Catholic Culture Podcasts
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Modernism Hits the Jackpot, and Loses…Again

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 04, 2012

When the Dean of the Roman Rota said we must learn again to believe in our capacity to marry (see Dean of Roman Rota suggests stricter rule for annulments), the spiritual history of the modern world clicked together for me like the five matching symbols on the original slot machine. Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz was arguing that psychological grounds for annulment were undermining our trust in both the human and the divine elements of the sacrament. What is objective had been replaced by what is subjective.

This is something we see throughout modern culture, and it should not surprise us. The key to modern secularism is flight from God toward what fits our immediate desires. A scientist looks at a new discovery not with eyes that see the magnificence of the Creator but with a willful insistence that every time we learn more about how things work we disprove the need for a Creator. A philosopher examines being not from the point of view of its essential unity but with a myopic focus on its confusion. A commentator observes differences of opinion about fundamental moral issues, and it leads him to conclude not that some are right and others are wrong but that there is no right or wrong. The person in the street, faced with questions of life and death, regards them not as puzzles to be solved but as so much interference with the way he wants to live his life.

The culture of this world tends to dominate our beliefs, interests and affections, and as this culture gains a firmer and firmer hold, the idea of escaping it is dismissed with a typical Luciferian myth: Why chase after what you cannot see and nobody can understand when there are so many good things here with which to occupy yourself?

It is a somewhat mysterious process, but everybody knows instinctively what the dominant cultural myths are for the age in which they live—that is, the acceptable ideas and attitudes, the perceptions we are supposed to share, the behaviors we are supposed to justify or find objectionable. You might notice, for example, that many people believe in God or understand that homosexual behavior is wrong, but you will still have no doubt what you are supposed to say about such things in “polite society”. The larger culture, whatever it may be, permeates everything; we are all aware of it all of the time. What do we do then, when the clear teachings of the Catholic Church (or Christianity in general) directly contradict this prevailing cultural consciousness?

During much of recent history, this question has been answered for religious people by what we call Modernism, which neatly reverses the moral force of the quandary. Recognizing the fact that the culture of the day influences how we perceive reality, the Modernist goes a step farther to insist that we actually cannot acquire religious ideas and beliefs except insofar as they are mediated to us by our culture. This means that specific religious ideas are really nothing more than a particular set of clothes for deeper universal realities or aspirations. Thus the Modernist parts ways with anyone who believes we must work to transform human cultures to bring them into line with the Gospel. Rather, the Gospel itself must inevitably be reinterpreted in the light of the prevailing culture.

What a remarkable coincidence! The Modernist notion of religion is the same as the secular notion of relativism. This enables all those who wish to remain religious, while actually in thrall to the world, to express their spiritual beliefs in the form of prevailing cultural notions. It enables them to maintain the fiction that this form of expression is the right one for our time just as other forms may have been appropriate in previous ages.

Nothing, of course, is so calculated to put conscience to sleep. In a single stroke the Modernist eliminates all the tensions that are supposed to exist in our lives when we fail to fully integrate the truths of Christ. Instead, we simply redefine our specific beliefs in light of how our culture reflects a similar set of concerns.

Consider the following examples:

  1. Catholic Doctrine: Are we concerned at loss of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? It doesn’t matter, for just as a prior culture expressed a potent spiritual value by insisting on a particular philosophical distinction between substance and accidents, our culture expresses that same value by understanding the Eucharist as a symbol of a better life.
  2. Catholic Morals: Does it bother us that every form of sexual license is permitted today, including contraception, which has been condemned as immoral by the Church? Ah, but this is only because the fundamental moral trajectory which prior cultures expressed through rigorous statements about right and wrong is expressed in our culture by adherence to a loving inner meaning in our hearts.
  3. Catholic Social Teaching: Is it confusing that in former times Catholics placed a strong emphasis on unanimity in religion and subsidiarity in the world, whereas now so many Catholic leaders seem to permit pluralism in Faith while stressing the need for State control of just about everything in the world? Not to worry; by regulating everything through political power, we in our age express the same concern for human well-being that a less sophisticated generation did by emphasizing personal Faith and self-reliance.
  4. Natural Law: Does abortion seem somehow to be a horrendous violation of a natural human right? Well, not so fast. We must understand that though a former culture may have honored life in a biological way, our culture honors it through a recognition of consciousness, which not all human beings possess.

In fact, wherever the default principles of our defiantly secular culture have permeated the Church, Modernists have welcomed the results and justified them as fresh expressions of legitimate religiosity. For much of my life, these Modernist attitudes have been deeply embedded in the chanceries, seminaries, religious orders, Catholic press, and Catholic universities of the Western world. They have been so many marks of a dying culture which, for a time at least, Catholics have been powerless either to resist or revive. But though we have a long way to go, two things have driven Modernism gradually into retreat.

The first is demographic: Modernists simply do not reproduce themselves well, because in the end there is no reason to remain Catholic if you are simply adding a religious veneer to prevailing cultural norms. The second is effective teaching: The long pontificate of John Paul II and now the pontificate of Benedict XVI—one a brilliant philosopher and the other a brilliant theologian—have slowly leavened a new generation. These popes, and those who follow them, know how to articulate the Faith in terms the prevailing culture can understand, while avoiding the immense mistake of confusing the Faith with what the prevailing culture already understands.

Now, as I said, the Dean of the Roman Rota’s remarks brought all this together like the winning symbols on the ancient 5-reeled slot machine. In the context of my previous examples, here is how we can frame the issue:

  1. Canon Law: And do we wonder why so many marriages fail today, with a huge number actually being annulled? Nothing is amiss. Former cultures expressed commitment through promises and contracts, whereas our culture expresses it through being true to ourselves psychologically, so that a bond is not real if it does not properly engage our inner self.

Here is the needed fifth symbol, rolling right into line, and winning the Modernist jackpot. For what has so adversely affected marriage tribunal work, especially in the United States (where the number of annulments dwarfs the rest of the world), is the bizarre psychological interpretation that if a marriage is seen to have failed, then it must be the case that it could never have succeeded, and therefore it is null and void.

As I said, we have a long way to go. But in Bishop Stankiewicz’ remarks we also have yet another small sign that Catholics around the world are slowly escaping the Modernist grip. Reflecting our culture and being true to what our culture makes of us is not what Our Lord intended. When He became man and died on the cross He was not making the point that we should forever enjoy being culture bound. He was teaching us exactly the opposite lesson. “In the world you have tribulation,” He taught. “But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfwilliams2938 - May. 07, 2012 9:22 AM ET USA

    "..The key to modern secularism is flight from God toward what fits our immediate desires..." What generation of humans ever did not fly from God to fit immediate desires? The only difference now is, perhaps, the collective conscious disingenuousness of it all.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 06, 2012 7:39 PM ET USA

    Collect for Sunday May 6(EF): O God, who makest the faithful to be of one mind and one will: grant to Thy people to love that which Thou dost command and to desire that which Thou dost promise, that amid the changes of the world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are to be found. Through our Lord Jesus Christ...

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 06, 2012 1:36 AM ET USA

    You have encapsulated the academic mindset perfectly in your second paragraph. From the "Universal Prayer..." of Pope Clement IX: "Lord, I desire that in all things Thy will may be done, because it is Thy will, and in the manner that Thou willest...Fill my heart with tender affection for Thy goodness, hatred of my faults, love of my neighbor, and contempt of the world...Assist me that I may continually labor to overcome nature...Discover to me, O my God, the nothingness of this world..."

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 05, 2012 9:36 PM ET USA

    A nurse-educator once during a managerial course for our hospital put what I thought was a very interesting twist to what is a very common saying,"Seeing is believing..." "Not generally so..." she said. Rather, "BELIEVING is seeing..." That is, what is "foundational belief" for a person governs what and how they perceive. Thus, a sound faith is foundational for all good theology. Without it, all is darkness. We have allowed snakes in our garden, and then we wonder about the chaos.

  • Posted by: - May. 05, 2012 1:47 PM ET USA

    Glad I read to the end. Immensely reassuring.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 04, 2012 10:01 PM ET USA

    Adam Yauch died today. "The culture of this world tends to dominate our beliefs, interests and affections, and as this culture gains a firmer and firmer hold, the idea of escaping it is dismissed..." Yaunch will be lauded as a genius for his cultural influence. But one might pray that it was his battle with terminal illness in youth and those things that transcend "the culture of this world" that proved greater to him in the long run. The Gen Xers are as mortal as the rest. Lord, have mercy.