Western culture is possessed by an impure spirit
Edward R. Benet
The civilisation that gave birth to science has lost the ability to reason
Something is awry with Western culture. The civilisation that inherited the intellectual riches of ancient Greece, that founded the university system and gave rise to stunning advances in science, seems to have lost the capacity for plain reason. If you have any doubts about that, then listen to Orwellian statements on “essential healthcare” and “reproductive rights” by prominent politicians from Kamala Harris to Justin Trudeau to Boris Johnson.
The civilisation that developed the first hospitals is exterminating the most vulnerable
Not only has the West got a problem with the employment of reason, it has also lost a grip on one of its seminal convictions: that the most vulnerable in society have the right to the greatest care. During the early medieval period, the Christian belief in the dignity of all human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, gave rise to the first hospitals (in the modern sense) to provide care for the sick and dying. The letter to the Hebrews memorably exhorted: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). In our time, by contrast, doctors who have taken the Hippocratic oath to uphold life, have little regard for the angels under their care, as they routinely “terminate” the unborn, the elderly, the seriously ill, and even – in Belgium and Holland – the lives of children under twelve. The scale of the slaughter is staggering, over twenty million abortions are carried out per year in Western democracies alone.
The civilisation that enkindled the flowering of medieval and Renaissance culture is producing vulgar music, drama and art
Western culture inherited the Greek and Roman appreciation for aesthetic beauty, but took art to a new spiritual level. According to Jewish and Islamic thought, it was illegitimate to create an image of God, which was a form of idolatry. Christian civilisation, however, with its central tenet that God had taken on a human form, realized that art could give beautiful expression to divine truths and lift the human spirit towards God. This led to the great artistic achievements of medieval and Renaissance culture, much of which is on a religious theme. In our day, Western culture has overseen often vulgar “developments” in music, art and drama. The Vatican crib this past Christmas was a reminder - if we needed one – that “art” which disregards classic aesthetic considerations will struggle to lift the human spirit (art historian, Elizabeth Lev, lamented that the crib lacked the classic traits of beauty - grace, proportion and luminosity - that we find abundantly elsewhere in St Peter’s).
The civilisation with the most enlightened conception of human freedom is populated by people who wallow in addictions and obsessions
The Christian concept of freedom, unlike licence, is not so much freedom “from” as freedom “for” - the freedom to live the kind of existence under God for which I was created. It also involves freedom from oppression, from coercion, and so on, but the Christian notion of freedom goes far beyond politics to the moral issue of the capacity of a human being to overcome egoism and to live a life of love. This kind of freedom was possessed completely by Christ though he was nailed to the cross. The West, which from the time of the American revolution became the bastion of freedom in both the political and moral sense, has long been experiencing a catastrophic slide in moral freedom. Apathy and sloth are almost considered normal among high school students. Addiction to drugs and pornography are at a level never seen before in history. New dependencies, such as those associated with social media, are being registered in increasingly younger members of the population.
Where did the West lose its way?
There is no deception as seductive as one that has an element of truth in it. In fact, the biblical term “impure” refers to something good that had been blemished by the presence of some contaminant. Founded upon a balance of elements that can rightly be termed “good”, Western culture has become an “impure” culture in this biblical sense, perverting the relation of its foundational elements to disastrous effect.
As Pope Benedict XVI and others have pointed out, medieval European civilisation achieved a harmonious cooperation of the best elements of the Judaic-Christian, Roman and Greek heritages: faith in God, the Christian moral worldview based on the inherent dignity of every person as a child of God, the use of reason, and the just application of the rule of law. Today, largely driven by the sexual revolution, these foundational pillars of the West have been eroded and set against each other to such a degree that the entire edifice of Western civilisation is teetering.
The sexual revolution has a vested interest in dismantling the classic harmony of faith and reason
The reasons for the historic unravelling of the classic balance between faith and reason over the past five hundred years are many. Benedict XVI listed some of them in his Regensburg address – the Reformation’s disdain of Greek influence and an insistence on sola scriptura, the rise of empirical science and an accompanying rejection of “subjective” experience such as faith, among others – but the greatest motivating factor in our time has been the sexual revolution. A culture that values sexual liberty over virtually everything else frantically seeks to isolate faith and reason from each other. Since faith refuses to deny the procreative aspect of the sexual act, it is essential for the sexual revolution that faith be reduced to a private matter with no repercussions for public morality.
A hierarchy of values that is dictated by the sexual revolution
The irony is that principles arising from the Christian faith, such as the dignity of human life, are being relegated to the private sphere in Western society, whilst beliefs that foster the sexual revolution are upheld by the wider culture and enshrined in law as if they had a universality and truth of a superior kind. Let’s face it, unexpected pregnancies just mess up the lifestyle promoted by the sexual revolution, especially the lifestyle of “fathers” who have zero interest in taking responsibility for the creatures brought into existence by their egoistic behaviour. If we really must use reason, then let our “reason” be guided by the things that matter to us: the elimination of “clumps of cells” that inconvenience my lifestyle or career. According to this approach, the clump of cells cannot be a person in the same evolved sense that I am a person. In the absence of a clear criterion of the exact moment when it becomes a person, we must assert that it possesses no rights at all. Elimination of this clump of cells, thus, is not tantamount to killing a person, but an everyday instance of “healthcare”.
Faith and reason are the two wings upon which the human spirit ascends
It is not too difficult to see that the classic balance between faith and reason is vastly superior to this embarrassingly nit-witted discourse. Natural law makes it clear to us that every human life has inherent dignity and goodness. Even in the animal kingdom, the self-sacrificial protection by a mother of its young is an almost universal phenomenon. Divine revelation only bolsters this natural understanding with its disclosure that each one of us bears the image and likeness of God. Reason, then, is placed at the service of this noble principle, and the result is the coherent Catholic moral teaching around pregnancy. If a mother’s life is in danger, the Church agrees that it is permissible to take therapeutic action that could, indirectly, endanger the life of the foetus, so long as no other alternative course of action is available, and so long as the life of the foetus is not directly targeted. Compare this humane employment of reason – directed towards the preservation of the lives of mother and child – to the malformed “rationality” that is the modus operandi of organisations like Planned Parenthood.
St John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, wrote that faith and reason are the two wings upon which the human spirit ascends to God. The modern manifestation of Western culture seeks to separate these two elements and make them antithetical to each other, domesticating the faith on one hand, whilst, on the other, employing a caricature of reason at the service of the dictates of the sexual revolution.
Western secular culture is losing the capacity for right reason
Even a cursory look at what qualifies as “rational” discourse on such topics as abortion, same-sex marriage or gender theory will show that a worrying proportion of politicians, media figures and people in the street have lost the capacity to employ reason in the right manner. The “right manner” consists of that balance, spoken of by St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, between the foundational elements that make for a humane civilisation. As has often been recognized, the notion that all people are equal arose historically from the Judaic-Christian belief that every human being – no matter how small, poor or sick - bears the image and likeness of God. Modern liberal culture adheres to a deficient version of the principle that all people are equal, rejecting the faith-inspired belief that this refers to everyone, and asserting instead that some people are more equal than others. Until a child emerges from the birth canal, in fact, he doesn’t qualify as a person at all.
The incredible thing is that vast numbers of intelligent and sophisticated people in Western democracies passionately adhere to this completely irrational principle. Many of the same people do genuinely care about things that they should care about, like the plight of immigrants, but their reason is blighted because it is not guided by that faith-inspired principle that is the foundation of modern humanism.
It is the very impurity of the culture that makes both sides think they have the high moral ground
It is difficult to have a conversation nowadays about this slide into the culture of death. As became even clearer during the US presidential campaign, religion and politics are no longer subjects for polite family conversation, such is the level of polarisation that has arisen. It is the very impurity of Western culture, in the sense of a mixture of good and bad elements, that makes the conversation difficult. Those on the left and those on the right both emphasize certain “goods” to the exclusion of all else. This gives rise to the conviction on everyone’s part that they have the high moral ground and the other side is deluded.
The fact that certain good elements are emphasized by secular western democracies gives them a sense of righteousness. Self-realisation and personal freedom are genuine goods. Therefore, I should have the right to do with my body as I please, marry who I please and end my life when I please. The Christian vision of the inviolable dignity of the human person is rejected in favour of an approach to morality that values individual self-realisation above all else.
The West must rediscover its faith or say goodbye to civilisation as we knew it
By driving a wedge between faith and reason, the West has become a culture of death, a parody of its former self. Our children are taught to be profoundly narcissistic, holding firmly to irrational ideologies like gender theory, parroting Orwellian statements about “healthcare” and passionately committed to projects like “saving the planet” that – conveniently - will not hamper the unbridled licence of the sexual revolution. When the West lost its rootedness in faith in God in the aftermath of the French revolution, the tyrannies of the twentieth century were prepared and presaged. In our day, not only has the West lost its ability to reason, it has also lost confidence in the very existence of truth, relying instead to an ever-greater degree on sentiment and folly. The most worrying thing, however, is that the West has replaced a system based on altruism with a system based on egoism – the so-called “realisation” of the self - conceived exclusively in subjective terms. This is the “dictatorship of relativism” spoken of by Cardinal Ratzinger in his last homily before being elected pope, a relativism “that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires”.
The West has sought to become the master of its own destiny by denying its dependence on God and usurping his position as creator and Lord. We have become judge and jury of who lives and who dies, what is counted as male and female, what constitutes a meaningful life. In St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus casts out “impure” or “unclean” spirits on no less than thirteen occasions. Only by returning to God, by humbly accepting our position as creatures of a loving God, by handing him the reins and bowing in obedience to him, can our culture be saved. Lord, come to our aid! Deliver our culture from its impure spirit!