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Catholics May Be in Crisis, But the Laity is No Savior

Still, the time may be ripe for creative—even audacious—action to reviving a faltering tradition.

Barely a day goes by without the news media covering some new instance of sexual debauchery, crime, or cover-up in the Catholic Church. Fingers are pointed at bishops, cardinals, and even the Pope. Coming on top of years of similar revelations, these stories confirm an impression of deep moral-spiritual crisis.

So abundant and disturbing has been the evidence of clerical wrong-doing, callousness, secrecy, and hypocrisy that leading laymen have issued calls for the laity to intercede. Considering that the Catholic Church has always emphasized clerical authority and hierarchical structure, this is an extraordinary development—yet, given the circumstances, a plausible one. 

Because of the expectation that priests, bishops, and other religious should be models for the laity, it is not surprising that blame should focus on the hierarchy. And where to turn for remedies, if not to the laity? But to call on the laity to guide the Church is to raise the question of how well-prepared they are for the task. Thomas Jefferson famously believed that no country should go long without a revolution. Government had to be cleansed from time to time by the righteousness of the common people. But Jefferson had a romantic faith in the virtue of the common man that contrasts sharply with the traditional Christian view of human nature.

Bishops and clergy are not uniquely subject to the forces of corruption that have wreaked havoc in the Church. They have been affected by trends in the same society that the laity inhabit. In fact, the laity may well have been even more influenced by questionable views of life that have become increasingly prominent in Western society. Successful lay leadership would thus have to be acutely self-critical and discriminating. 

The challenge to Christianity in the last few centuries has not been confined to denying the existence of God. The basic terms of human existence have been reconsidered. Not only Christianity but the classical Greek and Roman heritage stressed the importance of moral character for personal and social well-being. Human beings were morally cleft, and they had to learn self-control and responsibility. Any genuine social betterment had to begin in this manner. For Christianity, the main obstacle to improving human existence was the fallenness of man. The crux of the moral-spiritual life was to recognize evil in self, repent, and reform self. A central purpose of civilization was to support this effort. 

But Western high-brow and popular culture alike have long portrayed such notions of self-restraint and character as vestiges of a perverse puritanism. We should not bottle up natural cravings but live out our dreams and longings. We are not to fret over little personal failings but show moral nobility by endorsing virtuous social and political schemes for transforming the human condition. Our goal should be not so much to love neighbor—the people just around us—with all of what it entails of personal, sometimes inconvenient up-close engagement. We should love mankind, whose advancement requiresthe mobilization of government. This shift from self-reform to socio-political reform proved very appealing in that it greatly relieved the moral burden placed on the person.

Christian love, which had been seen as inseparable from overcoming the sin of self-indulgence, was gradually replaced by the kind of “idealism” that Irving Babbitt called “sentimental humanitarianism.” Moral virtue, previously understood as involving the self-restraint of character and personal responsibility, was redefined to mean feelings of empathy or pity, not for anybody in particular but for large suffering collectives somewhere in the distance, like the hungry or the downtrodden. Love of neighbor, which demands sometimes difficult action or sacrifice here and now, gave way to the sentiment of “brotherhood of man,” which presupposes no difficult self-reform. 

The pioneering and paradigmatic figure for this new moral posture was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher of the French Revolution. A new form of spirituality started spreading in the Western world. Its ethos might be summed up in the phrase “daring to share that you care.” The lover of humanity proves his moral bona fides by letting others know that he “feels their pain.” A prominent and distinctive trait of sentimental humanitarianism is its element of self-approbation. Look at me! See how I love everybody! If I treat particular persons close to me badly, that is surely excused by my abundant love for humanity. Christianity had warned against pride and encouraged a humble view of self, but the new sentimental spirituality inflated the ego. Its emphasis was not on moral self-examination but on eradicating social injustice.

When Rousseau’s famous work of pedagogy, Emile, was first published it was condemned by the Archbishop of Paris. Rousseau’s central ideas, specifically, his notion of the natural goodness of man, were obviously antithetical to traditional theological and moral assumptions. His notion of the common good—to be achieved through a soulful radical democracy that released unobstructed popular will—was as sharply anti-traditional. Still, Rousseauistic “idealism” began to transform Christianity. The “freedom, equality and brotherhood” of the French radicals acquired a “Christian” form, as did the corresponding faith in the People. The new idealism linked up with enlightenment-style social engineering to implement its vision of justice.

In Protestantism an eventual consequence was the so-called Social Gospel, according to which God wants a radical remaking of society. The old belief that sin is chiefly a personal matter and that personal character must contain it—which makes a better society possible—gave way to stressing the need for getting rid of existing socio-political structures. Soon many Catholics, too, came to view the sentimental brotherhood of man as more elevated and generous than the self-control and love of neighbor that had formed the core of Christian responsibility. This radical redefinition of morality and the corresponding change in priorities were somewhat masked because advocates of the new idealism retained the Christian terminology.

As this humanitarian spirituality was adapted to the moral-intellectual habits of the Catholic mind, it often assumed a quasi-Thomistic form. One sees this development particularly well in a mid-20th-century figure who would acquire iconic status: Jacques Maritain. His thought was not univocal, but especially his later work echoed 18th and 19th century liberationist themes. Breaking with the Aristotelian tradition, Maritain became a proponent of democratism, the belief that democracy is divinely ordained. He extolled “prophets of the people” like the fathers of the French Revolution and, in America, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Brown. In ways that called to mind Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity, he envisioned “a new age of civilization.” In this new world order all human beings would enjoy basic material and spiritual benefits “free of charge.” A “world council” of wise men would guide the world, overseeing the implementation of “human rights” and the common good.

From the beginning, these intellectual impulses were akin to those of progressive “liberalism” and social democracy. There was soon a Catholic version of the Social Gospel. An extreme form of this gospel was liberation theology, whose call for redemption through socio-economic transformation ran parallel to Marxism. This theology was highly influential in Latin America, especially among the Jesuits. It was in reaction to heavy clerical involvement in politics that John Paul II issued the call to his priests to “return home,” that is, to the things of God.

Catholic attunement to mainstream progressive opinion in the universities and the media was assisted in the United States by status anxiety among the “ethnics.” Catholics, too, could be intellectually sophisticated! A more or less conscious desire to impress secular, established elites or at least reduce their condescension reinforced an inclination to adopt “liberal” sentiments. These could be recast as being deep down not just compatible with but expressive of Christianity. The lines blurred between Catholic thinkers and secular “liberals” like the philosopher John Rawls. Rawls’s highly ahistorical way of thinking about justice, which combined elements of Rousseau, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, produced abstract principles, sub-principles, and casuistry reminiscent of the most rationalistic varieties of Thomism.

Many Catholic intellectuals continued to resist sentimental idealism. It did after all contradict a Christian view of human nature and traditional moral beliefs. But rationalistic bias made it difficult for Thomists to diagnose the root problem with the new moralism. They were used to giving primacy in moral philosophy to rational principles and rule adherence. Putting reason in charge—getting the mind to think right—was assumed to lead to proper willing. Moral character would somehow flow from or be the same as right reason. They did not see that the great appeal of sentimental humanitarianism was its capturing the imagination, stirring the entire personality with visions and images and benevolent-looking grand causes. The new spirituality also imparted a pleasant feeling of moral superiority. All that was required to be virtuous was to demand Social Justice and Human Rights.

The great socio-political causes made the difficult and often painful tasks of personal repentance, character, and responsibility look almost trivial. The plethora of moral principles produced by more traditional Catholic rationalists were easily swept away by dreams of liberation.

When considering how the laity might help restore the Church to health, it is essential to keep in mind that the sine qua non for curing illness is proper diagnosis. It is not far-fetched to suggest that the mentioned large trends, including the corruption of imagination and erosion of character, contributed to the crisis. The question is not whether these trends, by themselves, caused the crisis. The crisis has many partial explanations. But it seems evident that sentimental humanitarianism played a major role in morally and spiritually disarming and disorienting both laity and clergy.

All the media attention to problems in the Catholic Church has undoubtedly given old anti-Catholic prejudices a new lease on life. What do you expect from “the whore of Babylon”? But to believe that the Catholic Church is singularly susceptible to moral corruption shows great conceit. All of Western civilization has been profoundly impacted by the new idealism, the Protestant churches at least as much as the Catholic Church, though in different ways. Many volumes could be written about the effects outside of the churches. This writer has authored several books and many articles that touch on aspects of the broader problem. 

The most nefarious element of the new spirituality may be that it takes little account of personal sinfulness as the central problem of the moral-spiritual life. It denies or downplays the importance of the moral struggle within the individual and the indispensability of character. Moral rationalism does not really understand how to arm the will against the lower desires. It employs such smarts as it has to formulate intricate rules and principles, but without character no amount of intellectual brilliance or teary-eyed sentiment can control the lower desires. Given the spread of sentimental humanitarianism, some such debauchery and evil as has come to light in the Catholic Church was well-nigh inevitable.

One might think that the depth, scope, and nature of the corruption will trigger a fundamental reexamination of common assumptions. Will, then, sentimental idealists start questioning their claim to moral superiority? Their self-applauding moralism is deeply rooted and very pleasing to the ego. The moral rationalists for their part are heavily invested in the belief that the crux of human conduct is for reason to guide us.

That there is imagination and idealism that are very different from what has been described here is not in dispute. Sound imagination and idealism are indispensable to elevating life. The problem is addiction to dubious and even impossible dreams. Terrible evil and suffering has resulted from benevolent-looking but perverse illusion. Neither is the indispensability of reason in dispute. Knowledge must inform conduct. But not even the most intricate ratiocination will rescue souls that are captive to alluring but shoddy spirituality. Rules and principles will not steer people right if will and imagination are pulling them in a different direction. Unless we be guided by what Edmund Burke calls “the moral imagination,” which is sound will and imagination in one, some lower form of imagination will direct the person. Brilliant philosophers in the latter predicament will only argue themselves deeper and deeper into self-deluding illusion.

One prominent Catholic intellectual who did understand well what most shapes the life of human beings was Pope Benedict XVI. His emphasis on the role of culture and the arts demonstrated an awareness of the importance of imagination in shaping conduct, for good or ill. 

The accumulating evidence of egregious moral-spiritual corruption in the Church might rattle Catholic intellectuals into a more than marginal reassessment of deep-seated propensities, but, because of the strength of the influences here discussed, there is a danger that instead they will double down on the same old same old, saying that this time we must really, really follow the rules, show that we really believe in them! Or they may say that now we must really commit to Social Justice. Should the laity have these inclinations, they may be no more able than the hierarchy to steer the Church right. They would be falling back into a mind-set and sensibility that not only failed to prevent the current crisis but must share the blame for it.

Fostering a more than superficial renewal of the moral-spiritual and intellectual life is a daunting task. It should be evident from what has been argued here that having the laity seize the initiative is not without danger. Yet the laity could, under wise leadership, play a redemptive role. The time may be ripe for creative, perhaps audacious, thought and action to revivify a faltering tradition.

Claes Ryn is Professor of Politics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His many books include A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World, which is now in an expanded paperback edition, and the novel A Desperate Man.

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