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Is Even Academia Awakening to the Obvious?

by Christopher A. Ferrara
March 15, 2017

I have just returned from my brief sojourn in Rome for The Fatima Center’s Rapid Response Team, covering — or more accurately, exposing — the sacrilegious liturgical pageant in Saint Peter’s Basilica put on by Anglican laymen in clerical costumes with the Vatican’s blessing. As I resumed the writing of my daily column, a piece at The Federalist caught my eye.

The title and subtitle alone suggest a potential major development in the academic mainstream of what passes for conservatism in America today: “‘Secular Religion’ and the Impossibility of Religious Liberty: Consistent progressivism is intolerant. Consistent Christianity is tolerant.”

The author of the piece, David Walker, cites an essay by the American conservative luminary Andrew Sullivan wherein Sullivan laments the rise of “intersectionality,” a new theory in liberal academic circles that lumps various protected classes, including race, gender and “sexual orientation,” into one big intersecting victim of one big intersecting oppressive conspiracy by an amorphous “hierarchy and power.” Sullivan observes that intersectionality, which is just political correctness by a new name:

“is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a ‘smelly little orthodoxy,’ and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., ‘check your privilege,’ and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay.”

Walker rightly views intersectionality as but another manifestation of the secular religion that has been imposed upon the public mind by what the moderns call liberty, but which the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, to quote Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei, calls “that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law.”

Walker writes that Sullivan’s piece “squares exactly with my own thoughts on how incompatible liberty and religious liberty are, in secularizing and progressive contexts.”  That liberty, so-called, is the enemy of true religion, and that it must indeed seek to eradicate true religion is precisely the thesis of my own study, published five years ago, on the rise of “Liberty, the god that failed.”

The conclusion Walker says he will defend in his doctoral thesis is that “Without an account of transcendence and eternal judgment, a lasting ecosystem of religious liberty is impossible to maintain. Or, as my colleague Samuel James tweeted to me after I shared Sullivan’s article, ‘It’s almost like there’s something in the human soul that yearns for objective, transcendent truth claims.’ That’s exactly right.”

It would be easy to condescend to conservative academics who have stumbled across and are now exploring the obvious truth about man buried by nearly 300 years of the reign of Liberty. But it must be said that what they have discovered was known to any basically catechized Catholic child before the great confusion following the Second Vatican Council, with its own ambiguous, endlessly debated and thus non-authoritative endorsement of the modern notion of “religious liberty.”  To quote the Baltimore Catechism:

“Why did God make you?

“A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.”

If we are made to love and serve God in this world and be happy with Him in Heaven after this earthly life is over, then it follows necessarily that civil authority, within its sphere of competence, must assist the individual, in an alliance with the Church, in achieving his divinely appointed ends. Thus Pope Saint Pius X condemned the modern error of “separation of Church and State” because it limits the action of the State to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life only, which is but the proximate object of political societies; and it occupies itself in no fashion (on the plea that this is foreign to it) with their ultimate object which is man’s eternal happiness after this short life shall have run its course.”

As St. Pius X further explained: “But as the present order of things is temporary and subordinated to the conquest of man’s supreme and absolute welfare, it follows that the civil power must not only place no obstacle in the way of this conquest, but must aid us in effecting it. 

Sad to say, however, Walker stumbles in his application of “transcendent truth claims” to political society.  He writes:

“These are the prongs to my theory: 1) Absolute judgment is real; 2) Absolute judgment does not belong to present human affairs (i.e., government); 3) Absolute judgment belongs to God; 4) Absolute judgment occurs at the end of history, and cannot be achieved in the present.”

On the contrary, the moral and religious absolutes revealed by God do indeed belong to present human affairs, and judgments according to those truths are not deferred to “the end of history” but must be made by civil authority for the maintenance of the common good, which includes the protection of souls from the spread of error.  As Pope Leo teaches in Libertas, his landmark encyclical on true human liberty:

“Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them; but lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State….

“If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint.”

Walker misunderstands the nature of Christian tolerance.  It is wrong to declare simply that “Consistent progressivism is intolerant. Consistent Christianity is tolerant.”  In the context of political society and public life both progressivism and Christianity are intolerant. The difference is that progressivism is intolerant of truth, whereas Christianity is intolerant of error to the extent that its public promulgation threatens faith, morals and the eternal welfare of souls. This is not to say that in a Christian commonwealth all public manifestations of error must immediately be crushed, but rather that political prudence dictates an intervention by civil authority when the promulgation of error threatens public morality or the faith of the people. 

Even today vestiges of this principle remain in the punishment of libel or false commercial speech.  It is absurd to deny its applicability to falsehoods that threaten the foundations of public morality and the eternal welfare of souls.

Had our civilization not abandoned the intolerance of the public manifestations of error against God’s law and true religion, such as the open advocacy of the murder of children in the womb and even Satanism, it would not now be experiencing intolerance only of the truth that makes us free.  We now endure the final extremity of the tolerance of error. To recall Pope Leo’s words: “truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail.”

Intolerance, then, is not the problem.  The problem is a radical loss of the proper object of intolerance, which, to quote Pope Pius XII, is “That which does not correspond to the truth and the norm of morality” and which “objectively, [has] no right either to existence or to propaganda or to action.”  (Allocution to the Congress of Italian Catholic Jurists, December 6, 1953)

Walker and other like-minded conservatives have awakened to the peril of modern liberty.  Now they need to recognize the only possible escape from its clutches: restoration of the Christian commonwealth in which truth is defended and error is given no quarter when it threatens the common good. Catholics see that restoration in the inevitable triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.