Most Catholics, if they take their faith seriously, harbor some critique of modernity, even if they cannot articulate it in detail. This almost goes without saying, since there is much in modern culture that conflicts with Catholic teaching and the Catholic way of life. Many Catholic converts can trace the path of their conversion back to a period of dissatisfaction with modern culture and with the tenets of liberalism. That’s certainly where I started from on my path back to the Church.
The dynamic of this relationship between faith and culture critique demands some examination, however, since one’s interpretation of Catholic teaching can be intimately tied to one’s critique of modernity, and an error or exaggeration in the latter will often be reflected by an error or exaggeration in the former. Not every Catholic can or should offer exactly the same critique of modernity, but dangers can arise when this critique is so sweeping or apocalyptic as to deform the faith.
Since Vatican II and the landmark Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965), the Church has been engaged in a tense but fruitful dialogue with modernity, but there are some for whom this dialogue seems pointless or even treasonous. They want a Church that sets itself against modernity—all of it. Ironically, those who embrace this antagonistic anti-modern attitude often adopt a culture critique that is similar to that of the most radical modern philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, and their resolutely anti-modern attitude often has more in common with reactionary modernism than it does with Catholic tradition itself. This is not surprising, since we can’t escape the fact that we live in a post-Nietzschean era in the West, after the “death of God” and the widespread collapse of what came to be considered a naïve adherence to traditional values. Any return to tradition risks taking the form of a self-conscious “tradition-ism,” and traditionalists of any kind—not just in the Church—risk becoming the mirror-image of the nihilistic modern culture they excoriate.
This has long been a problem in conservatism in general. I recently came across an article by Robert J. Antonio, from way back in 2000, titled “After Postmodernism: Reactionary Tribalism,” which is remarkably prescient in this respect. Antonio examines the ideas of both the European New Right, as represented by Alain de Beniost, as well as those of American paleoconservatism. Antonio sees correspondences between such forms of “radical conservatism” (43) and what he calls the “strong-program postmodernism” (essentially radical postmodernism) of intellectual movements on the other end of the political spectrum. Characteristic of each is what he calls a “total critique of modernity” or “a highly pessimistic fusion of one-sided Nietzscheanism and one-sided Weberianism that treats modern theory’s hopes about social progress as moribund and portrays profound exhaustion of modern democratic culture and institutions” (43). Both the radical conservatives and the radical postmodernists are engaged in a process of “retribalization” or “a neopopulist resurgence of group identities anchored in ethnic community” (55), ethnic being used here as a broad term to describe “diverse types of ‘tribes’ based on linguistic, religious, racial, and other cultural differences” (55n). Back in 2000, this process of retribalization was not quite as visible as it is now; social media has amplified it and hastened its progress.
It has taken some time for the influence of the “total critique of modernity” to enter twenty-first century Catholicism, although it has been part of Catholicism in the past. It was there in the early twentieth century with the Action Française and their incorporation of Catholicism into an integral French nationalism, and in the later twentieth century with Lefebvrism. Now, fueled especially by the influence of social media and an ascendant populist rightism, some Catholics are once again reverting to a deeply pessimistic view of social institutions and even of the Church itself, bolstered in part by an overbroad and fundamentalist interpretation of Pope Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. The result is something akin to a tribalist Catholicism that is leading a significant minority of Catholics down a very un-Catholic path.
With tribalist Catholicism, the signs and symbols of Catholicism—sacred architecture, the saints, the rosary, the scapular, Latin, the Tridentine Mass, the traditional prayers—are transformed into tribal marks for the culture warrior. Catholic teaching undergoes a semi-Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values,” in which Christian virtues are replaced by something approaching pagan virtues. Mercy is often the first virtue to be transformed, through the creation of an oversimplified distinction between mercy and justice, and an overemphasis on one of the seven spiritual works of mercy: admonishment of the sinner. The latter is exaggerated to the point that mercy becomes almost indistinguishable from cruelty. Christ’s demand to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) is transformed from a call to peacemaking and reconciliation into a martyr-cult mission-statement for those who desire ever-greater intensification of conflict. The pursuit of virtue itself takes on the characteristics of athletic achievement, understood as acts of pure will and determination, with no room for indiscipline. Misogyny creeps in, through both a fetishization of female purity and a disgust with what is seen as feminine softness and emotionalism—especially when it is found in ‘effeminate’ men. There grows a craving for absolute political authority and the punishment, ridicule, and even physical elimination of one’s enemies. Universal values are championed at every opportunity, but are merely pseudo-universal because their adherents have no realistic ambition of them being widely accepted. Apocalypticism becomes the norm, with new apocalyptic moments being recognized every month or week through a paranoid reading of the signs of the times, as filtered through sympathetic media channels. This is less the Church Militant and more the cultural militancy called for by the prophet of both fascism and left-wing radicalism, Georges Sorel.
French philosopher Julien Benda, in 1927, published a book titled La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals) in which he condemned his fellow intellectuals for lending their talents to politics and indulging in a philosophy of masculine, heroic ‘action’ derived from Nietzsche and Sorel. His clercs were not literally clergy, but it appears that some of ours are. Sadly, there are those within the Church hierarchy who actively support this tribalist Catholicism. They appear to be unconcerned with the truth, as they often use defamatory, muckraking Catholic publications as their bullhorns. But why are they doing it, and why do people listen? Benda provides a possible answer: “I do not think I am mistaken when I say that numbers of our moralists who sneer at pacific civilization and extol a warlike life, do so because the former seems a dull sort of a life to them and the latter an opportunity for sensations” (140). It may be that simple.
Benda famously remarked, “Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds. It will be one of its chief claims to notice in the moral history of humanity” (21). How much worse, we might wonder, is the spiritual organization of political hatreds? How will this period in the Church be evaluated, as part of the moral history of humanity? What we are seeing is not a new Reformation, but rather a deformation of Catholicism, and this deformed version of the faith has positioned itself against the pope and the living Magisterium of the Church, both of which stand as bulwarks against tribalism.
What is the solution? First, adherence to the living Magisterium and submission to the Holy Father, which provide protection against the allure of political orthodoxies of any kind. They require patience, humility, a questioning of one’s own prejudices, and faith in the indefectibility of the Church. Second, we should question all sweeping critiques of modernity that adopt an apocalyptic tone, and which portray modern culture as a nihilistic wasteland. Gaudium et spes, and not the screeds of the battle-hungry tribalists, should be our guide.
Antonio, Robert J. “After Postmodernism: Reactionary Tribalism.” American Journal of Sociology 106.1 (July 2000): 40-87.
Benda, Julien. The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs). Trans. Richard Aldington. Boston, Beacon Press, 1955. First published 1928.
Image: Friedrich Nietzsche. From “Der kranke Nietzsche” (“The ill Nietzsche”) by Hans Olde, 1899. Wikimedia Commons.