Catholics and Postmodernity
How do you speak the language of morality in an age of militant secularism?


George Weigel

Later, when people calm down, an attempt is made to revive science — but those making the attempt don’t know what “science” is. All they have is fragments of books, charred pages of articles, broken instruments, and reports of experiments, none of which is any longer embedded in the context in which they made sense. Nevertheless, people pick up these fragments of a lost heritage and talk about “physics,” “biology,” and “chemistry,” arguing about the “theory of evolution” and the “theory of relativity” while their children learn bits and pieces of the periodic table of the elements and recite Euclidean theorems as chants. Very few people realize that none of this is “science” in any proper sense. They use the terms of science — “mass,” “specific gravity,” “neutrino,” and so forth — but in ways unrelated to the beliefs those expressions once presupposed. So there would seem to be a certain arbitrariness, even an element of “choice,” in the use of these terms. Various underlying and incommensurable premises that could not be demonstrated would multiply; some would propose subjectivist theories of science while others would argue that there is no computability between “science” and subjectivism. Looking at such a world, we, on the other hand, would say that, while the language of natural science is being used, it is gravely disordered.

And there, MacIntyre concluded 30 years ago, is the rub: “In the actual world we inhabit, the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess . . . are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”

My friend Rémi Brague, a distinguished French philosopher and recent winner of the Ratzinger Prize, would likely agree with Alasdair MacIntyre. But he would drive the analysis of our current discontents deeper. Thus in 2006, Brague made a suggestive proposal for periodizing modern Western political history.

The 19th century, he argued, was a period focused on Good-and-Evil: The “social question” — raised by the industrial revolution, urbanization, mass education, and the demise of traditional society — shaped the public landscape.

As for the 20th century, it was the century of True-and-False: The totalitarian ideologies, built on the foundations of desperately wrong-headed ideas of human beings and their origins, communities, and destiny, defined the contest for the human future that drove history from the aftermath of World War I (the event that began “the 20th century” as an epoch) through the Soviet crackup of 1991 (the event that ended “the 20th century” as a distinct political-historical period).

And the 21st century? That, Rémi Brague proposed, would be the century of Being-and-Nothingness — the epoch of the metaphysical question. It might seem, in comparison to Brague’s description of the 19th and 20th centuries, a rather abstract proposal. Yet Brague, in his French way, was being very practical, very concrete, in defining our times in those terms. For if there is nothing received and cherished by our culture that might be called the “grammar of the human,” if there are no Things As They Are, if everything is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by human willfulness, then everything is up for grabs, cacophony drowns out intelligent public debate, and politics is merely the will to power.

Having spent decades immersed in the study of Islamic philosophy and law, Rémi Brague is hardly unaware of the threat posed to the West by jihadism, both externally and internally. But in 2006, he insisted that there was a prior enemy-within-the-gates of our own making. It was nihilism: a kind of soured cynicism about the very mystery of Being and its goodness. Such cynicism drained life of meaning, foreshortened horizons of expectation, and rendered sacrifices for the common good risible. Brague found postmodern nihilism foreshadowed in the Enlightenment intellectual (left unnamed) who said that he did not have children because begetting children was a criminal act, a matter of condemning another human being to death. A similar nihilism may be found lurking today beneath the decline of the marriage culture in America (and indeed throughout the West), in the treatment of children as lifestyle accessories, in the trivialization of sexuality in advertising and entertainment, and in so many other expressions of the sexual revolution and the Gnostic ideology of Gender. 

That is a non-hysterical, entirely plausible reading of American culture today. And if it feels slightly uncomfortable and unfamiliar to be a serious Catholic in America today, that is because the ambient public culture often denies the four fundamental truths on which, according to John Courtney Murray, America was built, truths that Catholics readily and happily affirmed even when Protestant bigots were questioning whether Catholics could be good citizens of the American democracy.

Americans once understood that God had inscribed moral truths into the world and into us, truths that could be known by reason. Today, the nation’s principal political newspaper, the Washington Post, editorially describes an appeal to those truths as an example of a new “language of racism, bias, and intolerance” — and does so in aid of the claim that government should recognize that Adam can “marry” Steve.

Americans once understood that our “rights” had to be tethered to a higher moral law, that just government was by the consent of the governed, and that democratic decision-making should, except in very rare circumstances, be made in legislative bodies by the people’s elected representatives. Today, we are increasingly governed by unelected Supreme Court justices and unaccountable regulators, many of whom seem to take their concept of freedom and human rights from that great moral philosopher, Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way.”

Americans once understood that the state existed to serve society, not the other way around. Today, we are governed by a federal administration that seems determined to shrink the size of civil society and vastly enlarge the sphere of state power, as it has done in the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient/sterilization mandate.