The Universal Call to Holiness: Part One. Political Liberalism, the Public Unreality of God, and the Bored Catholic
“I pray with St. Augustine, ‘Lord, that I may know myself, in order to know Thee.”
Dorothy Day, (“The Long Loneliness”)
After my last series of posts on the “numbing down of the Church” I received several emails of support, but also messages concerned that after I had “banished” the rad trads, liberals, and neo-cons, then “who is left?” The concern, I surmise, is that my various lucubrations are a bit too lacerating and that my surgical eye has gone nuts cutting away viable tissue in order to dig out the cancerous tumors. After all, did Jesus not tell us that we must leave the tares in the wheat lest we destroy the wheat itself in our zealotry to make the Church pure? And are we not all deeply flawed sinners in our own way? Am I not flirting with the idea of an “elitist” Church that would, if it ever came about, have no room for a miserable, self-indulgent, sybarite such as myself?
In answer to the question of “who is left?”, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Catholics are decidedly non-ideological and do not sit easily within any of these categories. Thus, to the three main categories in my taxonomy of the “factions” within the Church, one could add a fourth, which encompasses (perhaps) the majority of modern Catholics in the West: the beige and bored Catholic. And this is a phenomenon that is decidedly not recent since it is one of the primary side effects of the Church’s “settlement” with bourgeois modernity that I have spoken of ad nauseum. Witness, for example, the opening lines of “The Diary of a Country Priest” written by George Bernanos in 1936: “Mine is a parish like all the rest. They’re all alike. … My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it.”
The most shocking thing in that quote is the last line: “And we can’t do anything about it.” Contained therein is an implied indictment of not just the lack of faith among the laity, but of
the Church as a whole, which becomes apparent in the rest of the novel, as the young and holy priest struggles to tend to his flock while surrounded by a Church of indifference, giving the whole narrative an air of crushing futility which threatens to suffocate the holy man under the smothering pillow of bourgeois banality. And like Christ, the young curé dies an apparent failure, with only an ex priest by his side unable to give him Viaticum, and clinging in the midst of his enormous physical suffering to nothing more than the promise of God’s merciful grace as seen in his dying words: “Does it matter? Grace is all.”
But in the midst of this futility is the answer to lukewarm, bourgeois mediocrity that Bernanos wants to give: holiness. And not a generic holy card “sanctity” of laced doily pieties fit for respectable parlor room chit chat, but the hard and horrible holiness of the cross. The holiness that cuts to the bone and exposes our facile pretentions as so many compromises and bargains with inauthentic halfway measures. Bernanos understood that the Church exists for only one reason – – to bring people to the holiness of Christ and his cross – – and that when it loses sight of this reason, this eschatological baseline, it immediately falls into a dissipative state that leads to spiritual death. Thus does the young priest represent for Bernanos the only true “glory,” and thus the only true hope, that the Church possesses: her saints. His claim is that only in the saints do we encounter true objectivity and true rationality since what it is they manifest is nothing short of the reality that is God. To them belongs the true measure of the “real” and reveal to us that at the heart of existence resides, not a “power” as such, but a Glory and a “face” that beckons us to a participation in that which is most “real”: infinite love, which is to say, infinite gift.
The Hebrew word for “glory” is “Kabod” (or “Kavod”) and its literal meaning has to do with things that have “weight” or a certain “heaviness.” And in the Old Testament its usage is meant to convey the dense reality of God as the most real thing that is. This is in contrast to the solid objects of our everydayness which give off the illusory impression of being the “truly real” which is why the worldly soul is one that lives within a realm of illusions that is toxic to the faith. It is an inversion of the truly real for the less real that is at the heart of that “worldliness” that has nothing to do with a true appreciation of the goods of this world. This is why bourgeois modernity is so poisonous to the soul since it focuses our attention on the worldly world as the only true and proper end of our existence. The penultimate becomes the ultimate and in this ordo of “mere objects,” God, if He even exists at all, is portrayed as a kind of weightless gas or a bundle of weird “energies” having less purchase on the claim to “reality” than the remote control sitting on my coffee table. God therefore becomes a practical unreality even among those who claim to “believe” and is reduced to the status of a mere cipher for “pious feelings.” Domesticated, desiccated, and denatured, this “God” takes up residence in the wax museum of our revered totems, dutifully set out for display at Christmas and Easter alongside of Santa and the Easter bunny, but then quietly put back in the garage alongside of our golf clubs and oily rags. And of course, the entire enterprise is a dreadful bore.
The cultural plausibility structures of the modern world conspire against real faith and holiness insofar as they create an ordo rooted in indifference to God, all the while masquerading as the great defender of this essentialized thing called “religious freedom.” But what kind of religion does it “allow in” and what sort of “freedom” is this? It is the freedom of the atomized individual adrift in an antinomian sea of Gnostic formlessness, thrown back onto itself without any mooring to any kind of a binding spiritual address. The “religion” that emerges in this ordo is thus constitutively subjectivist and on a par with my taste for Big Macs over Whoppers (I prefer the former). Thus is religion reduced to a sphere of freedom that is considered so inconsequential that the State grants it immunity from coercion just as it doesn’t dream of passing laws against eating fruit cake instead of rice pudding: De gustibus non est disputandum. And if some may say that this is an exaggeration and that what the State is really protecting is “conscience” just look at what happens when medical professionals ask to be given some real religious freedom with teeth in it, as in conscience clauses allowing them to opt out of being required to mutilate the genitalia of 15 year olds, which is followed by the fecal matter hitting the turbines of “tolerant” modernity.
In reality political Liberalism is predicated on God remaining in the safe space of “taste” along with Big Macs and unicorns with pixie dust manes. The putative “neutrality” therefore of political and cultural Liberalism toward the question of God is a grand lie rooted in the Enlightenment’s myth of origin, which is a myth rooted in a narrative of “original violence” wherein religion is portrayed as one of the most dangerous social phenomena that exists, requiring the Leviathan of the State to step in and impose the peace. What appears therefore as “religious freedom” – – what John Courtney Murray portrayed as “articles of peace” – – is in reality an “article of surrender” where the terms are dictated by those who would love to violently “bear the Kingdom away” if they had their way. Which is exactly what we see today as in the example of our government deciding that the Little Sisters of the Poor are a threat to the social fabric and need to have their pieties taught a lesson and dragged into court, once again demonstrating that “conscience” is not what is at issue here. Thus has the neo-con fantasy of a crypto Catholic America crashed and burned on the rocks of this myth of original violence which was always latent in the American constitutional arrangement but was held in check by the cultural hegemony of Protestant Christianity. But that hegemony is long gone, creating the second “disestablishment” of religion beginning in the early 20th century, which now allows for the full Monty of our secular order to expose itself with increasing impunity. We are somewhat safe (for now) in the kennel of our Churches because Disney World still wants money from the devout, but as religious observance wanes even further (and it will) even corporate America will turn on us, if they haven’t already begun to do so.
Returning then to Bernanos, and the universal call to holiness, and in light of my analysis above, we can begin to see the reason for the urgency in the tone and tenor of his message. The France of his time was already far along the path of God’s unreality and so Bernanos was already well aware of the de facto atheism at the heart of the modern project. Therefore, the “boredom” of which he speaks is not the spiritual boredom known as “acedia” but a much different kind of boredom, and far more destructive: the boredom of God’s unreality. And this “unreality” of God is also different from the mere experience of God’s absence which is an experience that even the saints must endure – – indeed, perhaps even Christ on the cross – – and which seems to be one of the necessary steps on the path to holiness and wisdom. Nor is the unreality of God the same as a robust and explicit atheism which may, in its very visceral denial of God, at least still harbor the belief that the question of God matters and entertains a hope that God does exist after all. No, the de facto, practical atheism of God’s unreality is far worse since it can coexist with certain affirmations about God’s existence that are merely notional in extremely superficial ways, thereby masking over a “faith” that is little more than a whistling- past-the-graveyard “wish” that God exists, or even a degraded version of Pascal’s wager that does not include Pascal’s admonition that his wager requires from us changed behavior lest we have no skin in the game.
The boredom caused by the unreality of God is, I think, something unique to the modern world. I realize that the theological status of modern political Liberalism is a hotly debated topic and that my view that it harbors a de facto atheism is rejected by many. Furthermore, I am also aware that my claim that the modern Church is infected with this virus and is riddled with a crippling loss of the reality of God, is a claim that will be rejected as alarmist by the “same as it ever was” crowd. But it is my contention that our modern sense of the unreality of God is something new, unique, shocking, and of a different genus of disbelief than anything we have seen before. That it represents a fundamental change in human consciousness toward the hegemony of the empirical.
Never before has an entire civilization and the cultural ordo it created predicated itself upon the proposition that God does not matter. Not that God does not exist, but rather that God does not matter, thus robbing the concept of “God” of even that share in reality contained within the internal logic of atheistic rejection. A previous generation had the thundering and gripping atheism of Nietzsche. We have Bill Maher. Believers get the atheists they deserve I think and an age of a more robust sense of God’s reality will generate atheists, like Nietzsche, who are equally robust. But in an age where even believers view God as an existential unreality we get a third-tier comedian as our bete noire. Thus, the “same as it ever was” folks do not sway me since they sound like the husband who says to his nine months pregnant wife: “Oh honey, you’ve been getting cramps for years. What do you mean that the baby is on the way?”
What the “same as it ever was” approach fails to appreciate is the radical revisionism of Liberalism as it attempts to renarrate all of human history as a steady progression from the infantile stage of myth and religion to the adult stage of science and demystification. As Augusto del Noce points out, this periodization of history is absolutely central to the Liberal project because it must establish that sacral conceptions of society are immature stages of development and therefore the progression into the adulthood of Liberalism was not a choice that could have been otherwise, but a necessity of the “curve of history.” And it is precisely this progressive “curve of history” narrative that forms the narrative of our culture and, increasingly, of the Church. And insofar as it has penetrated deeply into the Church its internal logic precludes a true awareness of the realness of God, of the eschatological horizon for our lives, and of the pursuit of holiness. And a Church of this kind has truly lost its “salt” and engenders nothing but a bored and boring pietism that is just a bunch of Jesus gravy on top of the progressive mashed potatoes.
Therefore, – – and make no mistake about this – – Liberalism is a project of deligitimation and legitimation and is more powerful than even the most totalizing of theocracies. All previous cultures were grounded in, and legitimated by, some notion of the sacred which was viewed by classical cultures as a realm of related cosmic hierarchies in which human society also found its place, and which therefore made all “politics” sacral politics by way of a participatory mimesis. Modernity by contrast stigmatizes such forms of sacral politics as “dangerous,” destroys the ancient hierarchies, and replaces the telos of the “forms” of the cosmos and our spiritual/metaphysical, mimetic/dynamical participation in those forms, with the telos of the machine. Ours is an anti-sacral ordo that is, ironically, the most totalitarian sacral ordo of all. But as William Cavanaugh points out, it is a counterfeit sacral order and is a simulacrum of the Church complete with its own protology, eschatology, soteriology and ecclesiology. And now with woke cancel culture, its own Inquisition, Index of forbidden books, and lists of anti-social thoughts.
Some have suggested to me that what I am really describing is nihilism. But I reject that suggestion since I think nobody is ever really a nihilist, just as nobody is ever really a moral and/or epistemological relativist. Nihilism and relativism are both theoretical constructs and live in the realm of intellectual fantasy and are largely weapons wielded by folks of a skeptical bent intent on debunking religious metaphysical claims. They are, therefore, merely reactionary and have very little purchase on anyone once they have slain the metaphysical dragon and decentered reason from things transcendent. They are ideological arrows in the atheist’s quiver of sophistical arguments and as soon as they are put into flight their users return to their apodictic convictions with hortatory fervor, thus demonstrating that no human being can actually inhabit the nihilist island of misfit toys for long.
Along these lines, Liberalism has not gone down the path of nihilism but has instead merely destroyed our old loyalties to transcendence and replaced them with the tribal loyalties that Christianity was meant to overcome. Instead of the Church and the Kingdom of God we now have a return of the cult of blood and soil – – or as we call it today, “identity politics.” Public reason has thus degenerated into a tool for a set of irrational loyalties that threatens us with the Hobbesian vision of a war of all against all. Crippled with a false anti-metaphysical metaphysics, Liberalism could not hold its center together and what we are witnessing is a return of the strong gods of populism, nationalism, race, and ethnicity. And unlike some in the Catholic camp I do not think this is a good thing. I do not think it represents the inevitable reassertion of “natural” virtues and allegiances in the face of Liberal dissolution of the ties that bind. I think Liberalism always had strong gods – – e.g. the rapacious capitalist free market, faux democracy as the tool of that market, militarism as the global enforcer of that market, and in the modern world the inflaming of libidinous concupiscence as the chief virtue of the consumptive culture necessary for that market, giving the lie (and it was always a lie) to the notion that Liberalism demands and encourages a virtuous public. No, Liberalism has had its strong gods too and this has always been a war amongst the gods. Liberalism has merely fought against the more traditional gods of blood and soil because those gods were bad for business and gave us the Nazis. But there is nothing inherent within Liberalism that can stave off these gods and thus modern woke, cancel culture, far from being a corruption of Liberalism, is in reality the chickens coming home to roost in the coop of Liberalism’s denial of metaphysical first principles.
I have to admit I am deeply impatient therefore with those Catholics of an “orthodox” persuasion who still think that Liberalism really is this relatively benign political construction and that it really does open up a “space” for Christianity to flourish. It does give Christianity certain freedoms. But it does not give it “space” in the sense of legitimacy as a form of public reason. I do not understand, therefore, Catholics who think you can tweak Liberalism and make it right with a dose or a pinch of Thomas Aquinas. Liberalism is not fixable and must be replaced since in its core, at the very center of its essence, is the assertion that God does not matter and does not count as a “public” reality. Which is just another way of saying that God isn’t real at all.
The mistake of the radical traditionalists is that they want to replace Liberalism by going back to an illiberal form of sacral integralism. All politics is integralist, of course, and it is indeed the grand illusion of Liberalism to convince us that it is the only metanarrative that is not a metanarrative, as MacIntyre noted long ago. However, an integralism tied to mere power without real moral and spiritual “authority” gained through a holy praxis, is a deep corruption of the Gospel. All real “authority” in the Church comes from the Holy Spirit and the holiness it both underwrites and creates in the Church. But all too often the hard sacral integralisms of the past were merely graspings after worldly forms of power in order to coerce the half-converted “masses” into proper Christians. But such forms of power have no real spiritual and moral authority and are precisely the distortions of the Gospel that led to the splintering of the Church. You cannot make up for deficits in holiness by resorting to State power as a pedagogical blunt instrument.
Therefore, the failed binaries of Liberalism and illiberalism point toward the fact that what we need is something new to emerge. We need a new post Liberal “politics” that is not simply a reactionary retreat into the illiberal. I have no idea what will replace it nor do I much care since for now we are stuck with the Liberal arrangement. My concerns in this section have not been prescriptive but merely diagnostic. I have labored to trace the cultural and intellectual roots of the sense of God’s unreality that pervades our churches and which has created the beige and bored Catholic of today’s Western world. I have zero tolerance with the folks who inevitably say, “well then what is your idea for change Mr. Smarty pants?” implying that my analysis is tainted just because I cannot provide a full charter for the refounding of Atlantis. A doctor has value even if all he does is diagnose the cancer, despite the fact that he can’t cure it. Furthermore, my concerns are not in the first place political but are centered on why we need a Church that pursues holiness first and foremost. Finally, if you cannot imagine any other political order other than the modern Liberal one then I submit to you that your imagination is the problem.
My claim is that beige and bored Catholics are leaving the Church in droves because they are incapable of encountering God sacramentally. Formed by Liberal culture they have been deeply conditioned to view the Church as just one “religion” among many and merely one of the flavors of transcendence to choose from in a very consumeristic and voluntaristic modality. Religion is viewed as “private” even in Church, perhaps even especially in Church, since the Church is not a public reality with a public warrant. And as something private that is perceived of as “real” only in the affective sphere of interiority there is a strong temptation toward an atomized Gnostic formlessness. This explains why a majority of American Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I do not buy the notion that this is merely the result of a deficit in catechesis but is rather the result of a catechesis that has not been “received” and ends up being rejected as contrary to “common sense.” But it is the common sense of Liberal modernity and once the real presence is rejected what is left is just the shell of a really old and empty ritual with bad music, bad preaching, and a bunch of words borrowed from “Bible times” back when people were much more ignorant and gullible. The result is a laity bored with the whole affair and who have no authentic experience of the “reality” of God either in the sacraments or in their own souls since what one encounters in the Gnostic flight into formlessness is not the transcendent God of Jesus Christ, but an “enthusiasm” at best, and a mere sentimentalism of my own inner prejudices at worst.
The sacraments, especially the Eucharist, were never meant to be merely private devotionals but were always put forward as the Church’s very public action of Kingdom building. They are the Incarnation of Christ stretched forward into historical time and were thus always thought of as being as publicly important as Christ was. Indeed, the execution and resurrection of Jesus are the most “public” events in history insofar as they reveal to us the deepest structure of the really real and also thereby reveal a broader conception of reason that goes beyond a constricted worldly horizon and into an eschatological one. In other words, the Eucharist, as an eschatological act grounded in the paschal mystery, is the most public of acts as well and evinces a form of reason that alone is sufficient for explaining the true nature of the human polis as the gathering together of free moral beings, oriented toward Spirit, and endowed with a transcendental dynamism that cannot be satisfied by forms of reason concerned only with the penultimate trivialities of daily living. And it is precisely political Liberalism’s denial of the public nature of the broader form of reason that opened the door to the various totalitarian “isms” of the 20th century that were more than happy to rush in and fill the vacuum of transcendence with the faux transcendence of various worldly utopianisms.
In other words, in an ordo where metaphysical first principles are delegitimated as public forms of reason what we end up with are penultimate principles, largely utilitarian in nature, masquerading as first principles that trend inevitably toward the merely pragmatic. Moral “principles” thus quickly degenerate into merely stipulative forms of social agreement lacking any real normative status of a kind that makes the moral, moral. The word “moral” is still used but it literally means nothing, and the true guiding principles of the social order become increasingly technocratic and demagogic, on both the Right and the Left. Thus, it is my claim that Liberalism inevitably trends toward the illiberal and that our future is likely to be a technocratic dystopia but with a Disney World aesthetic. Because… you know… “family values.” But in the end, it will be the Antichrist of Google – – the Googlechrist – – that will preside over a society now divided, as C.S. Lewis presciently predicted decades ago, into the categories of the controllers and the controlled.
Vatican II asked us to read the signs of the times. Well, these are the signs of our times in my view. And in light of this my further view is that the Church’s evangelization in such a culture must be centered, as Vatican II taught, on a retrieval of the traditional notion of the universal call to holiness. However, given the state of our culture, the kind of holiness we need is the kind rooted in reality and not in the illusions of a false asceticism or bohemianism. And by reality, therefore, I mean the reality that is the public Christ. Which is to say, the public Christ of the Church He founded and the Liturgy. Ours, therefore, must be a liturgical piety that creates a eucharistic politics that redefines and broadens the concept of the political away from its narrow focus on electoral processes and the bureaucratic apparatus of governance, and toward the creation of small intentional communities of faith, moral discourse, and artistic/artisanal creation. This is what Peter Maurin famously called the politics of “cult, culture, and cultivation.” Some would call this “distributism” or the politics of subsidiarity. I don’t care what you call it, because unless it is animated by a deep desire to participate in the public holiness of Christ and his cross, then all of it is nothing more than hippie-commune bohemianism. And as the sixties taught us, free love and stoner culture is no match for the entropy of our sinful nature.
Which is why a mere “back to the land” holiness of bohemian homesteaders, with their solar panels, organic Kale, weed, and contraceptives is just more of the same consumerism but in a rural modality. Nor is a radical asceticism the answer either. Asceticism is as necessary in the
pursuit of holiness as exercise and training are to an athlete. Nevertheless, asceticism is a means to an end – – which is openness to the Spirit through the decluttering your life – – and is not the end in itself. And when it is an end in itself it is not only useless, but a positive hindrance to holiness. It becomes a pelagian source of pride, a Catholic merit badge in the order of the Penance Scouts and creates a suffocating fog of pieties that obscures Christ, and thus the true form of our holiness, which is rooted in the cross and its notion of vicarious suffering for the sake of the other.
In future posts in this series I will be exploring in more detail what I mean by the “public reason” of Revelation and thus of holiness. I will be examining further the eschatological “politics” of the call to holiness and also then examine various practices within the Church, such as clerical celibacy, and wondering if changes need to be made in that area and others. Finally, I will explain why none of this is “elitist” or a false quest for a “pure” Church, but the only truly “public” and “egalitarian” path forward.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.