From Manhattan to the Vatican:

A Catholic Declaration Is Desperately Needed

Christopher A. Ferrara

Unless God comes soon to our help,

the end of civilization would seem to be at hand...Pope Benedict XV

(Posted 12/31/09 Two months after World War I began, with Christmas approaching, Pope Benedict XV, in his encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (1914), echoed the judgment of both of his immediate predecessors on the state of what the French political philosopher Pierre Manent has rather mordantly described as “the new world of human liberty.” And Pope Benedict wanted to be clear that “it was not the present sanguinary strife alone” that had prompted him to continue in the line of papal pessimism about political modernity. “There is another evil raging in the very inmost heart of human society,” he wrote, “a source of dread to all who really think, inasmuch as it has already brought, and will bring, many misfortunes upon nations, and may rightly be considered to be the root cause of the present awful war.” 

Contra the fatuous optimism of Bishop John Ireland and the Americanists, whose day had just come and gone (although Americanism would return with a vengeance at Vatican II), Benedict’s diagnosis of the root cause of the War was the same as that underlying Pope Leo’s warning of “final disaster” in Inscrutabili (1878) and Pius X’s astonishing reference to the end times in E Supremi (1903). Wrote Benedict:

For ever since the precepts and practices of Christian wisdom ceased to be observed in the ruling of states, it followed that, as they contained the peace and stability of institutions, the very foundations of states necessarily began to be shaken. Such, moreover, has been the change in the ideas and the morals of men, that unless God comes soon to our help, the end of civilization would seem to be at hand. 

The end of Western civilization seemed to be approaching, Benedict observed, even though “[n]ever perhaps was there more talking about the brotherhood of men than there is today…”  Indeed, he noted, “men do not hesitate to proclaim that striving after brotherhood is one of the greatest gifts of modern civilization,” while of course “ignoring the teaching of the Gospel, and setting aside the work of Christ and of His Church.” But in reality, Benedict continued, “never was there less brotherly activity amongst men than at the present moment.”  Instead, one saw a “race for wealth,” “contempt for laws,” “the burning envy of class for class,” and “the unrestrained striving after independence” which “has not even spared the home…”

Unlike John Ireland, whose fanatical campaign for public education in America had hastened his fall from favor in Rome, Benedict XV did not view the public schools as instruments for dispelling “clouds of ignorance,” as Ireland had declared in his usual grandiloquent manner, but rather as temples of worldly thinking in which the young were inculcated in majority sentiment, precisely in keeping with John Locke’s “law of opinion or reputation,” their sights thus lowered from man’s eternal destiny to the business of getting ahead in the new commercial societies that had taken the place of Christendom:

Once the plastic minds of children have been moulded by godless schools, and the ideas of the inexperienced masses have been formed by a bad daily or periodical press, and when by means of all the other influences which direct public opinion, there has been instilled into the minds of men that most pernicious error that man must not hope for a state of eternal happiness; but that it is here, here below, that he is to be happy in the enjoyment of wealth and honour and pleasure: what wonder that those men whose very nature was made for happiness should with all the energy which impels them to seek that very good, break down whatever delays or impedes their obtaining it.

Nearly a hundred years later, the Pope who took his name in memory of Benedict XV confronts a situation that not even his profoundly pessimistic namesake could have imagined.  Yet as Christmas 2009 approached, Benedict XVI could only decry a “dictatorship of relativism” at a time when the Church seems to have been deprived of even the vocabulary necessary to identify precisely why that dictatorship has arisen.  Whereas Benedict XV was still able to declare forthrightly the answer—that “the precepts and practices of Christian wisdom ceased to be observed in the ruling of states”—the post-Vatican II convention of “dialogue with the world” and “respect for religious liberty” does not allow an appeal for the reconstitution of Christendom.   But sooner or later that appeal will have to come from Rome, not just from the growing number of Catholics who are waking up to the civilizational debacle and its root cause.

Perhaps the just-published Manhattan Declaration will signal to Rome that the time has come—in fact, it is already long overdue—for a return to an explicit proclamation of “the precepts and practices of Christian wisdom” as the only means to avoid the end of a civilization that was founded on Christ but has turned its back on Him. 

The Declaration, written by Robert George, the renowned Catholic professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, and two Protestant luminaries (Chuck Colson and Timothy George) repeatedly invokes Christian moral principles, indicts “both major political parties” for being “complicit in giving legal sanction to what Pope John Paul II described as ‘the culture of death,’” unabashedly describes homosexual behavior as “immoral conduct,” rejects homosexual “marriage” because it is contrary to “holy matrimony” as “an institution ordained by God,” and even condemns “the culture of divorce,” thus implicating not only the natural law but the divine positive law of Christ on the indissolubility of marriage. And the Declaration concludes with a truly stirring statement of opposition to the powers that be:

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

I wish I could say that the Declaration is actually a call for a restoration of Christendom in some fashion, which is really the only way its aims could be accomplished.  But like all activism that accepts the political and juridical framework of post-Enlightenment liberalism as an irremediable given, the document (albeit rather quietly) is at war with itself.

First of all, the Declaration, which states that it presents the commonly held convictions of “Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Christians,” avoids any reference to contraception—the very sin that degraded marriage, attacked the family, rotted society from within, and opened the way to abortion and all the other evils the Declaration decries. It is simply not possible to condemn credibly the “culture of death” while observing a conspicuous silence on contraception.

And on the question of divorce, the co-authors could only agree to condemn “ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce.” What about bi-lateral divorce? The implicit condonation of consensual divorce undermines the Declaration’s entire defense of “holy matrimony.”

The Declaration also contains a self-defeating appeal to an amorphous “religious liberty” evidently unrestricted by the objective moral order: “nor should persons of faith be forbidden to… express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions.”  But what of those who profess a deeply held religious conviction that divorce, “gay marriage,” contraception and abortion are permissible in the sight of God and even indicated by religious conscience in certain cases?  And what if the holders of such convictions happen to constitute an electoral majority?  The authors of the Declaration have already thrown in the towel on contraception and divorce by consent, which Protestants and most Catholics today consider basic civil rights, so on what ground, really, do they stand to declare that God’s law prohibits the legalization of abortion, “gay marriage,” or any other evil the majority approves “in conscience”?

The Declaration, despite its good intentions, ultimately succumbs to the problem identified by Robert D. Cross in his seminal study The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America: “Non-Catholics have seldom been able to agree among themselves on the dictates of the natural law, even when they thought it a meaningful question, and when Catholics have called for joint efforts against such evils as birth control and the exhibition of obscene art, the dissidence has been conspicuous.”

Which is why, despite the good statements contained in the Declaration, we are reminded by it that in the end only an explicitly Catholic opposition to the dictatorship of relativism and the culture of death will be able to overcome them both and save our civilization from the fate that Benedict XV already had in view during World War I and which is taking place before our eyes during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

A year after the assassination of Chancellor Dollfuss by Austrian Nazis had ended that great Catholic's effort to restore Catholic social order in Austria and helped pave the way to the Anschluss and World War II, G. K. Chesterton wrote: “Last year the representative of all that remains of the Holy Roman Empire was murdered by the barbarians.” Today, as Alasdair MacIntyre famously observed,  “the barbarians are not waiting beyond our frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes our predicament.” 

But what is to be done about these barbarians who govern us?  Only one thing can be done: call for their conversion, demand it, pray for it, and hope for it as a miracle of grace—the same miracle that converted the barbarian tribes that overran Europe before there was a Christendom.

As Chesterton also wrote in memory of Dollfuss: “it is normal for Europeans, even for Germans, to be Christians; and, we must in historic honesty add, normal for them to be Catholics.” Even America in the early 21st century is still made up overwhelmingly of the descendants of Europeans for whom it was normal to be Catholic.  The crisis of our civilization has arisen from the refusal of Western man to be, quite simply, what it was normal for him to be, and what all men are called to be by the grace of the Redeemer whose birth we are about to celebrate.

If, as Vatican II declared in Gaudium et spes, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear,” then let the authors of the Declaration, let men of good will everywhere, let Rome itself, proclaim that this supreme calling is nothing less than a Catholic calling for the salvation of the world in Him. Gaudete, gaudete Christus est natus.