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Materialism again? Really?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 01/27/22

Science got us away from hardcore materialism, yet has it been discounted as thoroughly as we thought?

How many times have you been asked this question during a job interview?

Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

I’ve been asked that question many times—here’s the answer I wish I had the wit and boldness to offer:

I’m striving to be a raconteur; I hope to grow into a curmudgeon; by retirement I hope to be a codger; in my final years I would like to be a coot.

One man who could have given that answer truthfully was the great British author Hilaire Belloc. A tireless essayist and Catholic apologist, he took on the Church’s critics with zeal and alacrity. His mix of logic and satire is greatly to be admired. Moreover, he can be a guide for us today.

I wrote in this space recently about challenges to Christian culture. From the beginning, the life of the Church has been opposed by powers both secular and sectarian, natural and preternatural. The nature and intensity of the attacks varies over time, but the persistence of the attacks is timeless. Belloc began writing about these to great effect over 100 years ago—and what he’s written, I maintain, can guide us today.

Belloc addresses materialism as an opponent of Christian culture. Materialism, in brief, rests upon the claim that the only thing that is real is what is physical, that the only thing that matters is matter. This leads to an ethic of “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” (You’re still dead, but at least you “won.”) Consequently, any talk of the supernatural or the spiritual would be dismissed as nonsense.

Even in Belloc’s time, science had moved away from hardcore materialism; quantum physics presents an even greater challenge to such materialism. Belloc notes:

Spiritual forces have been awakened in us. We must talk about the “will to peace,” “the will to power.” “The will to” this and that and the other (a horrible piece of bad English). We want to live our “full life” and have discovered (oddly enough) that you cannot do that without a living principle—that is, without a soul.

Hence today, even as we see our churches emptying out, we find many saying, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” People seem to want what the life of a soul points to—but do they really?

The experience of the past two years, since the onset of the Covid Interruption, makes me wonder whether materialism has been discounted as thoroughly in our time as Belloc thought it was in his. We’ve heard both statesmen and churchmen declare, “The physical health of our people is our number one priority!” We’ve heard social commentators bellow: “I don’t care about rights! I want to be safe!” These statements make sense only if physical life, if not the only good, is the greatest good, and physical death the greatest evil. Such a view cannot endure, neither for Christian nor civil communities, for it precludes the reasons for living and dying that the Church has always taught. Communities cannot be built upon the worship of the self.

What do we make of this unexpected discovery of latent materialism underneath the surface of our sophisticated façade? Ever the curmudgeon, Belloc writes: “The good fortunes of stupidity are incalculable. One can never tell what sudden resurrections ignorance and fatuity may not have.”

The distinctively Catholic remedy to resurgent materialism is not to disparage the material nor exaggerate the spiritual. The Catholic faith is sacramental—using the physical, the particular, the temporal as conduits to the spiritual, the universal, the eternal. The Incarnation of Christ gives matter in general and human flesh in particular an identity, dignity, and destiny that the pagans could not have imagined, the moderns could not have understood, and the post-moderns can not even begin to articulate.

The Catholic remedy for the cultural assault of materialism is found in fraternal charity, bonds of fellowship, and especially marriage and family life. The remedy is seen at its peak in reverent worship, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. As 2022 lurches forward, let’s educate ourselves on the great Catholic sacramental treasures. Then let’s get busy with service and friendship, treating each other as the Church has always taught that we in fact are, namely, made in the image and likeness of Christ.

In the coming weeks, I will be walking us through Belloc’s wise and charming book, Survivals and New Arrivals. We’ll see that the resources and courage that Belloc made use of in defense of Christian culture can guide us today.

When I write next, I will continue my reflections on the challenges to Christian culture. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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