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Building the Civilization of Love

Building the Civilization of Love Emilio Dellepiane

Emilio Dellepiane

Mark Gordon - published on 03/11/14

Can the liberal experiment be declared dead yet?

It is an irony of the Catholic experience in the United States that at the very moment when the liberal state is beginning to demonstrate the unsustainable philosophical and moral relativism embedded in its charter, faithful Catholics who aim to expose that fact are pilloried, sometimes in the harshest terms, by liberal Catholics who would prefer to pretend that things are fundamentally fine in the American Republic. What’s more, when Catholic critics of the liberal state offer the teaching and lived experience of the Church as an analytical lens and possible source for alternative visions of the polis, the Church herself comes under attack by those same liberals, as in the recently minted formula, “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition.”

This phenomenon proves the truth of Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that “the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself – that is, for putting liberalism in question.” Indeed, when one undertakes to criticize the liberal state, all sorts of chaff are deployed as countermeasures, from paeans to the virtue of the Founders to dark intimations of disreputable designs.  Rarely will defenders of the liberal castle permit the battle to be waged on their side of moat, even when those behind them have already barred the gate and are busy raising the drawbridge.

A friend of mine once noted that even Brazilian atheists have a more Catholic sensibility than most faithful American Catholics. I think that’s right, and it’s because for two centuries the Church in America has been stewing in an acid bath of relativism, materialism and secularism. The liberal state has played the long game, permitting religious liberty, which is a good thing, but structuring the terms of that liberty in such a way that over the passage of generations the faith would become so enervated that it wouldn’t matter. That’s where we are today, and that’s why the argument for more liberalism – that is, for a more comprehensive application of liberal principles – as a way of arresting the aggressions of the liberal state is akin to prescribing an extra dozen donuts as a cure for obesity.

In his book, Subversive Orthodoxy, CalTech professor Robert Inchausti recounts a speech given by the economist E. F. Schumacher, who went on to write the landmark Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered:

“In his 1957 talk, “The Insufficiency of Liberalism,” Schumacher argued that there were three stages of human development: the first was primitive religiosity, and then scientific realism. The third stage, which we are now entering, is the realization that there is something beyond fact and science. The problem, he explained, is that stage one and stage three look the same to those in stage two. Consequently, those in stage three are seen as having relapsed into magical thinking when, in reality, they have actually seen through the limitations of rationalism. “Only those who have been through stage two,” he argues, “can understand the difference between stage one and stage three.””

This is where we are in this debate: Can those in stage two break free from the partisan, ideological, and nationalist loyalties that bind them and honestly confront the inherent contradictions of the liberal state, which formally vouchsafes religious liberty even while it undermines belief and practice? Similarly, can those in stage three, who have already divested themselves of their reflexive attachment to liberalism, describe in positive terms the sort of polis they would construct as a humane and tolerant alternative, taking into account the authentic teaching of the Church and the lessons learned in passing through stages one and two?

Like it or not, history will soon force both camps to answer these questions. As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote in his commentary on The Second Coming,  “The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction… The revelation [that] approaches will… take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre…” The gyres are rotating at a breakneck pace now, and Yeats’s rough beast no longer slouches – it positively gallops.

Look around: liberalism is triumphant in the West. The large and thriving religious populations it inherited from the medieval age have been ground to fine powder by three centuries of nationalism, materialism, rationalism, and secularism. Today, the dictatorship of relativism is aimed straight at what remains of Christianity in the liberal West. We can choose to fight a rear-guard action against the momentum of the age – and there is value in that – but if we do so with the weapons and tactics of the enemy, then we’ve already succumbed. Acknowledging that is not surrender; it is sobriety.

What we ought to be about is “building a new civilization in the shell of the old,” what Blessed Pope John Paul II called “a civilization of love.” Contrary to the hysterical assertions of liberal Catholics, that work won’t involve the erection of a confessional state or the restoration of a Catholic monarchy, at least not short of some unlikely apocalyptic collapse. For us, building a new civilization within the shell of the old means defying the bourgeois spirit of the age, with its petty idols and divided loyalties. It means seeing ourselves as Catholics first and anything else a distant second. It means making the corporal and spiritual works of mercy our template for daily living, in contradiction to the prevailing corporate ethos. It means imitating the early Christians, who “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” And, yes, it may mean refusing all government largesse like tax exemption, resisting the state’s unjust wars and defying orders to stop doing this or start doing that.

Will that sort of witness invite scorn and perhaps persecution? Yes, of course, but since when did being a Christian mean that one would be free from such things?

“Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4: 12-14).”

The notion that liberty is something granted or withheld by what the Servant of God Dorothy Day called “Holy Mother State” is foolishness. We are always free to follow Christ and His Church, regardless of what a court or president says. Certainly, no sane person hopes for a trial by fire, but the martyrs didn’t offer half a pinch to Caesar in order to save themselves from the test. “Do as you wish,” said St. Justin Martyr, “for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols.”

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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