Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. With this document, the Church sought to address “the whole of humanity.” In a way, this aspiration was not surprising. Christian doctrine holds that Christ died for the sins of the entire human race, and the gospel message is to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. But Gaudium et Spes introduced a different kind of universalism, one that is eager to speak to the world on its own terms.

This turn reflects a development in the Church’s self-understanding after World War II. In the aftermath of the clerical sex-abuse scandals, it’s difficult for us to appreciate the great moral prestige the Catholic Church enjoyed in the decades after the war. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Catholic figures played crucial roles in rebuilding the moral and political cultures of Germany and Italy. During the same decades, the United Nations had not yet shown itself to be the useless charade that it now plainly is. Many in the West invested great hopes in that international body.

Thus, the mid-century Church tended strongly toward internationalism, as it was then called. Church leaders were keen to buttress the authority of the ­United Nations and other international agencies. Gaudium et Spes champions these causes and goes so far as to call for a “universal public authority” that will “completely outlaw” war. (John Paul II and Benedict XVI reiterated this aspiration on various occasions.)

Gaudium et Spes is not without counter-emphases. The text consistently speaks of a “community of nations,” and it does not suggest a post-national future. The Council was held during a time of rapid decolonization. Gaudium et Spes supported that process, which often featured strident third-world nationalism. In one section, it defines a “right” to one’s own culture. Yet the same document endorses the development of “a more universal form of human culture.” It also envisions something like today’s regime of globalized experts running whole sectors of society in accord with objective and scientific principles. These tensions are typical of the Catholic outlook when it comes to the political realities of the contemporary world. But the tilt was toward what is now known as globalism.

In my estimation, this mix of commitments did not serve the Church well in the second half of the twentieth century. During the 1960s, those in the Catholic hierarchy, like so many others, were deeply concerned about the arms race and the threat of catastrophic nuclear war. This was a major reason for urging the establishment of a “universal public authority.” As the decades played out, however, nuclear war was prevented not by the United Nations, with its high-­minded rhetoric, but by nation-states pursuing a strategy of deterrence under responsible leadership. The same nations negotiated arms reductions and other measures to forestall potential conflicts. Strong nations, not ­international bodies, successfully managed the threat of nuclear war.

Mid-century Catholic leaders also vested a great deal of confidence in international agencies to press forward the economic development of impoverished regions of the world. That confidence was misplaced. In the event, the countries where international agencies ­penetrated most deeply have languished, while China, which always kept the “international community” at arm’s length, has seen remarkable growth.

Before his election to the papacy, John Paul II was frustrated by the Vatican’s diplomacy toward the ­Eastern bloc. Prudence, Vatican officials argued, requires ­finding a modus vivendi that downplays troublesome issues. The Polish cardinal knew otherwise. But even as the head of the Church, he had difficulty bringing his diplomats in line with his own more confrontational approach.

John Paul II did end runs around the Vatican bureaucracy. Perhaps he knew that administrators and functionaries operate in accord with an age-old truth: Like seeks like. Gigantic global corporations such as Google want to relate to global public authorities and international bureaucrats, not to sovereign countries. The same holds for the Vatican. The Catholic Church is the oldest bureaucracy in the West. It’s natural that Roman officials would wish to meet with their secular ­equivalents—one reason why the previous generation was comfortable with representatives of the Soviet Union. Today, the Vatican would rather deal with Davos executives, E.U. bureaucrats, and NGO heads who share their global outlook and their preference for top-down administrative solutions, than with populist politicians who represent nationalist passions.

The Church’s globalist tilt is likely to change. Christianity is indifferent to political forms. It has functioned in empires, fiefdoms, kingdoms, republics, and authoritarian states, supporting and criticizing political trends and outlooks in accord with historically particular judgments about specific dangers and opportunities. For example, the nineteenth-century Church opposed revolutionary modernity, seeing that it promoted religious indifference and dissolved the traditional social authorities that kept the different social classes in relative harmony.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there were obvious reasons to take a dim view of European nationalism, which accordingly superseded “liberalism” as the Church’s most significant concern. Nationalism had played a leading role in two devastating wars. For this reason, the Church became a staunch ally of the internationalist faction in the West. The postwar situation also allied the Church with a moderate liberalism, which went under the name of Christian Democracy.

But we do not live in 1945, or for that matter 1965, when Gaudium et Spes was adopted. Today, the problems of the West flow from the weakening of institutions that are vested with authority. The most important are the family, the Church, and the “polity,” or civic life. We are living in a time of unprecedented infertility in the rich world. It is also a time in which we observe unprecedented indifference toward transcendence, the waning of patriotism, and the multicultural fragmentation of society.

The weakening of authoritative institutions, including the nation, means that demands for loyalty and sacrifice become weak as well. In this cultural context, a pallid individualism prevails that is concerned ­only with maximizing utility. The heroic humanism of ­Immanuel Kant is a thing of the past. His clarion call for enlightenment—“Dare to know!”—rings hollow. The West is today demoralized and decadent, satisfied with Netflix, Uber Eats, widely available pot, and cheap holidays.

I wrote a book, Return of the Strong Gods, about our descent into acedia, the despairing condition of believing that there exists nothing of metaphysical importance to rouse our souls. I won’t bore you by recounting my argument. It is sufficient to reiterate the main ­thesis: The American-led reconstruction of the West after World War II emphasized “open ­society” motifs that sought to weaken the convictions and institutions that command loyalty and demand sacrifice. Intellectuals such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno deemed these convictions and institutions “crypto-fascist,” a judgment widely echoed by mainstream liberals. The dominant consensus made a simple promise: If nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight.

Pope Benedict coined the term “dictatorship of relativism” to describe this consensus, and to indicate the spiritual dead-end to which we have come. Under his leadership, the Vatican reasserted the universal lordship of Christ. Benedict himself called for more dignified and transcendent styles of worship. These are theological affirmations that seek to buttress the capacity of the Church to command loyalty and encourage sacrifice.

The Catholic Church is a giant battleship. It turns slowly, often very slowly. At this juncture, the Church often treats the documents of the Second Vatican Council, now sixty years old, as if they had been written yesterday. The current pontificate is deeply nostalgic. Pope Francis often emphasizes permission rather than prohibition, and he surrounds himself with people who act as though it were always 1965. The Church in Germany seems committed to the further weakening of the authority of the sacred.

Nevertheless, the overall direction is clear. In my travels, I can report a growing consensus that, as a priest friend put it, “We live in a season in which we need to rebuild the walls of the Church.” John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, which strongly affirms the authority of moral truth, continues to exercise powerful influence. The Church has become more outspoken in defense of marriage, the family, and the created difference between men and women. Even Pope Francis has joined the side of “wall-building,” by describing transgender ideology as “demonic.”

In short, we’re seeing a significant shift in emphasis. In the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council, theologians and clergy treated the old form of Catholic piety in the same way secular leaders treated the old patriotism. They thought it was overdone and an impediment to fuller, more open ways of living. As a consequence, they “problematized” church authority and emphasized “open faith” motifs analogous to the “open society” themes of postwar secular elites. But this approach is falling by the wayside. Today, we’re entering a period of theological and moral reconsolidation—wall-building, as it were.

As the winds of change blow, I predict a growing skepticism about globalism within the Church. Globalism is a dissolving project that aims to weaken national loyalties and create a New Man, the proverbial “global citizen.” But the “global community” is an abstraction that demands no concrete loyalty. The Church ­transcends nations, to be sure. But church leaders intuitively recognize that faith flourishes in a culture of love and loyalty, not in a universal utilitarian paradise ruled by public health officials and central bankers.

The West needs a politics of love in order to cure its spiritual torpor. Populism and other movements champion the nation as worthy of our loyalty. These political uprisings against globalism are invitations to love again: to love who we are and what we might become as a people. This trend frightens those weaned on the open society motifs that see fascism in anything ardent and affirming. But we are living in 2021, not 1939. In an era when Greta Thunberg is our prophet, we are permitted only the diminished hope of “sustainability,” which is not hope in the future but a desperate aspiration to keep what we now have. Renewing faith and buttressing the family are the royal roads to any lasting remedy. But restoring metaphysical density to political life is important as well. And in view of our history, a sensible nationalism is the most promising way to recover the sacred character of our civic covenants.

The Catholic faithful and their pastoral leaders are not stupid. They sense that there is a “seamless garment” of love and loyalty. Renewing the nation’s claim on our hearts is subordinate to the Church’s main task, which is to renew the authority of the moral law over our society and to deepen our obedience to God. But to speak of something as secondary does not mean it is unimportant. Matteo Salvini may have been ­cynically calculating when he waved his rosary beads at a ­political rally. Politicians often are. But the symbolism is not false. Faith, family, and nation are different and must be distinguished. But they are linked by a pattern of loyalty and sacrifice. It’s a pattern we need to recover.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT

♦ Over the last year, the American bishops prepared a document on the Eucharist, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Its theme implicates hot-button issues, such as whether ardent pro-abortion politicians should receive Communion. In the weeks preceding its adoption at a meeting of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic University of America professor Msgr. Kevin Irwin disparaged the draft document for employing “a Tridentine framework, not a Vatican II framework.” Loyola University Maryland theology professor Fritz Bauerschmidt observed in response:

Last time I checked Trent was a Council of the Church (and, in my judgment, a rather splendid one that bore much good fruit), so associating something with that council should not be disqualifying—just as describing someone’s Trinitarian theology as “Nicene” should be seen as a compliment, not a criticism.

♦ In The Shattering of Loneliness, Erik Varden, who was recently appointed bishop of Trondheim with pastoral responsibility for all Catholics in Norway, made an observation germane to our ongoing debates about the reception of Communion:

To be worthy is not to be blameless: the Eucharist is not a prize for good behavior. To be worthy is to assent to the realization of Christ’s example in my life—to commit to the newness of it. The Lord does not seek instant perfection. But he requires coherence in the way we live. There is no way of watering down that expectation.

♦ In anticipation of November’s USCCB meeting in Baltimore, J. D. Flynn meditated on the fact that it would be the first in-person meeting for the Conference since the pandemic threw so much of life onto Zoom and other virtual technologies:

After the last few years, it is clear to most of us that gathering in the Lord’s name must include the actual gathering, at least if it is to be fruitful. It’s not just that the meta-verse is not real human engagement. It is that online and virtual engagement may be worse than nothing—may well gamify our relationships and depersonalize our disagreements, in a way that allows us to focus on scoring points, beating the level, or winning the day, no matter the cost.

♦ Air pollution can be terrible in New Delhi. In response to a recent upsurge, India’s Supreme Court called for a lockdown of the region that included prohibition of nonessential travel and the closure of offices. We were forewarned. Last year, jaundiced observers who place little trust in today’s expansive ranks of “experts” noted that the techniques of social control deployed during the pandemic would become regular features of our lives, employed to address other problems that are deemed emergencies.


♦ Ivan Illich in Limits to Medicine (1974): “Under the stress of crisis, the professional who is believed to be in command can easily presume immunity from ordinary rules of justice and decency.”


♦ In a justly merited tirade against our ideologically bankrupt universities, Victor Davis Hanson observes that government policy has enabled a great deal of bad behavior:

Never have universities been more able financially to subsidize and guarantee their own student loans. And yet they have outsourced that responsibility to federal guaranteed student loan programs. The result of that moral hazard of never being held accountable for rampant inflationary spikes in tuition, room, and board costs, is that universities over the last 30 years spent like drunken sailors on non-­essentials: from diversity czars to in loco parentis therapeutic “centers” to Club Med accommodations—even as at the core test scores dived, grade inflation soared, and graduates increasingly did not impress employers.

The solution is to end the subsidy racket. Colleges and universities with endowments exceeding $100,000 per student should be required to fund their own student loan programs.


♦ We need bold action in primary and secondary education as well. James Hankins observes:

The decline in both the quality and sanity of public schools in recent decades has now, thanks to the experiences of 2020-21, become obvious to many more parents and concerned citizens. The Justice Department’s recent attempt to intimidate parents who dare to protest the spread of Critical Race Theory has raised the potential cost of trying to reform public schools. You could find yourself in an FBI database if you cross your local school district. You can be smeared and even arrested for questioning transgender bathroom policies. It’s time to organize a major exit from unionized public schools. It’s time for Edexit.

When you’re going in the wrong direction, the first step in correcting course is to stop—which, on the super­highway of the educational infrastructure erected over the last century, means steering toward the exit ramp.


♦ Here’s what Vanderbilt University professor ­Michael Eric Dyson had to say on MSNBC about the election of Republican Winsome Sears as lieutenant governor of Virginia: “To have a Black face speaking on behalf of a White supremacist legacy is nothing new.” One marvels at the viciousness even more than the partisanship.


♦ It is with deep regret that I note the death of Gerald Russello after his long struggle with brain cancer. A lawyer by day, Gerald was a writer and editor by night. For the last decade, he served as editor of the University Bookman. The Bookman was founded by Russell Kirk in 1960, and Gerald sustained its tradition of artful reviews in the digital age. He often wrote for us, including authoring one of my favorite accounts of New York life, “Leaving Brooklyn” (April 2013). As with Kirk, whom he knew and admired, Gerald’s interest in ideas was thankfully not theoretical and academic. A man of letters, a family man, and a man of the Church, he was among the happiest warriors I’ve met. His smile was as broad as his soul was gentle. May God’s perpetual light shine upon him.


♦ Drew Nelson and Mike Schutt would like to form a ROFTERS group in Mount Pleasant, Texas. You can join by contacting them at schutt.mike@gmail.com.


♦As you read this issue, our year-end fundraising campaign will be in full swing. We are decidedly non-profit. As Jay Rosenberger, our accountant for more than two decades, liked to say, “You’d lose a lot less money if you got rid of that magazine.” All of this is to say that First Things relies upon the generosity of its readership to thrive. Please make a donation as 2021 ends. If you have already done so, please accept my gratitude for your ­support.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines