This reflection begins from an obvious fact in our experience of the world as we find it nowadays: the struggle we have to communicate and to work with one another, resulting even in conflict or, worse, indifference. This starts at the level of the family, which increasingly often ends up reduced to a group of “customers” with a claim only to each other’s services (cf Pope Francis in 2016), and the same thing is being found step by step in the various levels and spheres of social life, civil and ecclesial.
In the last few weeks we have heard in Italy, news of teenagers being violent towards their teachers, with their parents often making excuses for them if not positively encouraging them.
A few days ago there also came news of the sudden death, at only twenty-eight years of age, of the famous Swedish DJ Tim Bergling, known by his stage name Avicii (which in Sanskrit means ‘without waves’, and refers in Buddhism to the lowest level of hell!). A genuine musical talent, he was sadly a victim of his own success and of the merciless pressures of celebrity: though fame appears to be a display of greatness, of omnipotence, it ends up enslaving those who enjoy it (“… for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved”: 2 Peter 2:19).
Again, these past few days have seen the incredible case of little Alfie Evans from Liverpool, UK, whose parents were only asking for what is a sacred right of every human being: to look after their own child, who is above all a gift and a child of God, and to surround him with love and dignity to the end.
These difficulties are part of human nature and reveal its limits; sadly, though, more and more they seem to be accompanied by a sort of unbounded individualism which leads people to become isolated from their fellow human beings and to create their own world which others must simply accept without question if they want to avoid conflict. Going a step further in this direction, whole theories are sometimes developed to justify this kind of situation.
Of course, these observations shouldn’t just be taken as confirmation of the naive assumption that the past was better than the present (cf Eccl 7:10); at the same time, though, in the light of history, we can see we are dealing with an innovation the scale and intensity of which is producing previously unseen results. My intention in this article is to try to capture the essence of this ‘innovation’, with the hope that this will make it possible to search for ways out of what increasingly appears to be a dangerous dead end – a dead end for human dignity and for our relations with each other at the level of society, and thus a dead end for our present age and any possible future.
In fact modernity, and our own times in particular, are marked, compared to the past, by an increasing struggle to reconcile the centrality of the human person with the notions of respect and tolerance which characterise that cultural and ethical pluralism that can often (and intentionally) develop into full-blown relativism. Indeed the two ideas often end up in direct opposition. Cultural relativism and ethical pluralism are often considered, especially in some Church circles, to be the real problems of the present day; looking at the question in more detail, though, we see that these are only consequences of the real problem, which is an increasingly absolute and intransigent individualistic assertion of the person as subject; this in turn leads to an increasing ethical subjectivism (cf D. Bonhoeffer). Whoever asserts the need to reaffirm the centrality of the human person – as we all do – then has to deal with the issue of how people subjectively determine ‘their truth’ and ‘their values’. In such a process there is always the risk – which experience shows to be only too common – of a thoroughgoing ethical subjectivism, which in fact undermines the social nature of human beings. This, then, is the real danger. Indeed, the devastating effects which we observe in every level and sphere of society are not so much the consequences of ethical pluralism as of subjectivity conceived of as absolute and infinite; this develops into an ethical subjectivism imprisoned by the ego which undermines or instrumentalises every kind of relationship. Pushed to its conclusion, it seeks to justify the absurd: human beings, finite beings, claim a freedom which is infinite! Thus, if we affirm the centrality – the primacy – of the human person, we must also be aware of where this can lead, especially if it is not correctly presented or if we don’t take account of how most people might understand it (cf G. De Rita in 2003).
This centrality of the human person can lead to the situation where each individual, as subject, works out questions and ethical choices in a completely self-referential way without making any connection to objective truths (whether at the level of reason or of faith). This is the human spirit as conceived of by Kant, Hegel, Comte, Nietzsche, Marx and Rousseau (respectively the transcendental ego, the absolute spirit, Humanity, the Übermensch, the working class, the liberal-democratic state). In all these accounts, it is in the end the human spirit which ‘creates’ truth and establishes what is true and false, good and evil, just and unjust, Law and misrule. What is more, since the human spirit exists in time, the truth it determines changes as times and circumstances change. In fact, today the idea of truth has been replaced by that of change, progress, desire, feeling, emotion (cf Benedict XVI in 2009): there is a conviction that it is impossible for anyone to attain the truth, or for truth to be something objective which establishes limits that cannot be ignored. In practice this leads people, at all sorts of different levels, to ignore matters of substance and limit themselves to mere technical formalities. As regards Law, for example, one only has to think of how it has been distorted by positivism and legal formalism, brought to their logical conclusion in the theory of H. Kelsen. The result of such an ersatz concept of Law is the ‘fragile’ law we see in our societies, where Law is understood essentially as a technical matter, a system not of values but of rules which can be used to impose wishes founded either on nothing or on the ideological vision of the majority in pursuit of all sorts of different interests, but definitely not justice, the common good, or the defence of the defenceless. In other words, we see that contemporary legal relativism which sees the conscience as created not to ‘recognise’ the truth but to ‘create’ it.
Staying with the law, the inappropriate reliance on ‘consensus’ in its production and interpretation comes to mind; such consensus is often directly opposed to the evidence, to the force of argument, and to the application of general principles of Law and Justice. After all, it only requires a little common sense (which, as has often been noted, is surprisingly uncommon) to see that consensus has as much to do with ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ as it does with the assertion that two plus two makes four! (cf S. Cotta).
The dominant culture today tries to convince us that conscience is entirely subjective and thus that the notion of truth must be entirely relativistic. More than ever, the concept of the moral conscience is used in such ambiguous and distorted ways that it ends up as a mere caricature or ideological tool. To use a common image, we can imagine it as being like a blanket which is too small and which everyone is pulling in different directions: the risk is that what should have been wrapped up with care ends up being left uncovered! Cardinal Newman brilliantly described moral conscience as our heart’s openness to knowing with Another (litterally: con-scientia); this is what in the end makes the difference compared to a merely self-referential life impregnated, not to say intoxicated, with relativism. Modernity’s myth of progress is in fact proposed as a substitute or alternative for truth, but there is one rather important detail missing: progress in which direction? For whom and for what?
In contemporary culture everything is tending to become more subjective, in the sense of the absolute assertion of free will (understood to mean I do whatever I want, whatever makes me feel good, forgetting that that’s not the same thing as what truly is good); in this context we need to remember and somehow communicate that these subjective choices are expressions of a person. Such persons have a nature which they have received (or, at the very least, which they did not give themselves); this nature has properties and needs which mean this kind of subjectivism is only possible at a heavy cost to individuals themselves and to the community. In other words, it needs to be made clear that people are not, and cannot be, a ‘law unto themselves’. Consequently, they are not and cannot behave as finite beings with infinite and absolute aspirations which stand in opposition to those of other people, as though they were completely closed in on themselves like a true and proper ‘monad’.
This is the context in which the illuminating and liberating truth of the Gospel needs to be announced. This is the task of the ‘new evangelisation’, new not in its contents but in its methods (cf St. John Paul II): to help people to recover the sense of being members of a community and to recognise for what it really is the temptation to be ‘monads’ condemned to loneliness by their own selfishness. If evangelisation doesn’t succeed in convincing people of this, we will continue to have ‘meetings’ and ‘gatherings’, but not communities or congregations of people, of citizens, or even of Christians. So the real challenge today is not so much to reaffirm the centrality of the human person but to ask ourselves how we can train and develop the exercise of our subjectivity in ways which respect our own dignity and that of others. Recent centuries have held almost dogmatically to the ideology that “reason unites and faith divides”. Intellectual honesty, however, requires that we ask what sort of reason and what sort of faith we are talking about. If reason is understood as something unique, infinite, and self-referential, I believe it will set people against each other much more than faith or religion can. On the other hand, reason which recognises that it has been created with obvious limits and allows itself to be enlightened by true faith in the God of Jesus Christ (who welcomed and loved everyone) does lead to respect and solidarity between members of a community – in other words, to that ‘ongoing conversion’, despite our human weakness and poverty, of which we read in the Acts of the Apostles.
Precisely on this point we find that faith in Christ can be a great help in the search for ways out of the contemporary crisis of identity. “Credo ut intelligam”, I believe in order that I may understand, said St Anselm of Canterbury. Vatican II teaches: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come (Rom 5:14), namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown. He Who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man” (Gaudium et spes 22).
“The words that I have quoted are clear testimony to the fact that man cannot be manifested in the full dignity of his nature without reference – not only on the level of concepts but also in an integrally existential way – to God. Man and man’s lofty calling are revealed in Christ through the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love” (Dives in misericordia, n. 1). As is clear from both the Old and the New Testament (cf Gen 2-3; Ecclus 17:1-15; Rom 7:21; Matt 25:31-46) read in the light of Tradition and the Magisterium, the Catholic Church – and thus all the baptised – are called to witness to the reason why there is evil in the world, and to the fact that only in Christ do evil, suffering and death find a meaning and even become, in a mysterious way, a pledge of hope. The real challenge is to convince our contemporaries that Christ alone gives freedom, because he alone is the true Saviour. This can only come about through an unabridged proclamation of the faith, avoiding those rigorous or lax interpretations which if not downright heretical, are always ideological and a betrayal of Christ’s command (cf Matt 28:16-20). The situation and the mentality of today’s society means that we need to be clearer than ever about how to target the new evangelisation at the culture into which it is being preached, but we need to do so aware that we, as believers, have genuinely good news to offer. There should be no doubt that the Catholic faith preserves other cultures as they meet and confront each other, and not the other way round. This dialogue with the world requires clarity on the identity and mission which Christ entrusted to his Church as a steward not a mistress (cf 1 Cor 4:1). We should not delude ourselves into thinking that everyone will always accept this message; on the contrary, if that does happen, our suspicions ought to be raised (cf Jn 15:8-27).
In conclusion, I would like to offer some quotations from two works of G. K. Chesterton and from an excellent film (which I recommend everyone to watch); I hope these will provide an impulse for continued reflection on the importance in our life – the only one we have – of having true values and recognising them for what they are: i.e. ‘a good for me’, something to be lived out in our daily life so that it might make sense to each of us and make a difference to others.
“Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape. We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed” (Heretics).
Ours is an age which mistakes insanity for reason, narcissism for love, suicide for martyrdom (cf Orthodoxy).
At the end of the film, William Hundert, the teacher who is the film’s main character, addresses his former pupil who has yet again cheated in the Mr. Julius Caesar contest (an ancient history quiz):
“All of us, at some point, are forced to look at ourselves in the mirror, and see who we really are. And when that day comes for you, Sedgewick, you will be confronted with a life lived without virtue, without principle. And for that I pity you. End of lesson”.
(The Emperor’s Club , dir. Michael Hoffman, based the short story by Ethan Canin).
Fr. Bruno Esposito, O. P. (many thanks to Fr. Gregory Pearson, O.P. for the English translation).