The Wrong Side of History

by James Matthew Wilson on October 24, 2012 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Berwyn, PA.  Cardinal George offers us the strong words — not of oracular prophecy, but of historical wisdom.  A few passages:

Communism imposed a total way of life based upon the belief that God does not exist. Secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow. A small irony of history cropped up at the United Nations a few weeks ago when Russia joined the majority of other nations to defeat the United States and the western European nations that wanted to declare that killing the unborn should be a universal human right. Who is on the wrong side of history now?

Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” What I said is not “prophetic” but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.

God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.”

You can read the whole essay here.

I have taken a hiatus from FPR, as my family and I settle into our new homestead in the village of Berwyn.  Even as I write this, I am suited up to go insulate the attic.  But I hope Cardinal George’s words will remind my more sympathetic readers of my series on Catholicism and localism, which will resume sometime next month.

The Cardinal’s essay rightly calls into question the worthiness of the nation state as the sovereign agent of political force, and I shall hope to consider whether such an interpellation leads us necessarily to Dante’s and Jacques Maritain’s dream of a temporal world government to complement the spiritual universality of Rome, or whether it may more fittingly be understood as a call to the relocalization of the political guided by a universal primacy of the spirit (also, incidentally, a position Maritain defended).  For my part, the maxim that guides my thinking has always been flippantly phrased, “I like my politics local and my Church universal.”  As Cardinal George suggests, the battles we fight in these troubled days shall not find their outcome in the chronicles of world politics, but in the book of life that records our one, true citizenship.  And yet, consciousness of our citizenship of the Kingdom of God is indeed the foundation, the informing principle, for good politics in the city of man.

A Blessed Feast of All Saints to all the saints and sinners out there on the internet!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jeffrey Polet October 24, 2012 at 10:50 am

Further evidence, if any be required, that any reference to history taking sides is a bypassing of argument rather than a making of one.

I look forward to your return.

avatar Ray Olson October 25, 2012 at 10:56 am

I am uncomfortable with Cardinal George when he conjures a “Secularism” that is a scrubbed version of communism. The secularism that I respect and regard as fundamental to U.S. understanding of relations between state and religion is no collaborator with totalitarian, or indeed any other, kind of ideology. It is a practice essential to peace in a society of many religions. It calls for state neutrality toward religious beliefs of all kinds, for instance, to cite a recent issue, those swirling about “gay marriage”. To continue with that example, secularism, properly applied, would disallow the state from proclaiming what does and does not constitute marriage. Marriages would be left to couples to make–the institutions (churches, public registries, etc.) often said to “marry” people merely recognize and/or endorse their decisions–and for the state to accept without question. If such a secularism has never been fully realized in the U.S., that does not make it a pipe-dream. It’s the beating heart of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and as far as the amendment allows–remember, it’s only “Congress” that is constrained from “respecting an establishment of religion”–it has served the U.S. quite well, I think. It will continue to do so as long as its noncommittal nature is recognized and upheld. Cardinal George’s characterization of it as an ideology that is intrinsically atheist or anti-theist is a gross distortion, one that is inimical to religious liberty, American-style.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm

This has been the weakness of the Christian for a millennium, this waiting for Rome , or Provence or Constantinople to ascribe proper thought. The Kingdom of God is within and when we confuse its complex existence with the rather more sordid exigencies of secular life, we attempt to tame a bull that is ill-served by taming. Humanity can best be described as a species which bricks up its landfall on multiple bridge -building projects because it has a low opinion of itself. Needless to say, the low opinion has manifest reasons but at this late date, it seems to me that people speak of God but have no confidence. The spirit is within, it is taut but it is gentle. Gentleness, is perhaps the key.

avatar robert m. peters November 1, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Mr. Olsen,

The state’s being neutral in the matter of religion is not historical because it is not natural; and that which is unnatural cannot be, no matter how much we will pretend it to be.

Marriage, the instrument of procreation, flows out of the created order; and God is the Author of that, not couples.

The first amendment is not a beating heart. It is merely a part of a document which no longer has any meaning because the union of constitutionally federated republics for which it was crafted are “gone with the wind.” The Constitution and its Bill of Rights constitute a widowed whore whose pimp is the Hobbesian state which murdered her husband. This Hobbesian state is the face of secularism; and it is anti-God and anti-Christian.

avatar Ray Olson November 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Mr. Peters–If neutrality toward religious establishments is neither natural or historical, why does the U.S. not have a state religion? Why–though I must add, to my knowledge–has it never even considered such an establishment? (Indeed, states that did have religious establishments put them down.) If it has, unbeknownst to me, why did the effort fail, if it did?

Also, when you say, “The state’s being neutral in the matter of religion is not historical because it is not natural”, what do you mean by “natural” and “historical”? I suspect you are using those words differently from the common understandings of them. I don’t say that your definitions of them are wrong, but I suspect they are religiously colored and think you ought to disclose them.

Although I believe that the Constitution and federalism are all but dead in practice, I wouldn’t bad-mouth them as you do, perhaps because I don’t believe that mere passage of time invalidates. They have much to teach us because much in them is good and deserves our re-adoption. The secularism of the First Amendment is one very good thing in the Constitution, and it is false and wicked to call it atheist and anti-religious (though I can see how one might call it anti-Christian). Would a confessional state be superior to a secular one? Probably, but that’s not what we have, and I very much doubt we ever shall before the Second Coming. In the meantime, we should strive to live in peace and fellowship–admittedly flawed and incomplete–with one another, even though doing so demands tolerance

avatar robert m. peters November 2, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Mr. Olsen,

The U.S. does have a state religion. It is called the “propositional or creedal” nation, with the Pledge of Allegiance and its gods, the chief of which broods over the commons of the mall in Washington, Ol’ Honest Abe. It is an abstract creed with Jacobin and mercantile antecedents, and it is the public face of an equally abstract corporation with a monopoly on coercion, with the ability to define the limits of its own power and with a will driven, at least for now by a vulgar democratic mass manipulated by the elites of finance, party faction, the media and entertainment. It is the Hobbesian state, the spawn of Thomas Hobbes.

The first fiction related to the secular state is that it is or can be neutral. It cannot be neutral, for it is made up of fallen men with agendas, the chief of which is the acquisition of power.

As with most heresies, errors or blasphemies of post-Renaissance, post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment Modernity, secularism has it origins in the Church Herself. The very term secular from late antiquity within the Church tradition means a priest who is not a member of an order as opposed to one who had taken vows. It is, however, even older than the Church; the Etruscans and the Romans understood that the gods had appointed a time – from let us say the founding of a city to the death of the first generation of that founding as a “saeculum.” According to tradition, the Etruscans had been appointed ten saecula. The more modern use comes directly from Church metaphysics, applying the term to the worldly age or millennium. So, the religious understandings of the origins of man, from the pagan to the Christian, are embedded in the very word for which you would claim some neutrality.

Secularism in the political sense is in part rooted in the fatal attraction of emerging Protestantism and the emerging prot0-Hobbesian state of the 17th century European dynasties attempting to emancipate themselves from Pope and from Kaiser, although this process has earlier roots, particularly in the French kings. Both the princes and the Protestants needed one another. More and more, across Protestant Europe, those “things” “res familiaris” and “res sacrae” or “res ecclesiasticae” were entrusted to the state, including, regrettably marriage which is a prime example in the absolutely current sense that the state is not neutral. Protestants seem to have naively thought and many still think that the state would always embody Christian values, even if the state did not adhere to a specific dogma, doctrine, theology or official Church. This has proved to be wrong, of course.

In addition, to the convenient liaison between Protestants and the state, there was also the abstraction of God into the deistic clock maker, detached from and not incarnate in His creation, dethroning the Christ as a person of the Trinity and relegating Him to the good teacher as exemplified in Jefferson’s Bible without miracles. (I do admire Jefferson and consider myself to be a Jeffersonian, which is another topic.) These men had an agenda, although in the case of Jefferson a benign one in that he remained faithful to the Episcopal faith and understood that religion played a vital role in the cohesion of a social order of which any government is a mere expression. Others of this ilk were less benign..

At the heart of the matter, God cannot be secularized. He is the Author, Sustainer and Finisher of all of creation. He is incarnate in His creation. He cannot be privatized.

Of course, my definitions are religiously colored. I am a Christian. Are secularly colored definitions, allegedly “objective” superior to mine? That which is “natural” and that which is “historical” are all parts of creation and cannot be separated from creation.

The notion of a confessional state is a product of the Reformation. There was no confessional state in late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. We are so caught up in this false dichotomy of Modernity that we cannot imagine in minds enfeebled by Modernity that there was once a time when things were other.

I am not bad-mouthing “federalism” or the “Constitution.” I doubt that those who post on these fora could come to a consensus on the definition of “federalism” since it is a term of usurpation from its first real application in the American political tradition. As to the Constitution, I can say with great historical accuracy that it was given whatever authority it ever had by the separate peoples of individual states gathered in their sovereign capacity in convention through their ratification; and through it, the states which were the principles and the sovereigns, created an agent, i.e. the general government, to execute certain duties on their behalf, and they created anew a union of constitutionally federated republics, having once seceded from the British crown through the instruments of individual and corporate declarations and having then by the very act of ratifying the Constitution seceded from the old union under the Articles of Confederation. In 1865, Lincoln and the Republican party, having acquired the apparatus of the state with less than forty percent of the vote in 1860, destroyed two unions of constitutionally federated republics: the United States of America and the Confederated States of America, consolidating and centralizing them into a Hobbesian state as Bismark was doing in Germany and Garibaldi was doing in Italy, under the guise of nationalism. At least the Constitution of the Confederate States of America is where such documents of dead polities belong: in archives. The poor Constitution of those once proud collaborating republics is, however, as I have said the whore of the Hobbesian state which murdered the Union of which she was a handmaiden. While the elites plot and ply their nefarious schemes beneath her skirts, we fools are enticed to worship her as a goddess as if she were something sacred. Our fawning and adulating worship of her is directly proportional to her worthlessness. The same goes for the insidious pledge which we recite with Pavlovian fervor.

I strongly suggest that you read the late A.J. Conyer’s book “The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit.”

avatar Ray Olson November 3, 2012 at 10:56 am

Mr. Peters–Thanks for your response. I was aware of most of what you speak, I don’t dispute it, and I admire the conciseness and style with which you have said it. Thanks, also, for reminding me of The Long Truce, which I have intended to read since I reviewed Conyers’ posthumously published The Listening Heart (you may read my review, written for Booklist when I was one of its editors, on Amazon).

I notice that you did not answer any of the questions I asked. Nor did you say of what your definitions of “natural” and “historical” consist. Instead, you say, “That which is “natural” and that which is “historical” are all parts of creation and cannot be separated from creation”, which is true but unenlightening because it doesn’t help discriminate what you mean by the two terms from what others mean by them. I answer your question, “Are secularly colored definitions, allegedly “objective” superior to mine?”, with an emphatic “No.” (Among my questions that you don’t answer, I except “Would a confessional state be superior to a secular one?”, which I thought was rhetorical, and nevertheless, I am grateful for and enlightened by your remark about the genesis of the conception.)

I want, finally, to respond to your fine assertion, “At the heart of the matter, God cannot be secularized.” I quite agree, adding only that that was never my intention. Secularizing the laws of a religiously pluralistic nation as much as possible is what I support.

avatar robert m. peters November 4, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Mr. Olsen,

Actually, I thought to have answered all of your questions in the overall context of my response, although likely not commensurate with your understanding.

I asserted that there is a state religion and outlined it. The next two questions are answered with my answer to the first and with my statements that Protestants naively believed that the state would “naturally” underpin the Christian ethic as it was understood by Protestant, albeit it without embracing a particular confession. In addition, we Protestants were and remain too taken with positive liberalism: the world has progressed and is beyond the sins of previous generations, i.e. better than they were such that we could actually sit in judgment on them. With this liberal view but certainly non-Christian view it was easy to embrace and even encourage the “confessionless” state. In addition, further giving answer to your questions, I pointed out that the princes and their heirs, modern politicians, had and continue to have agendas in which the Church and the Faith were useful; today, the “princes,” having used the Church and Faith, no longer see them as a means to their agenda, so they have systematically emancipated themselves from their old ally.

I wrongly assumed that both of us would agree that “natural” and “historical” as used in the modern sense are in fact antithetical to the use of those terms, not only in the Christian sense but also in the sense of any people who understood themselves to be a part of a created order. The Christian understanding of nature and the natural must reject the Hobbesian version as well as the Lockean version in which “rights” float around as “natural rights.” The concept of history which pervades Modernity must be rejected because history is not man’s story and it is not man’s weapon of reform; it is God’s story in which we have an inscrutable part.

I have read Conyer’s The Listening Heart. While reading it, I had an encounter on a drive which I sketched out as a little memorette for my self. I entitled it from a line in the sketch “Where Time, Place and Eternity Meet,” such being the reality of my encounter. As I finished Dr. Conyer’s book, he reminded me that the words were not my own, they were from Flannery O’Connor whom I had re-read two summers before for the summer school of the Abbeville Institute. O’Connor’s words found an unanticipated home in my little sketch; and Dr. Conyer’s gave me the insight to acknowledge them. Actually, all of that is, in the end, a part of the miracle of the sketch or memorette.

avatar Ray Olson November 4, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Mr. Peters,
I agree with you almost totally, but I think you are talking past my position. You are arguing for the best against all that is less-than-best in any manner and to any degree. I’m not such a perfectionist, or rather I’m not in regard to the matter at hand, which is First Amendment secularism, which I have said is imperfect in practice but has its good uses in this less-than-perfect nation. I think to call this secularism atheist and an incestuous bedfellow of communism is false and wicked.

Thanks, again, for responding to me with such cogency and focus.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 5, 2012 at 12:12 am

Communism imposed a total way of life based upon the belief that God does not exist. Secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow.

Nonsense. What a conveniently contrived self-serving distortion of history.

First, belief that God does not exist was incidental to Communism. There have been Roman Catholic communists (particularly in Italy) who attended mass faithfully, were married in the church, etc. There were Protestant communists who attended church every week. There were Jewish communists who kept kosher and attended the synagogue, albeit more likely Reform than Conservative or Orthodox. There is no more reason that God could not have created matter to operate through a dialectical process than there is that God could not have created atoms consisting of protons, neutrons and electrons.

Communist hostility to religion had many roots, including the close association of the dominant church in Russia, Germany, England, France, Spain, Italy, and other places with The State, and the dominant classes who were the natural enemies of any emergent working class movement. Although it is also possible to be a Christian Anarchist, in practice, anarchism evidenced far more hostility to God than communism. And let’s not forget Archbishop Dom Helder Camarra, whose words live on in inumerable posters long after his death: When I fed the poor, people called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, people called me a communist.”

Then we come to “secularism,” a convenient weasel word so broad and vague as to have no coherent definition whatsoever. If the Cardinal refers to the belief that there are secular criteria for the civil governance of a community, independent of the religious precepts any given citizen or organized religious body may practice, then Three Cheers for Secularism, an essential foundation of our constitutional republic.

If the Cardinal refers to a hypothetical assertion that God does not exist, the correct word for that is “atheism,” not “secularism.”

If the Cardinal refers to a state of enforced atheism, where all manifestations of religion, public and private, are ruthlessly suppressed, he should look to science fiction for his exemplars.

Most likely, he is simply reflecting the common cultivation of a satisfying paranoia, a comfortable sense of martyrdom, by which clergy of a number of denominations scream “persecution” while sleeping every night in their own beds, eating their own choice of food, traveling in comfort, preaching whatever seems good to them from their own pulpit, while they nurse a wounded sense that their authority and influence are not so great as to bend all the laws of the republic to their own will.

avatar robert m. peters November 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Mr. Jenkins,

First, you must realize that you do not reside in a “constitutional republic.” You live in a consolidated and centralized Hobbesian state. Marx said that Hobbes is the father of us all.

Secondly, the content and the tenor of your post go a long way toward proving the good Cardinal’s point.

avatar Anymouse November 5, 2012 at 2:00 pm

“If the Cardinal refers to a state of enforced atheism, where all manifestations of religion, public and private, are ruthlessly suppressed, he should look to science fiction for his exemplars.”
Or 1960′s Albania and China. But let’s not bother ourselves with reality.

avatar David Smith November 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Dr. Peters: “In addition, we Protestants were and remain too taken with positive liberalism: the world has progressed and is beyond the sins of previous generations, i.e. better than they were such that we could actually sit in judgment on them. ”

This sentence articulates for me my discomfort with the abstract idea of “progress” that, indeed, all too many of us American Protestants in particular hold on virtually the same level as the Ten Commandments or even Newton’s Third Law.

Thanks yet again!

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 7, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Mr. Peters: You have offered two concise axiomatic statements. You have not offered the slightest evidence or reasoned argument why anyone should accept your statements as plausible, let alone true, let alone axiomatic. I’m sure you made yourself feel very proud of yourself though. (Isn’t pride one of the Seven Deadly Sins?)

Anymouse: The current Chinese government does not in fact suppress all manifestations of religion, although it interferes in the internal governance of religious organizations in a manner that, as a citizen of a more enlightened constitutional republic, I do not appreciate.

Regarding Albania, you had a point, past tense. Even some decades back, when I hopeful that communism could be done right, I referred to Enver Hoxha as the most boring communist theoretician in the world. It seems he may often have been psychopathic. But he’s dead, his government swept away, and the Cardinal was making unwarranted insinuations about existing governments, including the constitutional republic to which I give allegiance.

avatar robert m. peters November 11, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Mr. Jenkins,

On fora such as these I have found that folks with incommensurable positions cannot find “plausible” common ground. I apprehend that your position and mine are incommensurable.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 13, 2012 at 12:11 am

They may well be, Mr. Peters. But then, our arguments should give each other food for thought. “Iron sharpens iron” is not exclusively a matter between friends. More important, our presentations should be persuasive to those who have yet to adopt either incommensurable position, and are sincerely wondering who might be offering them an approximation of either truth, or workable policy. To declare truth by fiat to the unconverted is not a good strategy, even for evangelism, much less in an open debate unconstrained by royal prerogative.

avatar Rick November 15, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Well Mr Jenkins Mr Peters won me over.

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