The Empire Strikes Back?

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Even if one considered it as another magnificent literary artifact, one among many other great letters from the ancient world, surely the perennial prophetic ring of this would signal that it is different. Why does this letter lead us to ask some overwhelming questions, what is it all about, why was it written and how does it mean something to us today, making millions of people read it again and again?

It is St. Paul writing to the Roman Christians about “the remnant of Israel” whose companions they are. All those who have, down through the ages and in our own age, doggedly tried to remain true to the graces given to them are part of this same remnant.

“I ask, then,” St. Paul wrote, “has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”

He then talks about Elijah and how in his frustration this prophet pleaded with God to punish the faithless Israelites.  Elijah moaned to his God, “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”. But God was having none of it, telling him, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

“So too”, Paul then reminds the Romans, “at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace,” His words surely resonate with meaning for our own time when he says, “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,   ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.'”

Christians today, faced with the accumulation of pseudo-wisdom in which modernity and post-modernity prides itself, can be reminded and encouraged by these words that come from God’s revelation to mankind. They remind us that this “spirit of stupor” has been mankind’s constant affliction and an ever-present threat to happiness and well-being, earthly as well as eternal. But from both history and in the unfolding of this same revelation we know that this spirit of stupor has never prevailed – no more than the gates of hell have – and never will.

We need this encouragement – and may need it more if the fears of people like New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, are even partially realized. As readers of this column in Position Papers and the Garvan Hill blog will know, even to the point of trying the patience of some, I pay a good deal of attention to Mr. Douthat and generally find myself in agreement with him.

At the end of last year he delivered the Erasmus Lecture in New York, an event sponsored by the magazine, First Things. The lecture, entitled A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism, was published in the magazine last month.

Now there is no doubt but that there are people who are by their disposition conservative. Although it is a corruption of the true meaning of the word, by this it is generally meant that they have an aversion to change. As such this is an unhelpful term when we are looking at those whom Douthat was addressing in his lecture – essentially Catholics with a strong commitment to the defined teaching of the Catholic Church as it has developed over two millennia. Faithful Catholics are not averse to change as such. They first ask “what is changing?” and then decide their stance, for or against.

Leaving aside the baggage which this term brings with it, the lecture itself has provoked a lively debate among Catholics in America. Douthat himself has now begun to respond to some of those who have taken issue with his analysis of the situation of the Catholic Church in what is now called “the era of Pope Francis”.

Essentially he is saying – regardless of the actual teaching of Pope Francis – that the movement within the Church which in the past identified with what was called the “spirit of the Second Vatican Council”, and which some would say paid little attention to the actual teaching of that Council, has now got a new lease of life.  Not only that, but this movement is now threatening to destabilize the unity and orthodoxy established painstakingly in the Church during the past two pontificates. This for many was well illustrated by all the shenanigans – still going on – surrounding the two recent synods on the family.

Extrapolating from Douthat’s analysis, it is as though the opening of the windows of the Church which was attributed to St. John XXIII is now paralleled by Pope Francis’s commitment to an evangelization of the peripherary. One reading of history says that the post-conciliar moment was seized on by heterodox theologians to pursue an agenda not consistent with the actual teaching of the Council. A reading of the current moment is that the same is happening again in the open atmosphere of Pope Francis’ papacy. Heterodox elements are fighting hard to regain ground lost over the past thirty-five years.

One response to the Douthat’s lecture, in two installments, came from Professor John Martens in the Jesuit magazine, America. Martens is a professor in St. Thomas University in Minnesota. Although he was not among them, this institution was well represented among the signatories to an outrageous and arrogant letter sent to the New York Times questioning the paper’s editorial judgment and the columnist’s right to be commenting at length on Catholic theological issues.

Douthat, in his response to Martens, talks about the fears provoked in him by the implications he draws from the latter’s championing this newly revitalized heterodox movement. Having read what he describes as Professor Martens’ “learned, sincere, respectful response to my columns” he says

“We clearly have some religious common ground, but in other ways the professor and I just seem to occupy very different belief structures, very different places on the continuum of Christianity — and the distance is great enough that our differences can feel less like an intra-Catholic argument and more like a kind of inter-denominational dispute.

“Thus my sudden fears for the church’s unity, in the years of Francis and under papacies to come. Divisions there will always be, but these divisions are simply deeper than I had (fondly? naively?) imagined. And nothing in Catholic history suggests that the church is exempt from Jesus’s warning about a house divided or from the consequences when those divisions can no longer be denied.”

Those words about being on “very different places on the continuum of Christianity” are reminiscent of a passing remark made by Joseph Ratzinger – written while he was still just that – in his little autobiographical volume, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977. In it he was reflecting on those early years of the Second Vatican Council and the development of his own ideas, rubbing shoulders with other priest-theologians involved in the Council as advisors. Among these was Fr. Karl Rahner. Rahner was one of those who very definitely went with the flow of the “spirit of Vatican II”, indeed many would say was at the head of the flow. Ratzinger wrote in that book of his gradual realization that he and his colleague, Rahner, were theologically on different planets.

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Fr. Karl Rahner

In the era of St. John Paul II and his successor, now no longer Joseph Ratzinger but Pope Benedict XVI, one of those two planets seemed to have receded to an outer orbit of the Church. It would now seem, for better or worse, to be back in play in the history of Catholicism again.

Clearly and emphatically we have not reached the “End of History”, neither for Christianity nor for any other dimension of our lives. With the advance of the nones in the Christian world – those who in surveys about religious affiliation profess themselves as belonging to no denomination, – we may be looking at a coming struggle between two claimants to the title of “remnant of Israel”.

Drawing solace and strength from the words of St. Paul, while we do not know how the true remnant will win the day, we do know that the true remnant will be the victor. That remnant will be found in neither the Conservative camp nor in the Liberal camp – it will just be Christian, conservative and liberal as their Faith prescribes, and it will be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic .

A Chesterton for our times?

Ross Douthat

How we should learn learn to stop complaining and love the New York Times! How could we not, for it has given us a Chesterton for our times. Who would have believed it? It did not begin this week – but it certainly reached a new level of power this week.  The latest shining of this new and welcome light began last Monday with the  First Things Erasmus lecture in New York City. Then today we have a penetrating column, a veritable gauntlet for the cause of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church thrown at the feet of its heterodox academic theologians, in one of the free world’s greatest liberal newspapers.

We are talking about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. His star as an interpreter, explainer and sometimes warrior in the culture battles of our time has been rising for a number of years. Since his move to the Times a handful of years ago it has reached super-nova dimensions.

Don’t buy the jibe that he is the Times’ token conservative. The Times is a genuinely liberal paper and as such will inevitably give voice to – and at its top level may also sincerely subscribe to – a view of human nature which is wide of an accurate reading of the real nature of the human condition. But its first ideal is to  try to give voice to intelligent human beings who are seeking the truth. This it will generally do regardless of what the paper’s own view of the truth at any time might be. The Times may even be as confused as Pilate was about the very possibility of Truth. Its starting point is, however, unarguably a good ideal, one which is at the very heart of our civilization. Because of a commitment to this ideal we can hear the voice of Ross Douthat.

This week Douthat gave us a razor-sharp analysis – for me at any rate – of where the “Catholic moment” is today. This was the 28th Annual Erasmus Lecture. It presents a challenge to be sensible, honest and continuously courageous in thinking about where we have been, where we are and where we are going with out Christian civilization yesterday, today and tomorrow.

You can watch and listen to this lecture here courtesy of First Things (firstthings.com). Now in its 28th year, the Erasmus Lecture has been bringing world-renowned speakers to New York—including Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Gilbert Meilaender, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—to address an audience of over five hundred people each year.

Ross Douthat, who like Chesterton – but without the semantic and rhetorical fun and games – is nothing if not provocative, is the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008).

Last week he was challenged by a group of academic theologians who must surely now regret their silly passing remark casting doubt on his “authority” to speak about religion at all since he had no qualification in theology. In fact they did not challenge him. They complained behind his back – like true liberals – to the New York Times for giving him a platform at all on “their” subject. Today he answers their silliness – silliness which all honest people will laugh at but which nevertheless they should also take seriously, as he does. He begins:

I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.

I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.

Both his lecture, his column today and on many other occasions, make compelling reading.

He concludes today’s column, making reference to their elitist and Gnostic jibe, where they imply that all these things are above his pay grade and that he does not understand them because he is not a theologian: “…indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts.”

What is their real position on doctrine and the teaching of the Church, he asks? He suspects that it is that almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind. He concludes:

As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

It is good to have another Chesterton among us.

The moment when the wheels come off the tumbril?

As the horror of the Planned Parenthood’s exposure in the USA gathers momentum we wonder if this might not be the Harriet Beecher Stowe / Frederick Douglass moment which will lead to the end of the mass killing of human beings which our civilization has not only condoned but has also massively funded for the past few generations.

The wheels seem to be well and truly coming  the tumbrils of this reign of chilling slaughter. This is nowhere more evident than in the total lack of moral coherence – not to mention logical coherence – in the scramble to defend this extraordinarily  callous organisation by its liberal camp followers in recent weeks. “Care no matter what” is the organizations mantra. We now know that a great deal of things matter to Planned Parenthood, and that they have nothing to do with care for anyone. It’s big business.

In his superb post in the New York Times over the past few days Ross Douthat does not mince his words in calling them to order, even shaming them for their little better than infantile efforts to defend the indefensible.

He concludes with these words:

So let’s be clear about what’s really going on here. It is not the pro-life movement that’s forced Planned Parenthood to unite actual family planning and mass feticide under one institutional umbrella. It is not the Catholic Church or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the Southern Baptist Convention or the Republican Party that have bundled pap smears and pregnancy tests and HPV vaccines with the kind of grisly business being conducted on those videos. This is Planned Parenthood’s choice; it is liberalism’s choice; it is the respectable center-left of Dana Milbank and Ruth Marcus and Will Saletan that’s telling pro-life and pro-choice Americans alike that contraceptive access and fetal dismemberment are just a package deal, that if you want to fund an institution that makes contraception widely available then you just have to live with those “it’s another boy!” fetal corpses in said institution’s freezer, that’s just the price of women’s health care and contraceptive access, and who are you to complain about paying it, since after all the abortion arm of Planned Parenthood is actually pretty profitable and doesn’t need your tax dollars?

This is a frankly terrible argument, rooted in a form of self-deception that would be recognized as such in any other context. Tell me anything but this, liberals: Tell me that you aren’t just pro-choice but pro-abortion, tell me that abortion is morally necessary and praiseworthy, tell me that it’s as morally neutral as snuffing out a rabbit, tell me that a fetus is just a clump of cells and that pro-lifers are all unhinged zealots. Those arguments, as much as I disagree with them, have a real consistency, a moral logic that actually makes sense and actually justifies the continued funding of Planned Parenthood.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

Read the full column here.

Confessions of Faith and Reason

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Confessions of faith – or confessions of reasons for having faith – seem to be more and more common in recent times. A few weeks ago we had Daily Telegraph columnist and blogger, Tim Stanley, telling us “If you have to choose between being liberal and being Christian, choose Christian”, and going on to explain why.

More recently we had Ross Douthat, columnist with the New York Times, in the wake of hostile Catholic and pseudo Catholic reaction to his expressed concerns about the Synod of Bishops, feeling the need to explain to us “Why I am a Catholic”.

This is good. Catholics need clarity. These upfront declarations are giving us some of this clarity.

Stanley’s reflections were on the back of the revelations about ex-bishop Conry’s pitiable affair and subsequent fall, coupled with the then-approaching aforementioned synod on the family.

He observed the prevalent temptation to focus on the human, sometimes frail aspects of the Church and drew on the wisdom of a priest-blogger whom he admires greatly, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, who urges us to do the opposite.

Fr. Lucie-Smith’s sentiments on the issue, Stanley observes, apply to all Christians (and Jews, and Muslims etc): while the secular world obsesses about political division within the Church, what really matters is the “theological reality” of its mission.

In this mission, the priest says, One needs to distinguish… between a group of people who are united sociologically (for want of a better word) and a group of people who are united in Christ, which is a theological reality. Unity in Christ is something we are always on the way to achieving, if we were not constantly impeded by our sins. Thus we should be in a constant state of repentance for our sins, in that they frustrate the unity that Christ prayed for and which He bequeathed us on Calvary.

Stanley adds: The Catholic Church will always have its troubles. The solution is prayer and putting one’s faith in the Holy Spirit.

The Reformation is, of course, he continued, a reminder of the fragility of the Church. The resilience of Catholicism in Britain today shows its ability to withstand anything – and grow from strength to strength. Its greatest threat is a general decline in belief (aided by the mistakes of clerics) and the emergence of a new anti-religious consensus that discourages commitment to the divine. But perhaps it’s best not to think of this as a crisis but as a challenge to believers. 

This was written in the same week that Louise Mensch made her confession of a conflicted faith in a moving piece in The Spectator about her own struggle to reconcile her private and spiritual life – and her deference to Catholic Church teachings on the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist.

Stanley remarks on how difficult this is to do, and to talk openly about, in this liberal world in which we now cohabit with people embracing all sorts of heterodoxy. But do it we must – and if we are to be true to our beliefs about what really matters, we really only have one choice. He quotes Fr Lucie-Smith again:

If you have to choose between being liberal and being Catholic, choose Catholic… This is the true fault line: those who believe in the Body of Christ and our vocation to belong to it through baptism, and those who believe the Church needs to catch up with the world, and other such dreary clichés. St Paul had to put up with a lot of them, because he writes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). 

Stanley concludes: Pray to have the strength not to conform but to be who you truly are. Which is a sinner saved by Grace.

Ross Douthat, for his part put his confession in this nutshell:

I am a Catholic for various contingent reasons (this is as true of converts as of anyone else), but on a conscious level it’s because I am a mostly-faithful Christian who is mostly convinced that Roman Catholicism is the expression of Christianity that has kept faith most fully with the early church and the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself.

That’s a pretty useful nutshell, although it doesn’t make any reference to the vital role of grace in that “because”.

He elaborated a little on the basis of a point made in a talk by Cardinal George Pell, – recently of Sydney and now of the Roman curia, — that the search for authority in Christianity began not with pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy, but with early Christians who “wanted to know whether the teachings of their bishops and priests were in conformity with what Christ taught”.

This, Douthat said, is crucial to my own understanding of the reasons to be Catholic: I believe in papal authority, the value of the papal office, because I think that office has played a demonstrable role in maintaining the faith’s continuity, coherence and fidelity across two thousand years of human history. It’s that role and that record, complicated and checkered as it is, that makes the doctrine of papal infallibility plausible to me.

There is a wealth of ignorance about the Faith of the Catholic Church out there. The more conversations like this that we have the better chance there is that we will escape from this pit and will become Catholics who will be who they “truly are”. A source of that liberating truth is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a source with the stamp of approval of that Magisterium in which the early Christians, and later Christians like Douthat, Stanley, Mensch et al, found and continue to find reassurance that what we believe is “what Christ taught”. Why would you choose anything else?

Getting income equality in perspective

Stop talking about income equality. Explain it. This is a start.

For all those who get themselves into a frenzy about income inequality, Ross Douthat makes this interesting observation in an interview in The Kenyon Observer:
The income gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the rest of the country rose faster in the late 1990s than it did in the late 1980s. But nobody in their right mind would prefer the economy of the late 1980s to the economy of the late 1990s: The former featured a slide into recession; the latter featured robust wage growth across the board and historically low unemployment rates. If income inequality were the crucial issue, we’d look back on 1998 as a dreadful year, and 1991 as a great one. But wages and widely-shared growth are actually the most important issues, so we remember 1998 as a lost golden age, its rising inequality notwithstanding.

The interview is here.

The Christian roots and character of liberal secularism

Framing the American Constitution

 

What is the difference between the Muslim call for sharia law and the Christian aspiration that no civil law should be contrary to the core moral principles of the Christian faith? Answer: liberal secularism.

Not however, that destructive brand of secularism which is now at the heart of the cold culture war which is rupturing the civil and religious tolerance which the western world has enjoyed, on and off, for two centuries or more. We are talking about the secularism which has its roots in the development of the Christian church’s own teaching.

It is a fact of history that down through the centuries there has been a kind of law operating by which much of the development of Christian teaching – by which, I suppose, we mean our understanding of all the implications of Christ’s teaching – takes place in a context of conflict. This conflict comes from challenges from without or within to the practices and beliefs of any given time or place which are deemed to be consistent with and even central to what Judeo-Christian Scriptures and Tradition teach. Out of these conflicts comes a constantly developing thought about and practical approach to the journey on which Christian “wayfarers” are embarked and which in any given age seeks to meet the needs of this pilgrim people and the entire race to which they belong.

So, in the early centuries the true identity of Christ as God and Man became clearer, as did the special character of his mother’s identity and holiness. In later centuries the purpose, nature and structure of the government of the Church which he founded became clearer. In the early modern age – the epoch of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic – that Church, weakened by the corruption of its all-too-human members, was challenged. That challenge threatened both its teaching and its very form. But in its response to that challenge and threat came a new understanding, hand in hand with its reaffirmation of its original foundational teaching.

Over 200 years ago a new framework began to take shape in the public square for the more peaceful coexistence of the city of God and the city of Man. The previous hundred and fifty had been pretty horrendous for both. The founding fathers of the United States of America searched for and found a formula which would free the city of Man of the charge of religious persecution and free the city of God of the charge and scandal of religious intolerance and denial of human freedom. It might not be perfect but it was a massive improvement on what went before. It has served us well – until now. It at least served the Anglophone world well. The French, with their Revolution did not buy into it and slaughtered the Christian faithful; the Germans with their Kulturkampf did their best to push the city of God into the obscure margins of society but in the end failed. The Communists and the National Socialists of course, wherever they raised their heads, thought they could kill off religion altogether but also failed.

Wrong turning: French revolution enthroned “reason” on the High Altar of Notre Dame Cathedral

The development of Christian doctrine which has occurred over the past 200 years in the light, it has to be said, of the wisdom of these men, means that words like those of Omar Ahmad, the co-founder of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), speaking to a Muslim audience in California in 1998, could not now be spoken by a believing mainstream Christian. He said: “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.”

But, we may ask, is the culture of tolerance, even in the Anglophone world, now beginning to unravel? Unravel, not on the Christian side, but on the side of militant secularists. Has the spirit of tolerance which moved the Founding Fathers to safeguard their society from the horrors of religious wars and religious persecution finally died?  Are we being alarmist if we cite Ross Douthat’s recent observation in his New York Times column on the Arizona governor’s refusal to sign a bill protecting marriage as an indication of where America’s political elite is now taking it. He said that “what makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Is traditional liberal secularism now dead? Has it been replaced with the militant secularism’s own version of sharia law?

But what were the roots of the Founding Fathers’ search for a new way. They were in fact Christian roots and had there been no Christianity it is very doubtful if we would ever have got to the reasonably tolerable place where we now are. Just as the American revolt itself was not a revolt against the culture and way of life in the British Empire of that time – but was an assertion of that very ethos which they felt privileged to enjoy – so their declaration of a new way of accommodating religious belief in the public square was not a rejection of Christian religion itself but was an affirmation of some of the deepest principles underpinning that belief, albeit not understood in all their depth – the rights of man, freedom of conscience and innate human dignity. The majority of the Founding Fathers were acting on the principles and ideas which had been emerging in Christian thought for more than a millennium. This is not something that neo-secularists are very willing to admit.

Larry Siedentop is an American intellectual historian and political philosopher who has worked in Oxford University for most of his academic life.  For him one of the tragedies of our age is the mistaken identification of “secularism” with non-belief, with indifference and materialism. In an article which he wrote for the February issue of Prospect magazine he discusses this in the context of what he calls “Europe’s undeclared civil war”, which he describes as being  “as tragic as it is unnecessary”. However, everything he says can also be seen unfolding in every jurisdiction where those who seek to adhere to the moral norms which have been the binding elements of western civilization for over 2000 years are now being challenged. In many jurisdictions those norms themselves are now being forcibly unraveled under the pressure of this hostile neo-secularism.

For Siedentop a flawed analysis leads to the view that liberalism and secularism did not have their fundamental roots in the Christian religion. He daringly asserts that this secularism can in fact, properly understood, be seen as “Europe’s noblest achievement and Christianity’s gift to the world”.

He explains, for example, that the most distinctive thing about Greek and Roman antiquity – to which the neo-secularists look as their source and inspiration – is what might be called “moral enclosure”. In this culture the limits of personal identity were established by the limits of physical association and from this they inherited unequal social roles. Those social roles pervaded their civilization from top to bottom. Then Christianity came along with its emphasis on the “moral equality” of humans and broke through these limits. Where does this “moral equality” come from? The Greeks didn’t have it. The Romans didn’t have it. It came from the very essence of Christianity itself. Siedentop explains how, with the advent of Christianity,

Social roles and rules became secondary. They came to be understood as subordinate to a God-given status shared equally by all human beings. Christians, therefore, were expected to live in “two cities” simultaneously, a dualism that would later be expressed in the distinction between the private and public spheres.

We can see this breaking out of moral enclosure everywhere in the New Testament. For St Paul, the love of God revealed in the Christ imposes obligations on the individual, that is, on the individual conscience. Paul refers constantly to “Christian liberty” and downgrades rule-following—the Hebraic “law”—in favour of action governed by conscience. In this way, the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for a new and unprecedented form of human society.

He argues, in this article and in his new book, Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism, that in contrast to most other cultures, western beliefs are informed by the assumption of “moral equality”, which underpins the secular state and the idea of fundamental or “natural” rights. Christianity played a decisive part in the emergence of this culture. Yet the idea that liberalism and secularism have religious roots is not widely understood, he says.

He cites the great medieval historian from the last century, Richard Southern, who extensively explored this same connection between medieval Christian thought – that of Anselm of Canterbury, Dominic Guzman and Thomas Aquinas, to name but three – and our modern sensibilities about relations between Church and State. It should not be very difficult for us to appreciate what Siedentop and Southern before him are talking about when we look at the view of humanity and nature preached by that deepest of deep Christian souls, Francis of Assisi.

The separation of church and state within the context of a healthy and Christian-friendly secularism has now been re-imagined in a manner which has drawn attention away from those religious roots – and makes secularism anything but friendly to religion. Now, religious belief and “godless” secularism are conceived as irreconcilable opponents and Siedentop speaks of the growing perception of a profound conflict being reawakened between secularism and people of faith – of the kind seen in the past, for example, in the unfolding of the French Revolution. For most of the millennium and a half since its foundation Islam was an external force besieging the borders of Christendom.  Now things have changed and  Sidentop observes that in recent years, with the insertion of Muslim populations into the Western mix of cultures a new dimension is added to the problem of harmonizing church and state:

In Europe, massive immigration and the growth of large Muslim minorities have widened the range of non-Christian beliefs dramatically—with significant consequences. Quite apart from the acts of terrorism which invoke—more or less dubiously—the name of Islam, Muslims are frequently encouraged by their religious leaders to look forward to replacing the laws of the nation-state with those of sharia. Islam appears to cohabit uneasily with secularism.

He adds to this mix the development on the North American continent of a militant fundamentalist Christian response to materialistic secularists. He does not put it in these terms exactly but what is now occurring there is that the children of the new hedonism of the Western world – abortion, euthanasia and an aggressive homosexuality are lining up for battle with those who want to live a Christian life. Secularism is becoming again, as he puts it, the enemy of the Christian rather than the companion.

In effect what is of course happening is that this kind of secularism has invaded the area of conscience and is setting up for itself dogmas of faith – redefining everything in its own image, declaring its full range of anathemas with a vehemence which will match any fundamentalist in any religion. Siedentop concludes his reflections with these words:

This is a strange and disturbing moment in the history of the west. Europeans, out of touch with the roots of their tradition, often seem to lack conviction, while Americans may be succumbing to a dangerously simplistic version of their faith. If we in the west do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, we cannot hope to shape the conversation of mankind.

Understanding the moral depths of its own traditions must be, for any civilization, a sine qua non for survival. It is a beginning. But honesty, sincerity and simple rational intelligence are also sine qua non in this process. When a leader in a predominantly Christian country expresses the view that those who promote and carry out the killing of millions children awaiting birth should be blessed by God  – as President Barak Obama did when he ended a combative speech to the nation’s largest abortion provider last April by saying, “Thank you Planned Parenthood. God bless you,” then he cannot but risk triggering a tsunami of fundamentalism. The wave of Islamic fundamentalism which has been sweeping the world owes no small measure of its force to the scandalisation of Sayyid  Qutb, martyr for the Muslim Brotherhood, when he encountered, firsthand, the hedonism of segments of United States society in the two years he spent in colleges there in the 1940s.  We cannot doubt that the hedonistic follies of some of the Renaissance popes – considered by Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly – and the complicity of the clerical establishment in the corruption of the aristocracy in seventeenth century France, contributed to the waves of destruction provoked by these excesses.  We are undoubtedly at a “strange and disturbing moment in the history of the west”. Whether we will come through it without another deluge in which much of what we know and love about out time will be swept away with the dross which surrounds us remains to be seen.

A version of this article has already appeared on MercatorNet.

The ‘Catholic moment’ debate

There is a very interesting follow-up by Ross Douthat on his own NYT blog to his “Catholic Moment” column in the paper at the weekend. In it he concludes:

Again, I’m not denying that the Catholic faith will always be rowing against the currents of a late-modern mass democracy like ours. But boats can beat successfully against a current (and make room for more passengers on board), or they can just be carried backward toward the sea. A “Catholic moment” exists, in this sense, when the barque of Peter seems to be making some headway — and to the extent that such a moment has vanished in our own era, as much blame has to belong to the rowers who ignored obvious rocks, smashed their oars or kicked holes in the bottom as to the river of modernity itself.

It’s all here.