The ground is shaking under our feet. What we once thought stable is giving way.
Consider our political culture. When I was young, the Democratic party was the working-class party with a base in ethnic urban centers, while the Republican party was the Wall Street and main street party. But in the last electoral cycle, Democrats won 42 of the 50 richest congressional districts in the country, and Republicans did well in districts with a high percent of only high school-educated voters. It would be too simplistic to say the parties have exchanged places. But things are certainly in flux.
Older, culturally established forms of Christianity and Judaism have eroded. Increasingly, young people grow up without connections to religious traditions at all. At the same time, young people gravitate toward neo-traditional modes of piety. Orthodox Judaism has grown dramatically in the last generation. The Latin Mass has become popular among young Catholics. One could say, therefore, that there is religious polarization today as well.
As Michael Hanby has rightly insisted, in these circumstances our first duty is to think. In my view, the current bishop of Rome is on the wrong course. Relaxing the Church’s disciplines on divorce and blurring the clarity of Church teaching on sexual morality make no sense in 2018, when the sexual revolution defines the cruel, punitive, and failing establishmentarian outlook. But I strive not to let myself be swallowed by frustration. We need to think: How did it come to this? What is at stake in these Church battles? How can historical and theological knowledge deepen our understanding?
The same is true for so-called populism and other political distempers. I have my views on politics, as we all should. It is fitting for citizens in a democratic polity to take sides in partisan contests. But it’s much more important to return to our best traditions to gain perspective. How does the notion of solidarity illuminate our present political turmoil? What do we mean by the common good? To what extent does liberalism reflect biblical themes—and to what extent has it become a rival religion?
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus liked to quote Samuel Johnson’s observation that men do not need so much to be instructed as reminded. In these times of political and religious turmoil, we need to return again and again to first principles. Innocent life always needs to be defended. Men and women are different, and their complementarity in marriage is the foundation of society. God is living and active in our lives. Our final end and true happiness rests in filial obedience to his will for us.
First Things remains true to these and other core principles. I am hopeful for the future. The disruptions of the present moment offer an opportunity. As the old truisms give way, what could not be heard just two or three years ago suddenly becomes relevant and urgent. As the old establishments fail, the religious truths that had been pushed to the margins can return to the center. Now is the time for us to think boldly and speak with confidence.
As 2018 draws to a close, I look back and am proud of our staff and contributors. Not everything we published was luminous, perspicuous, and sagacious. Sometimes we misfired. But on the whole First Things has been able to offer a place for calm, serious, ambitious, and courageous reflection in our very uncertain times.
As this year draws to a close, you too can express your thanks by making a contribution. First Things needs you just as much as we need our committed staff and talented writers. Please make a contribution. And thanks for being a reader and supporter.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
Photo by Justin Brendel.