Fighting yesterday’s battles: A real-world political example
When I wrote On guard against ourselves: The problems of aging leadership, I referred to the danger (which we all face) of getting locked in to the way we perceive problems and solutions in our 20s and 30s, but failing to become aware of important shifts in the challenges we face as we grow older. A few readers thought I was praising the intellectual nimbleness of relativism, but of course that is not what I meant at all.
One case I used to illustrate this danger was the observation that Pope Francis often speaks as if he perceives the Church and the world through the cultural lens of the 1960s. A very recent example is the Pope’s lament about the tendency of confessors to see moral issues in black and white when, in fact, “the shades of gray prevail in life.”
But in my experience, at least, most priests are well aware of the distinction between moral principles and the stresses, weaknesses, misunderstandings, and personal situations which make those principles difficult to implement as thoroughly as we would like. So unless the Pope is arguing that moral principles themselves are generally unclear (which is necessarily false), then I continue to wonder why he so often speaks about a church that (in my experience) largely disappeared fifty years ago.
In my own long history of confession, I can remember only one occasion on which a priest, in the course of offering counsel, failed to be not only challenging but profoundly encouraging. By the time I ran into the one confessor who, literally, yelled at me and dressed me down for making excuses that I had intended to be understood merely as circumstances, I was already well into my 50s, and perfectly comfortable in the confessional. I simply chuckled under my breath when he told me that if I didn’t like what he was saying, I could seek absolution from somebody else!
Who, if anyone, regards this as a typical twenty-first century problem? Who encounters it as a common experience? To the contrary, as in this case, a priest who behaves that way is typically relieved of his responsibilities.
Of course, I cannot prove that my theory is operative in the life of Pope Francis. It is not just a truism that, however we may be influenced by this or that, we remain quintessentially ourselves. But I see a similar problem, at least, in the way we allow a political view of reality to condition our moral responses to contemporary problems. I first noticed this tendency, years ago, in the pro-life movement, but I believe it applies across the board, and that it is largely a carryover from previous generations.
If you are old enough, you may recall your original shock when your nation began to permit and even encourage abortion. For me, it was the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The immediate reaction in the rapidly-formed pro-life movement was that to favor abortion was profoundly illogical. Everybody knows that human life is sacred, and therefore that murder is wrong. So people must be confused about biology. Insist loud and long enough that the unborn child is a human person, like you and me, and the permissive abortion laws will be rolled back.
Many pro-life organizations were founded on this basic principle. Some of them thought this principle so obvious that the only correct position for a true pro-lifer was “all or nothing”. In any case, the battle was primarily political: It was a drive to change the law to match what “everybody really knows”.
It is obvious today that this initial approach—so apparently clear and sensible in the 1970s—resonates with almost nobody. We have (I hope) long since recognized that the central problem is not an inability to perceive the fetus as human but a lack of belief in the sacredness of human life. The fundamental issue is not a loss of reason but a loss of faith—not a logical mistake but an estrangement from God.
The pro-life movement is certainly far more diversified now, and in fact that happened quite quickly, as it branched into education, social service, and specifically Christian witness. But there are still pro-life leaders who do not seem to realize that the same old political vision cannot succeed, because a new and far more fundamental error has manifested itself—most specifically, ignorance and rejection of Jesus Christ. In a word, our culture has simply drifted into paganism.
What I have said about some elements in the pro-life movement getting stuck in an older perception of reality is actually generally true of the way we approach politics as a whole. My generation grew up perceiving most problems as political, even if its brand of politics stressed liberation from the “hypocritical” institutions which the previous generation, with equal naïveté, saw as the secret to worldwide stability, freedom and peace.
The Ascendency of the Spiritual
But it took an unconscionably long time—and many good people still simply do not get it—to recognize that the real crisis of Western civilization is fundamentally spiritual. This also means it is fundamentally cultural—not political or economic. Culture always grows out of “cult”. Our beliefs about God, the meaning of life, and the nature of the good are the engines of human culture, and here too it has become clearer and clearer over time that a sick culture cannot create a moral politics. Never has this been more evident than in the current American Presidential race.
Yet, in utter amazement, we still see many persons and organizations (including the tired leadership of both major parties) pretending that politics offers a solution. If only Party X gains power, we can make progress again. They urge others (as I have been urged) to either get on board or get out of the way. They do not see that we can never use politics effectively without a massive new evangelization—an evangelization out of which will grow a culture-changing Faith.
Obviously such perceptions are not wholly generational. Yet it is amazing how many people who are middle-aged or older remain locked into the diagnosis they made in 1965 or 1975 or even 1985. They still see everything as an ordinary political battle—what Hilaire Belloc called a “survival”, by which he meant a difficulty which was no longer the key. They fail to recognize that the difficulty is now a fundamentally spiritual problem, what Belloc called a “new arrival”. And to deal with this new arrival requires fresh perceptions, fresh thinking.
Let me say it once again: What we now face is an issue that cannot even be addressed, let alone solved, with the same old methods, which were designed to serve the same old vision.
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