A vignette from Victorian England offers a good starting point for thinking about the current state of the Western civilizational project.
The place: the village of Olton in England’s West Midlands. The date: October 2, 1873. The occasion: the dedication of a new Catholic seminary, St. -Bernard’s. And in that age of magnificent ecclesiastical oratory, the preacher is a man whose sermons are still read, studied, and prayed over today: John Henry Newman, a founder of the reforming Oxford Movement within the Church of England, whose study of church history had led him into full communion with the Catholic Church three decades earlier.
The seminary’s opening was a moment of great satisfaction for those with living memories of Great Britain’s harsh, anti-Catholic penal laws. Surely the dedication of such an institution meant a tide had turned. Hadn’t Newman himself—speaking to the first provincial council of English bishops in 1852, two years after the English Catholic hierarchy was restored after a hiatus of almost three centuries—preached a sermon entitled “The Second Spring,” anticipating a new era of Catholic vitality in English history? The dedication of the Olton seminary made the future look bright, as Catholics took their place in an increasingly tolerant British society that, notwithstanding its remaining prejudices, seemed deeply biblical and thoroughly Christian.
Yet Father Newman did not offer the celebratory remarks many were expecting in his Olton sermon. Rather, he described in stark terms the challenges future priests trained at St. Bernard’s would face:
I know that all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds, alive to the honor of God and the needs of men, are apt to consider no times as perilous as their own. . . . And all times have their special trials which others have not. And . . . I will admit that there were certain specific dangers to Christians at certain other times, which do not exist in this time . . . Still, I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory [the Great], or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has gone before it . . . [For] Christianity has never yet had the experience of a world simply irreligious.
What did Newman mean by “a world simply irreligious”? He certainly knew that there were many pious men and women in late-nineteenth-century England, including luminous Christian spirits like his former Anglican comrade-in-arms, Edward Pusey. And were he alive today, Newman would surely recognize that, for all the inroads secularization has made in the past one hundred and fifty years, there are many devout souls in the West: Jews and Christians for whom faith in the God of the Bible continues to inspire lives of decency, honor, courage, and compassion. What Newman meant by “a world simply irreligious” was not, then, a world without religious believers. Rather, he meant a world in which biblical faith and the biblical view of human nature, human community, human origins, and human destiny no longer shaped culture, society, and public life in a decisive way. What Newman saw aborning was a flattened human landscape: a world without transcendent reference points of any sort.
This was indeed something new. Biblical religion had long contended with false gods, superstitions, and heresies. Something different and ominous was now shaping the future, Newman suggested. What was coming was a claustrophobic world without windows, doors, or skylights; a world of spiritual emptiness that human beings could only organize against one another; a world in which the biblical view of the human person would be regarded as a grave threat to a more decent future. Such a world, Newman feared, would be far more inhumane than anything found in the classical world he knew so well. And that spiritually vacuous world would be all the more dangerous because of an unwarranted confidence in its power to facilitate personal happiness, a just society, and endless progress.
Eighty years and two world wars later, another English Catholic, the cultural historian Christopher Dawson, picked up where Newman had left off. Postwar Western civilization, Dawson insisted, was not “pagan.” Paganism was replete with religious sentiment. Something else was going on in the mid-twentieth-century West. The millions who had abandoned biblical religion did not adhere to another community of transcendent allegiance that affirmed truths built into the human condition—truths that disclosed our duties and pointed the path to human flourishing. Those who had abandoned biblical religion existed in what Dawson, borrowing an image from World War I, described as a spiritual no-man’s land: a killing ground of the spirit in which the satisfaction of personal desire was the sole focus of life. The usually mild-mannered Dawson described the future such hollowed-out souls would create in withering terms: “A secular society that has no end beyond its own satisfaction is a monstrosity—a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself.”
And lest anyone imagine that such judgments are confined to dour Englishmen unhappy with modernity, consider this definition of “civilization” offered just a few months ago by historians Allen Guelzo and James Hankins, of Princeton and Harvard respectively:
A civilization is a complex system of customs, practices, and beliefs that binds a society or a family of societies together over long periods of time. To survive, a civilization needs to have the means to defend itself, usually militarily and diplomatically, from external threats. It needs systems of internal order, usually defined by customs, laws, and magistrates. Above all, it needs moral and spiritual resources that generate loyalty to recognized authorities and allow individuals to actualize their full potential as human beings.
The “world simply irreligious” that Newman foresaw and that is now unmistakably with us in the sense he intended—a world without readily available transcendent reference points in both personal and public life—is not a world in which human beings can flourish, live freely and nobly, and create communities of solidarity. That is the crux of the crisis of Western civilization today—indeed of world civilization today. For if Western civilization is so emptied of its foundational, constituting spiritual and moral ballast that it cannot lead world civilization into the future, other forces, hostile to freedom and bearing distorted notions of solidarity, will do so.
The civilization of the West rests on three mutually reinforcing pillars: Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. What we know as “the West” was formed by biblical religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law.
Beginning with the books of Genesis and Exodus, biblical religion taught the West that the world is not an accident of cosmic biochemical forces and that history is going somewhere; that we are creatures with a noble origin and a noble destiny, creatures whose strivings are adventure and pilgrimage, not cyclical and meaningless repetition—or, worse, just one damn thing after another. The ancient Greek philosophers taught the West that there are truths built into the world and into us that are accessible to human reason—truths that enlighten the human pilgrimage through history; truths that form a “grammar” by which people of different casts of mind can engage one another in serious conversation and debate, leading to increased understanding and the enrichment of culture. The Roman Republic taught the West that the rule of law is superior to sheer coercion in ordering society and conducting public affairs. These three great lessons interacted over the centuries to produce the civilization of the West (including what was best in the various European Enlightenments) and the political expression of Western civilization that is democracy.
Each of these three pillars of the Western civilizational project is now wobbling, if not crumbling. And the consequences for the democratic project are not pretty. The biblical concept of the human person no longer underwrites our civilization. Culture and society today are shaped far more by an expressive individualism in which goodness, truth, and beauty are redefined and dumbed down into manifestations of a personal willfulness detached from any “givens” in the human condition—including the “givens” encoded in our chromosomes. Confidence in reason and its capacity to get us to the truth of things has been displaced by the postmodern notion that there is “your truth” and “my truth” but nothing properly describable as the truth—a prescription for massive cognitive dissonance throughout culture and society. And the noble idea of the law as a precept mandated by reason and enacted by a properly constituted authority for the common good is too often displaced in our time by the notion of law as the bludgeon by which expressive individualism is imposed on all of society.
It is tempting to think that what is afoot within and among Western nations today—the loss of confidence in democracy; irrational conspiracy theories across the spectrum of political opinion; the triumph of woke idiocies in high culture and much of the corporate world; the disdain for our history and traditions in institutions of higher learning; an intolerant cancel culture causing intellectual mayhem at all levels of education; the ubiquity of grievance-based and resentment-driven identity politics; the implosion of reasonable debate; the division of the media into ideological silos; and a public space dominated by what George F. Will aptly calls the “survival of the shrillest”—is susceptible to more-or-less ready fixes, if only certain cringe-inducing personalities would disappear and the public temperature be commensurately lowered. It would be comforting if that were the case. And perhaps certain challenges in the realm of public policy could begin to be seriously addressed if adult voices once again came to the fore in our public life. Such a development would be entirely welcome; but it would provide only a temporary remedy. The deeper problems we face would remain. For the crisis of the West in the mid-twenty-first century is only secondarily political. It is primarily cultural and spiritual.
Public life and its expression in politics are always downstream from culture. And if the ideas of the human person and authentic human community and the narratives about human origins and human destiny that dominate a culture are so distorted that they falsify reality, then the resulting politics will be rancid and ultimately self-destructive. Guelzo and Hankins put the matter stringently but accurately when they warn that, if the West’s spiritual and moral capital is finally displaced by the cultural forces that identify “progress” with the satisfaction of any and all desires, “we will not have entered some brave new world. We will have compassed our own destruction. What the barbarian hordes of ancient and medieval times were unable to accomplish, we will have done to ourselves.” Yale historian Timothy Snyder agrees, lamenting that we have come to think that “freedom . . . is about giving in to impulse, and complaining when that is not possible . . . [And when] we see no difference between freedom and instinct, the story of freedom ends.”
Who in the mid-twenty-first century might raise the alarm about these corrosive tendencies in our culture and summon the West to spiritual and cultural renewal?
In 1870, when the last fragment of the Papal States was conquered by the forces of the Risorgimento and absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy, the great and the good of that era assumed that the papacy was finished as a consequential actor in world affairs. That relegation of the world’s oldest institutional office to the trash heap of history turned out to be a bit premature. Stripped of the usual attributes of power, the papacy was not in fact powerless once it discovered the power of truth-telling and moral witness. Thus, in our own time, a truth-telling pope helped ignite a revolution of conscience in central and eastern Europe that was instrumental in shaping the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of European communism.
The papacy today does not command the kind of power that stopped an Ottoman invasion of Europe 450 years ago at the Battle of Lepanto. But under John Paul II, the papacy of the late twentieth century deployed a potent form of soft power to bend the course of history in a more humane direction, helping end the Cold War and opening new possibilities for the responsible exercise of freedom and the development of solidarity within and among nations. Those possibilities remain to be acted upon, and our failure to seize those opportunities since 1989 has led to many of the wounds in the body politic today. Those wounds will not be healed, however, nor will our post–Cold War possibilities be actualized, if the West remains in its present state of spiritual malaise and cultural decay. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (Ignatius Press), I sketched what a future Bishop of Rome might do for the ongoing reform and revitalization of Catholicism. Here, I shall widen the lens and ask how the papacy of the future might help the West recover from what most deeply ails us. What kind of papacy do we all—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, others—need?
We all need a countercultural papacy, challenging the Zeitgeist rather than reflecting it.
Meeting between 1962 and 1965, the Second Vatican Council asked the Catholic Church to enter into dialogue with the modern world through a mutual reading of what the Council fathers called “the signs of the times.” That sounded then, and to some it sounds now, rather straightforward. In fact, nothing is more difficult. History is always clearer in the rearview mirror, and to take the temperature of one’s own historical moment is no easy business, especially amid the cacophony we experience today. We all stumble in reading the signs of our own times.
The Council’s reading of the signs of its times in the late-modern world was not flawless. For example, the Council fathers imagined that a mutually enriching dialogue was possible between believers and unbelievers: a dialogue between biblical religion and, say, the morally serious agnosticism exemplified by Albert Camus or the softer atheism of the French Marxist theorist Roger Garaudy. That dialogue, it was hoped, would reopen the conversation about the requisites of a humane modern society, a conversation that had been shut down in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a secularization of the European mind that insisted the God of the Bible was the enemy of human maturation and liberation. What the bishops of Vatican II did not expect was that their openness to a new engagement with those who had not been given (or who had not accepted) the gift of faith would be met with a barely stifled yawn: by, in Newman’s terms, “a world simply irreligious.” Spiritual boredom on the part of one’s anticipated dialogue partners is not, it turns out, conducive to serious conversation.
On the other hand, the Council fathers accurately read the signs of their times, and ours, by teaching that the path to a more humane future could not run through “offenses against life itself, such as . . . genocide, abortion, [and] euthanasia,” which “poison civilization” and “debase the perpetrators” as well as the victims. A truly humane civilization, Vatican II taught, could be built only on a dignitarian understanding of the human person, not a utilitarian one.
The challenge to read the signs of these postmodern times remains. Whatever answering that challenge might mean today, and whatever a dialogue between Catholicism and the postmodern world might involve, it cannot mean a surrender to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. If the Catholicism of the next decades were merely to reflect the spirit of the age—if the Church were to act as if it were another non-governmental organization in the business of good works—it would not only empty itself of its distinctive character and betray its constituting purpose; it would do the world no good service. The postmodern world, “a world simply irreligious,” may wish that the Catholic Church would go down the path pioneered by those liberal Protestant and Reform Jewish communities that have become religious simulacra of progressive NGOs. That would certainly cause less trouble for the world. But it is precisely a countercultural witness and a vigorous cultural challenge that the West needs today. The West needs a Catholic Church and a papacy that calls the West to recover the truths on which our civilization rests, as the basis of cultural renewal and social reform. None of us needs a Catholic Church reflecting a Zeitgeist that treats those foundational truths as poisonous.
We all need a papacy that affirms the goodness of creation, the givenness of things, and the true dignity of the human person.
No civilization can flourish if it lacks contact with reality. And no small part of the contemporary crisis of the West involves a deliberate denial of certain foundational truths the West first learned from the philosophers of ancient Greece: that there is a morally significant givenness to this world, a structure of reality in which truths are embedded; that this structure of what we might call Things As They Are can be known by reason; and that the truths to be discerned by a careful reflection on Things As They Are illuminate the path to righteous living, human flourishing, and social solidarity. A culture that has lost confidence in its capacity to say, with conviction, “This is The Way Things Are” is a culture severely disabled in its capacity to devise The Way Things Ought To Be in the ordering of public life. Why? Because in a culture without a secure grip on Things As They Are, the assertion of personal willfulness dominates the public space to the point that society becomes a wilderness of mirrors in which there are no stable reference points, only conflicting claims to power.
The most corrosive form of this new Gnosticism—this postmodern concept of the infinite plasticity and malleability of the human condition—is gender ideology, which denies the most elemental fact of the human condition: Human beings are male and female by genetic composition. This is not The Way Things Are, gender ideologists insist, in the face of what was once regarded as definitive scientific (not to mention quotidian) evidence. Our “gender” may be “assigned at birth,” they claim. But by an act of will, each of us can determine what and who we really are, and we have the inalienable “right” to use the tools of medical technology to give effect to that “choice.” That there is no scientific evidence that such choices and technological interventions lead to long-term positive mental health outcomes is irrelevant to medical practice or public policy, according to gender ideology. For the only unit of account that gender ideologists (and other proponents of a Gnostic culture that denies any givenness within the human condition) will recognize is personal willfulness.
Vast suffering is being caused by the denial of reality that has long been embedded in the sexual revolution, and that now takes its most destructive form in gender ideology and the transgender movement, as any competent mental health professional will testify. Ideologists of “choice” and gender ideologists may deny the links between their deconstruction of the givenness of things and enormously increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people, especially girls and young women. But the links are there.
The papacy we all need will address all this primarily by affirmation rather than condemnation. Yes, the damage done to young lives by ideologically besotted physicians who perform double-mastectomies on confused and frightened thirteen-year-old girls and genital surgeries on confused and frightened boys as young as fifteen cries out for condemnation. And certain contemporary Catholic voices, driven to despair by the individual suffering and social damage caused by the ideologies of gender and “choice,” yearn for a root-and-branch condemnation of modernity in all its forms. Their concept of the pope we all need is Savonarola 2.0, conducting new bonfires of the vanities.
The cultural crisis of a Gnosticism taking its most prominent form in gender ideology will best be addressed, however, by a reaffirmation of biblical truths about the goodness of creation and the good life. For all its Promethean assertiveness, the postmodern culture of the West displays a drastically diminished sense of human dignity and possibility when it maintains, tacitly or overtly, that the good life involves surrendering to one transient impulse after another on a journey without a goal. But can such impulse-driven aimlessness lead to personal happiness and social solidarity? The distress all around us, in individual lives and in society, suggests that it cannot. And that means that the world, as well as the Church, needs a pope with the courage to proclaim a biblically rooted vision of human possibility grander than what is on offer in “a world simply irreligious.”
That was the “public” mission envisioned for Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council. The Church’s fundamental mission is the proclamation of God’s love for the world, revealed first to the People of Israel and then in a definitive way in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. That basic evangelical task, however, has real effects on culture and society. For as the bishops of Vatican II put it, “Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church does not only communicate divine life to [the world] but in some ways casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues . . . everyday activity . . . with a deeper meaning and importance.”
The pope we all need will remind a world with a diminished sense of human possibility that biblical religion is a matter of encountering a personal mystery of love, in which we learn the deepest and most ennobling truths about the human condition. The pope we all need will confidently proclaim that, even amid the frightening silence of a world turned in upon itself, men and women can hear a divine word, enter into communion with the God of the Bible, and in doing so, “become sharers of the divine nature” (as Vatican II put it in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). A pope who lifts up that striking affirmation—that human beings can rise above their fears to “become sharers of the divine nature”—will offer the twenty-first-century world a vision of human possibility far nobler and more compelling than the degrading notion, so prominent in the West today, that we are all merely twitching bundles of morally equal desires, the satisfaction of which exhausts the meaning of “human rights.” A pope who teaches that human beings are far more than congealed stardust, that we have an eternal destiny beyond history that illuminates the path to individual flourishing and social solidarity within history, will help revive within the West a true humanism of nobler conception and aspiration than anything offered by “a world simply irreligious,” in which humanity has no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.
We all need a papacy that teaches an adult understanding and exercise of freedom.
The spiritual and cultural crisis of the West also manifests itself in a debased and childish notion of freedom: freedom-as-willfulness. One doesn’t normally think of John Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas as a significant contemporary philosopher, but he neatly captured the idea of freedom-as-sheer-willfulness in 1965:
You gotta go where you wanna go
Do what you wanna do
With whoever you wanna do it with.
Nice tune; great vocals; horrible notion of freedom. Yet twenty-eight years later, three justices of the United States Supreme Court affirmed essentially the same thing when, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they opined that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Freedom-as-willfulness is like a child banging on a piano, which is noise, not music. To make music on a piano, one must learn certain disciplines: The mind and the fingers have to be trained, through what are often dull exercises, to turn the notes on a musical score (another form of discipline) into music—a truly human form of expression. Freedom-as-willfulness is like a child babbling. Though we learn our first language and other languages by listening, talking, and making a lot of mistakes, truly human communication happens only when we learn the disciplines—the rules—of grammar and vocabulary, so that we can really converse with others. Freedom-as-willfulness is, in a word, infantilism.
The pope we all need will explain and elevate before the world a far nobler concept of freedom. He will remind the world that freedom is a means to certain ends: to excellence, to happiness, and to the fulfillment of our human destiny—a fulfillment that cannot be reduced to the pleasure principle without vulgarizing the human condition. He will remind the world that freedom has to do with both our reason and our will: that freedom is the capacity to choose wisely what we can know, objectively, to be the good, and to act on that choosing as a matter of habit. The pope we all need will remind the world that the proper exercise of freedom is a growth in virtue, as we respond to the longing for truth, goodness, and happiness built into us.
In doing so, the pope we all need will teach us that freedom tethered to truth and ordered to goodness is the path beyond the social chaos being created throughout the West by a childish notion of freedom-as-willfulness. The pope we all need will teach us how an adult exercise of freedom leads to community and solidarity.
We all need a papacy that does not play international politics by Realpolitik rules.
Hopes that the post–Cold War world would be increasingly defined by a rules-based international order have been severely frustrated by several malign forces: an aggressive China seeking to reverse what it regards as centuries of humiliation; a revanchist Russia led by a murderer who obscenely masquerades as a defender of Christian values; various forms of jihadist Islam, each driven by apocalyptic fantasies. The cultural decay of the West and the attendant collapse of political will within and among leading Western countries have combined to give these destabilizing forces far more maneuvering room than seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In this dangerous situation, the pope we all need will learn the lesson of St. John Paul II’s moral witness and become a defensor hominis: a defender of the inalienable dignity and rights of the human person. The pope we all need will not play Realpolitik games with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, because he will understand that such games only benefit tyrants while undermining the evangelical and moral credibility of the Church and the papacy. The pope we all need will be a voice for those who have no voice because they are locked in Cuban or Nicaraguan prisons, or because they are being brutalized in concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province, or because they have been reduced to penury in Venezuela.
In sum, the pope we all need will lift up hearts that are weighed down by a fear of the future, the deepest cause of which is a loss of confidence in ourselves.
In 1950, William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature with a speech that resonates as powerfully today as it did seven decades ago. Faulkner took the occasion of his Nobel Prize to issue a challenge to the writers who would come after him. They were, he thought, becoming paralyzed in their day by fear of nuclear war. And so, they had “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Unless the writers of the future reclaimed what Faulkner unblushingly called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths . . . [of] love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice,” they would fail. They would write, he said, “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion.” They would write, “not of the heart, but of the glands,” and they would do so because they imagined themselves watching the end of the human story. They would fail because they imagined themselves in a world with no future.
Faulkner refused to accept this, and stated his refusal with eloquence and passion:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
As for the poet and writer, so for the priest who is the Bishop of Rome. The pope we all need is a pope who can say the things William Faulkner said in Stockholm in 1950, and say them from the far greater stage that is Rome. In doing so, that Bishop of Rome will be reclaiming, for the West and for world civilization, the biblical view of the human person so memorably expressed by a Jewish poet of the Iron Age—perhaps King David, perhaps someone else—in Psalm 8:
What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? / Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with honor and glory. / Thou hast given him dominion over the work of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet / all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field / the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea / whatever passes along the paths of the sea.
The cultural crisis of the West will be resolved only by a renewal of faith in the human person—a faith that draws strength from, even as it proclaims, the biblical vision of humanity’s dignity, origins, and destiny, which is so much greater than what postmodern Western culture offers. The pope we all need is a pope who can renew that faith, embody it in his service to the Church and the world, and summon all of us to our duty as renovators of our cultures, our societies, and our politics, building upon the noble truths bequeathed to us by Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay is adapted from his twentieth annual William E. Simon Lecture, delivered on November 1, 2021.