by Stephen Hand
"And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away [with] all this artificial scaffolding..." ---Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 11 April, 1823; Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon II, 594
"At the dawning of the third millennium, a serious question confronts democracy. There is a tendency to see intellectual relativism as the necessary corollary of democratic forms of political life. In such a view, truth is determined by the majority and varies in accordance with passing cultural and political trends. From this point of view, those who are convinced that certain truths are absolute and immutable are considered unreasonable and unreliable. On the other hand, as Christians we firmly believe that "if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism" (---Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus, n. 46).
America: The Idea
With practically the whole world enamored of ill-defined universal democracy, especially since the end of the Cold War, it is important to reflect on that paradigm of messianic democracy, the United States; this with a view to studying its philosophical roots which doubtless account for so many bitter fruits, so many kinds of excess and even ruthlessness, since the United States has always pointed to democracy and the "pursuit of happiness" as the human ideal, and its radicalized concepts of secular "freedom" and "liberty" as practically the last and only metaphysical truths for mankind.
The United States of America has always been more than a mere country. And, of course, that is the problem, so far as many traditional Roman Catholics are concerned. Unlike many nations which were born of natural alliances of families and tribes, conquests or treaties, America came into being essentially as an idea (some say a religion); or, more precisely, as the product of a complex of ideas, whose roots remotely can be traced in some respects to the Magna Carta, the charter of English political and civil liberties granted by King John at Runnymede in June of 1215, but especially to the Enlightenment liberal political philosophy of such seminal illumined thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (d.1679), John Locke (d.1704), Jean Jacques Rousseau (d.1778), Francis Bacon and many others. It is the connection to the Enlightenment, which is the concern.
The Church & Definitions
It is because the Church is solicitous for the salvation of souls, and the ordering of societies toward that supernatural end, that she must be concerned about ideas where the ends differ radically. For ideas, needless to say, have consequences, some of them happy, some of them unspeakably terrible. Thus the Church considered herself morally bound to move cautiously where this mixed, revolutionary constellation of ideas called America was concerned. Because the Church does not view the state as ultimate, but rather as that association of families (not of mere individuals) which is ordered to foster the common good under the rights of Christ the King, she has ever been wary of importing new ideas into such magisterially defined philosophical concepts as "liberty," "freedom," the "pursuit of happiness," justice, etc.
Age of Reason: Kant's Definition
Now, it should be clear that in the so-called "Age of Reason"--- a presumption is obvious from the start here in the very designation of that era where rationalism is meant--- which lasted, roughly, from the time of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes (d.1650) to the end of the eighteenth century, these very concepts began to spin in quite different directions from the way the Church had always understood them. It was in this era--- in which also the very appellation, "Enlightenment", amounted to another presumption---that the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) lived and took his famous daily walks, as predictable as clockwork. He was evidently not praying during those walks; rather, he was imagining a new "world", a new philosophical ground-zero on which to build a new humanity in a new species of "community of nations".
When in his seminal essay Kant asked the question, "What is Enlightenment?," and answered by suggesting that "Enlightenment" amounted to man "freeing himself from religious dogma", it goes without saying that the Church would have to pay very close attention. For here the very concept of Enlightenment itself, that seed-bed of incendiary ideas and movements, is defined in explicit opposition to the Church. That the movements it spawned were also resolutely set against Catholic political and moral philosophy was only natural. Kant held to the error that
"the end (goal) of political society is the reciprocal limitation and harmony of the liberty of its members". (Brother Louis of Poissy, Christian Philosophy, 1948, LaSalle Bureau, NY, The Brothers Of The Christian Schools P. 462f.)
This liberty, according to Kant, pertained irreducibly to the individual, and not to families and to their common good; even less to God and His Church. Likewise Descartes, with his Cogito Ergo Sum, had done much the same thing by shifting the philosophical starting point away from God, Being, to man’s subjectivity and evolutionary "becoming". The almighty self was poised to usurp the prerogatives of Almighty God. All of this had a devastating effect on public morals and contributed directly to moral and religious indifferentism, since many sins and crimes, as expressions of interiority, do not encroach on the "liberty" of others, so defined. It is directly from such notions that the awful acts of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the incontinence of same-sex fornication, and the judicial crime called Roe v. Wade become understandable. Likewise all kinds of decadence proceeding from human interiority (now considered the only source of anything sacred) which is indulged in the name of "art".
Liberty and License
According to such ideas, blasphemy, perversions, and all manner of other transgressions of God's law become mere acts of "individual conscience" or expression. They are defended---or at least tolerated----by all who subscribe to this new idea. Many who do not subscribe to the total version of the idea are often nevertheless supportive of it by necessity or default, since the very definitions of "freedom" and "liberty" from the time of the Enlightenment have increasingly and consistently precluded any abiding criticism of the "values" of others (we observe the toleration threshold raised almost daily). For value, according to these philosophical deviations, is reduced to the altogether subjective, existential, and even "evolutionary" realm. Thus sin reigns under the mask of "freedom", "liberty" and the "pursuit of happiness."
When individual liberty is viewed as the primary subject of society’s raison d’etre, and the rights of the family are excluded, then it should not surprise us to find woman pitted against man, or child against parents where, say, abortion and so many other matters are concerned. When such sentiments regarding liberty are viewed as the most profound of political ideas, and integral to the idea of the state, then we should not be surprised to have awakened to find ourselves living neck-deep in the swill of a pornosophic society. Pornographic undertones were inextricably bound to the Enlightenment’s understanding of "freedom" from the beginning. Writing about the onslaught of pornographic literature which preceded both the American and French Revolutions, Robert Darnton of Princeton remarks:
"Studied closely, this philosophy (of voluptuousness satisfying the taste, and philosophy the reason of Enlightenment man) would reveal an admixture of elements derived from many sources---Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Hobbes, and the whole gamut of libertine literature that circulated in manuscript throughout the first half of the eighteenth century." (Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, W. W. Norton & Co. NY, NY, p.100)
Scholars say Mr. Jefferson was a connoisseur of such literature, which does not surprise me. He was a quintessential revolutionary illuminist spirit in more ways than the merely political. His contempt for the Gospels was notorious.
Here we see how "liberty" had moved rapidly away from the older political reasonableness of the Magna Carta and had become corrupted into libertine individualism. The Enlightenment showed that pornography and blasphemy, each the deliberate and assaultive violation of the sacred, were of a piece. That is why the pornographers of Rousseau’s day enjoyed nothing better than to depict nuns being violated by priests and similar things (Cf. Darnton, ibid.) It was such literature which inspired the age old self-serving calumnies directed against the Church (Incidentally, such tactics continue to this day as the very fruits of 'liberalism,' as witness when abberant pedophile priests, often themselves the victims of decadent liberalism, are paraded before the public in order to justify the sexual transgressions taught by liberalism iself: "if priests do it, we can’t be so bad; at least we’re not hypocrites! So it always goes...) Of course the Puritan and later Victorian tributaries which flowed into American culture kept the dikes from completely bursting until the 1960's. But it burst all the same. Such tributaries were no match for the fundamentally flawed and transgressive philosophical ideas which exploded all quaintness.
Many are nostalgic for the days when those tributaries made themselves felt; and these are the same ones, often, who emotionally equate such moments with the America of their dreams. It is easy to lose oneself in that Notre Dame/ Bing Crosby naivety if one was born in this country.
All of this shows why the Church has always cautioned Catholics in this country not to drink from those same draughts where the philosophical wells were poisonous indeed. This is not to say that the Popes have had nothing good to say about America. Especially after the No-Nothing and other similar riots came down on the heads of poor, immigrant, Catholics, when their churches were looted and burned by Protestants in the 19th century. The Popes at the time diplomatically praised anything they might find in America which might by any reasonable stretch be harmonized with the teachings of the Church, all with a view to creating the conditions of peace. But there was no surrendering of principles either then or now.
JFK, Church and State
The fundamental tensions remained until the Second Vatican Council. No wonder the Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, during the 1960 Presidential primary, had to grovel before Americanist Masonic leaders and naive Protestant pastors and go out of his way to say he was truly prepared to pledge his allegiance to the Constitution unless an irresolvable conflict with his conscience or faith would force him to resign**.
The fathers of Vatican II, correctly or naively, saw the original American Revolution as something very different from the French revolution, and so came to see it as a third way which it could live with.
Nevertheless, serious problems remained. Constitution...conscience.... In subsequent years conscience was aligned to the Constitution more and more by politicians, as though the Constitution was Holy writ itself. But, set upon that difficult slippery slope, especially with Catholic politicians who followed JFK, the center did not hold and were led to reap the whirlwind.
From decadent consumerism and materialism, viewed as the pursuit of happiness, came the ongoing 60's sexual revolution---begun long before--- in full throttle, Gay "Liberation" and AIDS, Roe v. Wade, radical Feminism, Euthanasia, Population control, and so on. Was all of this the ruin or the fruit of 1776? In any case, America is the vanguard of the ongoing Revolutionary "Enlightenment" which is being exported all over the world, forced on the poor, if they want American dollars and peace.
In the name of "diversity," which rightly protects all human beings against racial or ethnic discrimination, other basic Christian principles are attacked day after day and the seven deadly sins are made to sound like recipes for the "successful" life. Meanwhile the "manufacturing of the consent" (Walter Lippman) of the majority is assigned to those corporate globalist hustlers in business suits and skirts, the advertising world and other media. Who would have believed that in so short a time men and women would not know what to do with their genitals? Not know what is right and what is wrong?
It is all too clear that what we are living through is not the corruption of those Enlightenment principles upon which this country was founded, but their bitter fruit. The Church existed 1,776 years before the United States. Only Her truth is the manifest destiny we can safely anchor our souls upon. A builder builds in vain who does not set the teachings of Jesus Christ and scripture as his foundation. There is only one answer: we must work and pray to realign America with the Church's teachings and finish the work heralded by Our Lady of Guadalupe; no other compromise will suffice. Everything else will eventually crumble. Nothing is impossible with God. Anything less than metanoia, conversion to the natural law if not the Church, (and that includes converting the U.S. Constitution) is a dead end, because it is rotten at the root of the meaning of liberty (Jn 8:32). Church and state must be distinct but not radically opposed. Nor may the state fashion a new syncretistic religion of its own. For the rest of the world to follow or be bribed into accepting the secular Americanist notion of "freedom," uncritically in the name of a New World Order, would be tragic indeed.
The weakness of the American experiment lies in the vagueness of its philosophical foundational concepts and its orientation to capitalistic materialism. And it may very well be that the chickens have come home to roost. People here still have so much, yet feel so bewilderingly empty. So the rule of law, and love, erode day by day and are replaced with a political "will to power," ala Nietzsche with a few Jeffersonian twists.
John Paul II
JPII, for all his other problems, more than Paul VI saw the world realistically, I believe, and he called us to engage in a New Evangelization, existing again as counter-cultural witness and leaven, teaching as the Holy Father does the philosophical first principles regarding freedom, liberty, truth, the pursuit of happiness, democracy's potential and its potential for collapse; just as in Fellini's "Orchestra Rehearsal" the Conductor had to teach the musicians, who rose up against him in the name of "freedom" and "art," how to play the notes again, since they had won their "freedom" only to lose the music! Truth as leaven must be the new model of evangelization in a post-christian world.
Is there any hope for the United States? Yes. A consitutional Amendment which will finally align the above-mentioned ill-defined concepts according to the Common and Natural Laws would be a start; a change which undergirds the moral law, respects subsidiarity, rejects the imperialism of empire, protects the poor of whatever race or color, and the weak, the unborn and elderly, and which keeps Big Brother, the Federal government active in the moral sense, defending the natural and moral laws, but otherwise limited, non-ideological, making unrestrained "enlightened" amoral judicial activism a thing of the past.
This is progressive, not merely conservative. Progress is not amnesia, a total divorce from the goods of the past. We cannot live under the delusion that the world was waiting to be born in 1776 and that tradition has nothing to deliver us from. Political parties must exist in a democracy, and that is fine, but the common good, rooted in the moral principles of the common law must be the presupposition of true "freedom" (Jn 8:32). Otherwise the revolution is not finished. Democracy and radicalized democracy may be very different things.
John Paul highlighted the temptations of democracies today, pointing out the:
"...spiritual roots of the crisis which the Western democracies are experiencing, a crisis characterized by the advance of a materialistic, utilitarian and ultimately dehumanized world view which is tragically detached from the moral foundations of Western civilizations." He stated that "economic and political structures must be guided by a vision whose core is the God-given dignity and inalienable rights of every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death. When some lives, including those of the unborn, are subjected to the personal choices of others, no other value or right will long be guaranteed . ... Never has it been more urgent to re- invigorate the moral vision and resolve essential to maintaining a just and free society." (VIS 9/13/01)
Summary: Error must fall of its own weight. People do not think much about the soundness of the infrastructure of a house until the roof caves in. Then, bewildered, they say this house was not structurally sound! It is the same with secular humanism. "A little error in the beginning becomes a great error in the end," St. Thomas Aquinas said. It is up to us Catholics to put the 'universal' back into American Catholicism and never cease to more positively define such concepts as "freedom," "liberty" and "pursuit of happiness" because "Democracy is not salvation" and it "struggles with the Mystery of Iniquity," as John Paul II reminded us.
Will the final epitaph be that while America adored herself she consumed herself, as hubris must? Our task is to assist the United States, not simply bash it. For as the roof comes crashing down, we are going to need to be there to help put better pieces together again.
"Francis Bacon made many contributions to 16th and 17th century England... His works reached Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States of America, and writer of the Declaration of Independence". And along with the other seminal illumined 'philosophers' it made a difference.
"Most people's sex lives...are coming into closer accord with their true desires. I've often thought one attack that could be made on the [restrictive] sex laws is that they are unconstitutional. The Constitution does guarantee us the pursuit of happiness...and the freedom to assemble might also be regarded as freedom for sexual assembly. We may very well find that common law is unconstitutional." ------Gore Vidal, Views From a Window Lyle Stuart Inc. Seacaucus, NY, 1980
---[The above post, originally written in the 1990's, was updated in 2005 and 2010]