Christian culture and values are in retreat on all fronts these days. From most religious leaders to the average person in the pews, disorientation reigns. Some are in denial. Others, maybe most, point fingers. They blame Barack Obama, “judicial activists,” Big Government, encroaching Eurosocialism, relativism-in-the-abstract, and a thousand other easy scapegoats.
Naturally, our religious leaders in the US rarely point the finger at themselves, even though we might well wonder about a moral authority that never raised a serious objection to the American imperialist war in Iraq, despite having been condemned by Saint John Paul II and the future Pope Benedict XVI as failing to meet Just War criteria. Unjustified homicide, after all, is mur—… well, let’s just say that it’s morally as serious as things get. And if our religious authorities don’t seem to take such a grave matter seriously, why would the average parishioner take them seriously when they talk about other moral issues like gay marriage? We might also wonder about the perceived integrity of a leadership that has hitched its wagon so tightly to a political party whose economic program is diametrically opposed to Church teachings.
But it’s childish to attribute the decline of Christian culture to the actions of this or that politician or religious authority. Rather, the cause of the shift in attitudes is to be found, so to speak, at the tectonic level of our basic spiritual orientation. Regardless of how we got here, we are all now, fundamentally, materialists; correspondingly, we think and behave as hedonists and the crudest Benthamite utilitarians.
Take contraception, for example. The Church’s position on this issue is incomprehensible to most modern people, including most Catholics. And having read a decent amount of expert Catholic literature on the subject, I am convinced that most experts are just as confused about the subject as the rest of us.
The arguments tend to assume that contraception would be wrong only if its use were always accompanied by a slew of harmful effects on physical and psychological health, at the individual level, or if we could point to statistics that showed that it gives rise to serious social ills. They then go on to point to dubious research statistics and questionable medical evidence that is taken seriously only by the already convinced—and so the rate of contraceptive use by Catholics holds steady at 90 percent while non-Catholics give the matter no thought whatsoever.
Whether the issue is contraception or gay marriage, the demand is for consequences: “What’s the harm in it?” When there is no ugly picture to paint in terms of straightforward physical or mental harms, the assumption is that we’re just being prejudiced.
But, although the consequences that flow from our actions can teach us a great deal about right and wrong, they do not themselves constitute right and wrong. The world’s great wisdom traditions, including our own, have always held that temporal goods and the eternal, ultimate good are quite different things, and that the primary cause of man’s unhappiness is that he pursues the former at the expense of the latter, trading the real good for the merely apparent. In this way, his life becomes a futile attempt to find happiness—the lasting happiness we’re all searching for—in pleasure, power, honor, fame, money. But “God alone satisfies,” and in particular the bringing into alignment of the individual will with the Will of God, which is the very essence of morality.
The signs of God’s Will are all around us, I believe, in the teleology manifested in nature. Just as the roots are for the life of the tree, so too are the appetites of the human being prescribed limits for his ultimate good in eternal life. Thus in the procreative end of human sexuality, and in the ends of all human powers, we discern the Divine Intention and see a clear reason for not transgressing it.
Such a mode of argumentation won’t get very far these days, I fear. As I said above, we’re essentially materialists now, and we believe that what teleology there may be is only apparent. I don’t know the precise mover behind such a tectonic shift in spiritual orientation, but I believe it’s certainly not mere intellectual progress. And I am just as confused and disoriented as everyone else. But I do know that authentic truth is eternal, and that some day we will discover it again and restore what we’ve lost.