“Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it.” (C. S. Lewis)
The Top Priority
The old accusation by Nietzsche, Marx, and other philosophers that we Catholics disdain the well-being of society because of our “other-worldly” concerns has a grain of truth to it – but just a grain. The convert to Catholicism, the historian, Christopher Dawson, explained the Catholic position as follows:
“It is a common modern objection and one which is widely accepted as a damaging criticism of Catholicism, that our religion neglects the real things by which the progress of the human race is advanced — science, industry, and political organization — in the pursuit of imaginary goods of a visionary kind.
“In reality Christianity creates the motive power — spiritual will — on which all true progress must ultimately rest.
“Without this spiritual foundation, all progress in knowledge or wealth only extends the range of human suffering, and the possibilities of social disorder.
“All the great movements, which have built up modern secular civilization, have been more or less vitiated by this defect.
“Whether we look at the Italy of the Renaissance, the England of the Industrial Revolution, or the Germany of the last forty years, we see in each case that the progress and wealth which are founded on individual or national selfishness, lead only to destruction and suffering.
“A civilization which recognizes its own limitations, and bows before the kingdom of the spirit, even though it be weak and immature like European civilization during the Dark Ages, has more true life in it than the victorious material civilization of our own age.
“There is no hope for humanity in science and economic organization: these are but instruments, which may be used for death, instead of for life, if the will that uses them is disordered.
“Civilization after civilization in the past have stagnated and fallen into ruin, because they are tainted at the source, in the spiritual will which lies behind the outward show of things.
“The only final escape for humanity from this heartbreaking false starts and frustrated hopes is through the conquest of the world by charity-the coming of the Kingdom of God.” (Christopher Dawson, “The Nature and Destiny of Man” in Fr. Cuthbert [editor], God and the Supernatural, London, 1936, excerpts from pp.81-82).
Building A Culture, Society, And Civilization That Will Empower Progress For Pilgrims
We Catholics acknowledge that for us the top priority is personal salvation but we deny that this leads to neglect of society.
Indeed as the Catholic journeys on through life concentrating on the serious business of salvation, something unexpected (at least for those who do not know the Faith) occurs: he betters the lives of those around him and then he sees appearing –ever so faintly at first- a new “world-order” in his own small corner of the “Shire”, amid his family, friends and co-workers.
The intrinsic dynamism of salvation becomes evident; we realize how the divine blueprint for a better world is inextricably bound up with the interior revolution in the heart of the Christian – just as He said it would be: “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”(Mt.6:33).
In this way and only in this way a Christian culture is born. By culture is meant not a lifestyle restricted to an élite of the well-educated but a vision of existence and a set of moral principles and standards that individuals live by, and which, in the normal course of events are embodied in laws and institutions that set the pattern for the society’s lifestyle in marriage, family, education, work, politics and general daily living.
The number one priority for the Church is not immediately to build up civilization. For the Catholic, civilization is a road that he travels, not a house that he lives in. His gaze is fixed on man’s eternal destiny, on leading men, one by one, to God through the Mystical Body of Christ, the Catholic Church, wherein men will find the fullness of divinely revealed truth about eternal salvation.
This has been the vision of civilization, based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition and formulated brilliantly by St. Augustine in his City of God. The North African genius, after converting to Catholicism, outlined the relationship between the Catholic, the Church, and civilization on the basis of the biblical text: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). Neither Rome nor Greece nor any civilization is immortal, he wrote, for our destination is an eternal homeland; our paramount task is to reach it by building and rebuilding on earth civilizations that will help, not hinder, progress to our destination—societies that will be the closest possible imitations of the archetype: the heavenly society, the City of God.
First the Soul, then Culture and Civilization
Only a Christian civilization with a horizon of God and Heaven and eternal values will protect man from the relentless lure of the mirage of Utopia: a civilization that is no longer the road of the pilgrim but the final destination of the traveler wherein he places all his aspirations, desires and hopes. “Perhaps civilization will never be safe,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “until we care for something else more than we care for it.”
The historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), who authored the twelve-volume, 3,488 page analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History, in Civilization on Trial stated that for the Christian the true purpose of life is the salvation of his soul but the establishment of an ideal civilization is “an almost certain by-product of a pursuit of the true purpose” (see Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948)
“If man has been created in the likeness of God and if the true end of man is to make this likeness ever more and more like, then Aristotle’s saying that ‘man is social animal’ applies to man’s highest potentiality and aim –that of trying to get into ever closer communion with God.
“Seeking God is itself a social act. And if God’s love has gone into action in this world in the redemption of mankind by Christ, then man’s efforts to make itself liker to God must include efforts to follow Christ’s example in sacrificing himself for the redemption of his fellow men.
“Seeking and following God in this way, that is God’s way, is the only true way for a human soul on Earth to seek salvation.
“The antithesis between trying to save one’s own soul by seeking and following God and trying to do one’s duty to one’s neighbour is therefore wholly false.
“The two activities are indissoluble. The human soul that is truly seeking to save itself is as fully social a being as the ant-like Spartan or the bee-like Communist.
“Only, the Christian soul on Earth is a member of a very different society from Sparta or Leviathan.
“He is a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and therefore his paramount and all-embracing aim is to attain the highest degree of communion with, and likeness to, God Himself; his relations with his fellow men are consequences of, and corollaries to, his relations with God; and his way of loving his neighbour as himself will be to try to help his neighbour to win what he is seeking for himself —that is, to come into closer communion with God and to become more godlike.
“If this is a soul’s recognized aim for itself and for its fellow souls in the Christian Church Militant on Earth, then it is obvious that under a Christian dispensation God’s will will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven to an immeasurably greater degree than in a secular mundane society.
“It is also evident that, in the Church Militant on Earth, the good social aims of the mundane societies will incidentally be achieved very much more successfully than they ever have been or can be achieved in a mundane society which aims at these objects directly and at nothing higher.
“In other words, the spiritual progress of individual souls in this life will in fact bring with it much more social progress than could be attained in any other way.
“It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.
“This is the meaning of the fable in the Old Testament of Solomon’s Choice and of the saying in the New Testament about losing one’s life and saving it.
“Therefore, while the replacement of the mundane civilizations by the world-wide and enduring reign of the Church Militant on Earth would certainly produce what to-day would seem a miraculous improvement in those mundane social conditions which the civilizations have been seeking to improve during the last six thousand years, the aim, and test, of progress under a truly Christian dispensation on Earth would not lie in the field of mundane social life; the field would be the spiritual life of individual souls in their passages through this earthly life from birth into this world to death out of it. […]
“To target as life’s purpose the achievement of progress in civilization-building over and above the task of personal salvation would be to insert a rank injustice at the core of reality since many persons — for instance, primitive peoples — have not lived in circumstances when this was possible. Hence the aim of man’s actions must be through the grace of God “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
“Thus the historical progress of religion in this world, as represented by the rise of the higher religions and by their culmination in Christianity, may, and almost certainly will, bring with it, incidentally, an immeasurable improvement in the conditions of human social life on Earth; but its direct effect and its deliberate aim and its true test is the opportunity which it brings to individual souls for spiritual progress in this world during the passage from birth to death.
“It is this individual spiritual progress in this world for which we pray when we say ‘Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven’.” (ARNOLD TOYNBEE, Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948, pp. 246 -251)