Part of the aftermath of Vatican II was a deep misunderstanding of the concept of freedom of conscience. Many mistakenly regarded it as a subjective license to do whatever they wanted. In the past 60 years since the Council, private morality has become a marshy miasma of inconsistency and anomaly that borders on moral anarchy.
As in the sporting world, when a situation gets disorderly, it is often worthwhile to return to the basics. This works well in the spiritual realm, especially in times of grave cultural conflict. While the Bible is the best source of spiritual refreshment, a relatively untapped source is the papal encyclicals. Many of these papal writings have whistled and chimed with wise pronouncements, analyses, and even predictions about world evils.
One such 19th century encyclical vehemently warned of the dangers of unchecked secularism, or what Pope Pius X called modernism. Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis recognized how dangerous modernism was to the Catholic Church.
Modernism is an enlightened way of thinking with regard to God, creation, and human life. It is a deliberate attempt to liberate mankind from the confining restrictions of religious dogma, clerical authority, and moral principle. Since it assumes the divinity of man, the only being worthy of study is Man. It is not surprising that the major controversies besetting our culture, namely abortion, contraception, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research hover around God’s creative gifts.
Modernism has substituted the social sciences, psychology, psychiatry, and anthropology for religion, ethics, metaphysics and theology. While modernism promotes and encourage all kinds of multicultural icons, it will not admit the mere presence of the Christian God. This has led to the incremental secularization of American culture.
Modernism then, is a secular religious faith that elevates the individual free will to godlike status. Pius X defined modernism as the synthesis of all heresies. From its basic core it unleashes the worst instincts in human beings under the false rubric of freedom of conscience. It relies heavily on moral relativism and religious indifferentism, creating a moral uncertainty as to what is right or wrong. Its slippery tentacles have cleverly permeated the very fiber and core of the major institutions in America.
Modernists, who rely heavily on the French Enlightenment, believe that all religious faith must be subjected to the judgments of science and the reigning secular thought. The Enlightenment attempted to replace the mystery and majesty of God and His creative powers with the rational and scientific prowess of mankind. Religion was relegated to the status of a superstition that could not compete with the deified presence of man’s superego and technological prowess.
Modernists have historically held that there is a fundamental conflict between Faith and Reason. Pope John Paul II thoroughly shattered this erroneous contention in his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio. The pope stressed the need to return to the profound unity of faith and reason, which allows them to stand in harmony with nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. Without their natural union, it is too easy for mankind to be sidetracked from its ultimate goal of eternal salvation. This highlights the predominant challenge for the Catholic Church in the 21st century, and that is the modernists’ utopian quest to turn the world into a secular habitat for humanity.
Over the last two centuries modernism has sprouted several branches on its ideological family tree. One of its most pernicious relatives has been liberalism, which has enjoyed an historical kinship with modernist thinking that transcends their semantic differences. Several popes, especially Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII, identified liberalism as the greatest evil facing the Catholic Church. It was Pius IX who appended his highly controversial Syllabus of Errors to his encyclical, Quanta Cura in 1864. According to Charles R. Morris’ comprehensive study of the church, American Catholic, Pius’ long papacy (1846-1878) was in furtherance of his total war against liberalism. Pope Leo regarded liberalism as one of the maladies affecting modern society in his 1878 encyclical Inscrutible Dei Consilo.
The dire warnings of these popes have sadly failed to take root. The United States, including millions of Catholics, pay lip service to the Golden Rule and the 10 Commandments while swimming in a cultural sewer of liberal principles. Over the last 60 years liberalism’s cultural poison has filtered into the daily drinking water of American entertainment, news, and education, especially in the universities and many of the Christian churches. Liberal arguments of choice, tolerance, equality, fairness, and separation of church and state have been so pervasive that many of Christianity’s most fervent believers have been cajoled to genuflect to secular peer pressure.
If any one individual were responsible for modernism and its ideological sister liberalism, it would have to be Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the French Philosophes whose writings led to the bloody end of royal rule in 18th century France. Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1712, Rousseau was deserted by his family at age 10. Though a Catholic convert, he had no qualms against engaging in several romantic affairs, which produced five children whom he quickly assigned to various foundling hospitals. His promiscuity led Rousseau to believe that while man was born free, the responsibilities of family and social institutions created the situation that everywhere man was in chains. Rousseau dedicated his life to cutting the chains of family, church, and social convention in the name of freedom.
Rousseau also denied original sin and the fall of man. He believed that human nature was essentially good and pure. He fervently declared that it has been Nature that has made man happy and virtuous, while society had rendered him miserable and depraved. Social institutions, such as the church, state, and private property, had conspired to keep a man a slave.
His most influential book, Emile, written in 1762, depicted the fictional account of noble savage, whose human purity is only marred by societal constraints and social conventions. This thinking is still viable in every teachers’ college that adheres to the educational pedagogy of John Dewey.
Rousseau believed that the social contract between citizens and the throne was not working and should be dashed like a barrow of apples at the Saturday market. His institutional iconoclasm betrayed no concern about how the bruised and kicked apples would be replaced. His thinking inevitably forged a generation of revolutionaries that forever changed the nature of government. Rousseau wrote in his Discourse in 1750, the more we are muffled up in social conventions the more we occasionally long for a whimsical return to nudity. He longed to strip the clothing off from civilization.
In his Essay on Walt Whitman, social critic Sir Edmund Gosse stressed that what Rousseau advocated was social nudity in that he wanted the world to divest the body politic of all its robes. In cutting chains and removing the robes of society, what Rousseau wanted to do was remove the social and moral protections that societies offer its citizens. Sound familiar?