delicate, wonders how much of his own country’s sad recent history the good Cardinal has forgotten.
“For the first word that came to mind” Weigel says, “on reading Kasper’s remark was ‘Weimar.’” He wonders if he means ‘democratic’ as in the… democratic election (which) put Hitler and his Nazi Party in power, or the democratically elected German parliament which passed the notorious Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act), which effectively granted Hitler dictatorial powers?
He quotes St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, which he describes as “the pinnacle of Catholic social teaching on the democratic experiment, which taught that “democracy” can never be reduced to mere “majority rule.”

“Majorities”, he reminds us, “can get the technicalities of public policy wrong. More gravely, majorities can also get the fundamentals of justice wrong: as many Germans did in the early 1930s, when the outcome of voting for the Nazi Party was clear to anyone who had read Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ or listened to his rants; as many French citizens did in the early twentieth century, when the representatives they democratically elected dismantled Catholic schools, exiled members of religious orders, and expropriated their property; and as too many Americans did during our long national struggle over racial segregation, legally imposed by democratically-elected legislatures.”

Weigel reminds us of the pope-saint’s insistence…that, of the three interlocking parts of the free and virtuous society—a democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture—the cultural sector is the key to the rest. For it takes a certain kind of people, formed in the arts of self-governance by a robust moral culture and living certain virtues, to operate the machinery of democracy and the free economy in ways that promote decency, justice, and solidarity, not degradation, injustice, or new forms of authoritarian bullying.

Weigel says nothing more about Ireland in this article but it may be added that the biggest shock for the nearly 40% percent of the Irish electorate which voted against the change in their Constitution was not the change in itself but the realisation that the culture of the country had changed so radically. Added to that was the shock that it was the two younger generations in the country which had brought about the change on the basis of an almost entirely emotional platform. Reasoned arguments from the “no change” side were ignored and constantly responded to with emotions ranging from sentimentalism, through arrogance down as far as naked hatred. All this was bolstered by a thoroughly deceitful abuse of the concept of equality – equating the sexual relationship of opposite sexes with that between two people of the same sex.
That the faith-and-reason based culture of a country had been so thoroughly dismantled and replaced with a barely rational and thoroughly sentimental alternative, careless of consequences, was for many a very disturbing experience. How did it happen?
The recalling by Weigel of the French experience of the dismantling of Catholic schools in the early part of the last century deepens the sense of foreboding of those concerned about the erosion of foundations of Irish culture. Most Irish schools are still nominally Catholic and Christian. But that nominal status seems destined to be short-lived and they will soon be entirely secular if the forces of the State and the now apparently secularist majority in the country have anything to do with it. The corrosive and self-inflicted secularisation of Irish education which has been going on for at least three generations now is a large part of the reason for what Irish people wakened up to on May 23 last.
By secularisation we do not mean the removal of institutions from ecclesiastical control. We mean the “disembedding” of all faith-based values from the ethos of educational institutions. We are talking about the process which has been traced so thoroughly by Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation) and others in the past few years.
How did this secularisation of education in Ireland come about – apart, that is, from what it owes to the global process Taylor and Gregory have studied? There are never simple cut and dried reasons for these things but a huge contributor was the failure of the baby-boom generation to resist the sexual revolution and the drift toward hedonism which began (roughly) in the 1960s. The generation which they begat didn’t simply not resist this. They swallowed it hook-line-and-sinker. After that no one now even knows what Pope John Paul was talking about when he reminded Ireland’s young people in 1979 that “something else is needed” in their lives instead of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll. Many of them don’t think of much else now – other than money, celebrity and spectator sports. How else do you explain the extraordinary flight from stable marriage to divorce and cohabitation, the disregard for the stable family with a mother and father which the referendum result revealed – not to mention the country’s ranking for binge-drinking and suicide among the under 40s.
Hand in hand with this social decay went the capture by political ideologues of state agencies and services – education, health, justice and social services – and the media of social communication, vital to the cultural life of a country. These were the secularised new graduates from the Irish universities which themselves had come under the influence of American academic politically correct ideology.
These state agencies and the media combined to promote social policies in their own image and likeness which a not-too-bright-or-courageous elected parliament duly went along with. That ninety percent-plus of these representatives supported the same-sex marriage referendum proposal which was rejected by nearly forty percent of those who elected them is – or should be – deeply worrying for any lover of democracy.
Unlike the French, Ireland’s Catholic schools did not even have to wait for the state to dismantle them. In the post-sixties flight from faith they went into self-destruct mode all on their own. On the wave of muddled-to-bad teaching of Christian doctrine – moral included – which can be traced back to the 1970’s, generation after generation were left clueless about the foundations of their faith. The Catholic Church leaders of the era must take responsibility for this and indeed it can only be seen as another side of the coin which produced the careless dealing with those clergy, wolves in shepherd’s clothing, who in those decades perpetrated sexual abuse on those in their care. These same wolves were not only slaves to their own vicious and illicit passions but also victims of the woolly moral thinking which resulted from the ambivalence of some of their theology teachers about the clear moral teaching in Humanae Vitae.
We are all victims now and the barbarians at our gates in the form of ISIS may be far less threatening to the survival of our civilization than those in our midst.
Jonah Goldberg in his book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas talks about the dangerous adulation of youth which infects our age and which betrays not only young people themselves but also jeopardises our civilization. In an interview about the book he said:

We have a popular culture that exalts young people simply because they’re young and I have a deep and abiding contempt for youth politics, certainly as it’s practiced on the Left… The assumption that we have to cater to young people because they’re young, and they’re the future and all that kind of stuff, is just a naked form of power worship. It assumes that since they’re going to run everything one day, we might as well cave into them now. This completely turns the idea of civilization on its head. Hannah Arendt once said that in “Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.’”

The champions of same-sex marriage rode to victory in the Irish referendum thanks to tyrannical clichés. They had no arguments. All they had were meaningless slogans about a meaningless equality, based on the ludicrous Humpty Dumpty principle that we can make things mean what we say they mean. They did so by mobilising the under-forty voters and feeding them a great deal of romantic nonsense. It worked. The liberal Left now knows how it works and they are setting out to apply the same strategy to introduce abortion-on-demand to the country.
The way back from this trough of desolation will be long and arduous. It is not just an Irish problem. It is a problem for the remnant of Western civilization and it can only be countered at the level of education. The culture we had is now corrupted and only that remnant can revitalise it: by their families, by their devising adequate strategies for communal education, by Christians and all those of good will, whether Christian or not, with their commitment to the universal truths rooted in our very nature. The barbarians who descended on the Roman world destroyed the old civilization. They in turn, however, eventually withered away and their children’s children ceased to be barbarians because they grew into the light of the truth which had been slowly but surely growing inside that old Roman world. It can, and will, happen again. Believe.

The counter-culture pendulum

In the 1960s Simone de Beauvoir was at the heart of the counter-culture of that age. As the Pope reminded us in his pre-Christmas address she advanced the then-radical view that one is not born a woman, but one becomes so – that sex was no longer an element of nature but a social role people chose for themselves. Her theory applied quid pro quo to men. She, with her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, were the icons of the sexual revolution.

Fifty years later who is the leader of the new counter-culture in the West? Pope Benedict XVI is the answer. In a half-century the cultural pendulum has swung so far in the direction of Simone de Beauvoir’s view that we can now look at a routine questionnaire from an agency as commonplace as Stockport Council in Manchester and find a question asking “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned with at birth?”

In the 1950s and ‘60s the killing of babies in the womb was a crime, an offence against the person in the legislation of most Western countries. A map of the world then, showing where a child in the womb was considered to be a human being, is a radically different one form a similar map today. The international uproar reflected in media across the globe in the aftermath of the death of Savita Halappavanar in an Irish hospital last November – where it was alleged, without any reliable evidence, that she died because she was refused an abortion – was an astounding snapshot of the cultural and moral change which has taken place. With a total disregard for the facts of the case – and for the truth that Ireland’s maternity hospitals are among the safest places in the world for both mothers and children –  the country was branded a pariah among the nations for its refusal to buy into a culture which legislates for the wanton destruction of human life in the womb. But ever there now, its PC-conscious political establishment seems determined to go with the flow and succumb to the concerted pressure for the international media, the UN, the EU – and Hilary Clinton.

Add to this the gradual acceptance of homosexual activity as just one more mode of sexual expression, along with the knock-on effect this is having on definitions of family and marriage, and you see that the social and cultural conventions of Western society have experienced a seismic shift. And who stands firm in the face of this? The Catholic Church and its moral leaders of the past 50 years – Pope Pau VI whose encyclical Humanae Vitae affirmed the anthropologically and moral foundations of its teaching on the nature and purpose of human sexuality; Pope John Paul II whose 27 years of tireless teaching and pastoral activity reaffirmed and developed the culture of life; and now Pope Benedict XVI whom only the blind – and there are multitudes of them – will not acknowledge as the leading public intellectual of our time.

All of them have done so in the face of near constant opposition from the spokespersons of the new conventional wisdom. Furthermore, Pope Benedict now does so in the face of triumphant cries of victory from the forces opposing this teaching. It might seem that the scheme laid out by Mammon for a new post-paradise world in John Milton’ Paradise Lost has come to pass as the Masters of this world seek to turn the desert of relativism into some kind of Heaven.

As he our darkness, cannot we his Light
Imitate when we please? This Desart soile
Wants not her hidden lustre;
Nor want we skill or Art, from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heav’n shew more?

But Pope Benedict is having none of it. He knows that those “Gemms and Gold” are disastrous illusions.  Recognising that at the heart of the new rebellion against God there is fundamentally a rebellion against man himself, he focused in that pre-Christmas address on the fear of commitment to anyone other than “self” in the modern world. Rhetorically he asked questions about the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment which today is at the very heart of the cultural and moral divide in the West and which have has so much bearing on the threatened destruction of marriage and the family.

“Can one bind oneself for a lifetime?” He asked. “Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for?

“Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”

“In the fight for the family, the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question,” the Pope said in his address . “The question of the family … is the question of what it means to be a man, and what it is necessary to do to be true men,” he said.

The craziness of gender theory, craziness of the kind exemplified in the thinking of those Stockport councillors, is central to the craziness which is seeking to redefine marriage. But it is a mere by- product of the attempt to redefine human nature itself.

The Pope spoke of the “falseness” of gender theories and drew on the wisdom of France’s chief Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, who has spoken out against gay marriage. “Bernheim”, he said, “has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper.”

The Pope supports Bernheim’s thesis that up to  now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, but that it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. For him this is exemplified in de Beauvoir’s infamous dictum: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient).

These words, outrageous when they were uttered and seen as such by the vast majority, are now no longer so. Anything professed to the contrary is now done so at one’s peril. To get evidence of that all you have to do is to survey the international media uproar in response to the Pope’s address.

De Beauvoir’s dictum has laid “the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality,” the Pope said.  “According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

“The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves…”

“The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation.

“Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”

France’s parliament is to debate the government-backed “marriage for all” bill early next year. With President Francois Hollande’s Socialists enjoying a strong majority, the bill is expected to pass despite opposition from the right and religious groups. In Britain the Conservative Party is getting itself tied up in knots over the issue as it leads Parliament into a vote on the which with unquestioned backing across the house it will inevitably win. The Administration in the US is driving the country in the same direction while in Ireland the political establishment has clearly bought into the same political consensus.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church, now truly counter-cultural, stands firmly by its teaching on the right to life, on human sexuality generally, on marriage and the family. It did so two thousand years ago, it has had to do so many times in the intervening centuries and it now has to do so again. That it might find itself doing so in a wilderness, surrounded by Mammon’s false “Heaven” on earth, will not deter it. That again would be nothing new.