Roots in the Enlightenment
To better understand what we are up against, let us glance at the origins of the counter-civilization. The so called “Age of the Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” was a complex socio-political-cultural movement that gained momentum in the 1700s with the help of thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot.
At the core of the philosophical and religious ideas was a clear rejection not of God but of the supernatural. Instead of accepting that God had intervened in history to reveal himself through the Jewish people in a series of events and communications culminating in the Incarnation, the Enlightenment only recognized God as the distant First Cause, a God who after creating the universe and winding up the clock of history had left mankind to fend for itself. The thinkers of the 1700s concluded that the only true religion is the one containing the truths about God man can attain to by reason alone but by the 1900s, under the influence of philosophers such as Schliermacher, many concluded that Christianity, like any other religion, must be a mere expression of man’s need for meaning.
“Reason” therefore was to be the sole master of society: God was to go into exile from public life and remain in the sacristies; no more Christianity in education, health-care, politics or justice. Religion would keep quiet inside the individual conscience and science would solve all problems, reveal all mysteries, discover the meaning of existence and lead man on a voyage of unending progress. The Roman Catholic Church was, in the opinion of many Enlightenment thinkers, the paramount obstacle to this forward march of humanity.
Once the Enlightenment had denied the truth of Christianity, it began gradually to dismantle the architecture of Western society. One of the buttresses it demolished was the Catholic doctrine of original sin, a belief that up till then had been firmly held by the man in the street as self-evident: man is essentially good but nevertheless “something is rotten in Denmark” and ‘the world is sadly out of joint’ (Hamlet). It shouldn’t be too hard to see this; after all, as Chesterton remarked, “Original sin is the one dogma I can prove by simply reading the daily newspaper”. The same writer remarked elsewhere: “To the question, ‘what are you?’ I could only answer, ‘God knows’. And to the question, ‘What is meant by the Fall?’ I could answer with complete sincerity, ‘That whatever I am, I am not myself’.” The Enlightenment gave an eerie denial to this age-old conviction held by many of mankind’s greatest philosophers and poets; it denied that we human beings are a “Jekyll and Hyde” reality of light and darkness, capacity for virtue or vice, an ongoing civil war between good and evil wherein no moral victory in this life is final, where no individual and no generation can afford to disarm.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Enlightenment asserted instead that man is not flawed in his nature, that any evil he commits is due to the corrupting influence of society from which he must be protected. Rousseau’s understanding of man had deep consequences that can be seen in today’s moral, political, penal and educational theory. In the political sphere it has led Enlightenment thinkers to assert that government should stay clear of legislating for “private” morality since man is quite capable of discovering the laws and abiding by them without external restraint. In education the Enlightenment followers undervalue exterior discipline failing to keep the balance between authority and freedom in educating the young and they also reject interior self-discipline (asceticism) as a way to channel concupiscence (the pleasure-impulse).
Growth and Decline of the Enlightenment
Under the flag of the Enlightenment the French revolutionaries in 1793 would go on to storm the Basilica of Notre Dame in Paris in order to place a statue of the goddess Reason on the high altar. The armies of Napoleon then swept across Europe bringing the “goddess” with them – along with about five million dead and hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. The flag was rapidly turning red.
The late 1800s and early 1900s brought with them Nietzche, Karl Marx, Feuerbach and others critical of the “opium” of Christianity. In 1917, for the first time in world history, a project to create an atheistic society began in Moscow under the ruthless Lenin. However in Western Europe the Enlightenment Tower of Babel had already begun to crack and totter during the “earthquake” of World War I. The historian Paul Johnson in Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties has written of “an unimaginable unprecedented moral degeneration” during World War I. The powerful Enlightenment states of Germany, France and England, all of whom had persecuted the Catholic Church and had retained only lip-service to “Christianity”in the public square, savagely and mercilessly send millions of their sons to die in the mud of the Western Front in a pointless drama: wounded men were left to die, the dead rotted away in the trenches, poison gas and liquid fire was used on advancing soldiers, bombs were dropped indiscriminately. As Churchill remarked, the warring states only stopped short of cannibalism and torture probably because they were of little use. The same perceptive statesman also noticed that it was the ‘mighty education states’ who committed these horrors. Education, the flagship of the Enlightenment, the vessel to create “reasonable” men freed from Christianity, had instead created unreasonable monsters. Such barbarian atrocities after 200 years of the “Age of Reason” showed the new religion of reason and science to be an inept guardian of man and a humane society.
Yet it continued to hang on. Through the universities the Enlightenment still held its grip on the Western world but it was undergoing a metamorphosis: without the God of the Catholic Faith, it was devoid of the ultimate metaphysical and moral solid ground for the foundations of its reasonings and it collapsed into the marshlands of relativism. Without the Catholic Faith, society lacks a center, a source of intellectual and social cohesiveness for its socio-political dimensions – and sooner or later has to disintegrate under the weight of its inability to unify individualisms, prevent unbridled materialism and expel fanaticism and ideological extremisms. Paul Johnson in Modern Times has masterfully presented the role of moral relativism in the configuration of our era:
Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzche rightly perceived tha the most likely candidate would be what he called the ‘Will to Power’, which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behaviour than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology…And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance.
Although the reigning intelligentsia have trained Christians to consider themselves to be “Fascists” if they uphold the existence of absolute right and wrong, historically it was the “Fascisti” of Mussolini, Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s ideologues who were all dyed-in-the-wool moral relativists:
“Everything I have said and done in these last years”, wrote Benito Mussolini, “is relativism by intuition…If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth…then there is nothing more relativistic than fascistic attitudes and activity….From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.”
What is the result of all this relativism whether “right-wing” or “left-wing”? One hundred million corpses. No wonder Chesterton declared: “As the eighteenth century thought itself the Age of Reason and the nineteenth century thought itself the Age of Common Sense, the twentieth century cannot….think itself anything but the Age of Uncommon Nonsense” Perhaps we should have kept some of that opium.
Whatever remained of Enlightenment intellectual credibility from World War I was to be dashed almost completely in World War II when the Nuremberg trials revealed that those who were better educated often turned out to be the most vicious SS torturers in camps like Auschwitz. Wisdom had been proved true: “Take away the supernatural and all that is left is the unnatural.” (Chesterton)
1989 saw the final collapse of the political tower of the Enlightenment when the Wall of Berlin built from the bricks and mortar of the “Age of Reason” fell under the dynamite of Christian ideas and its own inbuilt self-destructiveness. The two men most responsible for detonating that explosion were the head of the Catholic Church through his presence in the events of his native Poland and the Christian president of the United States of America, both of whom had no doubts about communism as the “evil empire”. Of course amid all the visible happenings there was an invisible hand–that of Our Lady of Fatima – as she, the one whom all generations will call blessed, mediated the secret conspiracy of God’s providential action that will never cease until the world’s last night.