|(Cumberland Island, GA, 2020)
I've spent a relaxing afternoon on my day of rest in my favorite local coffee shop with the latest issue of First Things.
Louise Perry, the author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, herself not a believer, and a self-described agnostic on abortion, but clearly discomfited by it, writes of what is at stake in this particular debate of the "culture war." Citing an image from T.S. Eliot, the basis of a book by Steven Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City, she suggests that the fight is whether we will continue to be a civilization influenced by the Christian insistence radical dignity of the human person, the destabilizing preference for the weak that Christianity introduced into the world. The abortion debate is the "bleeding edge of dechristianization."
We should understand Christianity’s impact on morality in much the same way—not as a process of replacement, but rather as a process of blending. The supremely strange thing about Christianity in anthropological terms is that it takes a topsy-turvy attitude toward weakness and strength. To put it crudely, most cultures look at the powerful and the wealthy and assume that they must be doing something right to have attained such might. The poor are poor because of some failing of their own, whether in this life or the last. The smallness and feebleness of women and children is a sign that they must be commanded by men. The suffering of slaves is not an argument against slavery, but an argument against allowing oneself to be enslaved.
Most cultures—perfectly logically—glorify warriors and kings, not those at the bottom of the heap. But Christianity takes a perverse attitude toward status and puts that perversity at the heart of the theology. “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” is a baffling and alarming claim to anyone from a society untouched by the strangeness of the Jesus movement.
That the post-Christian secularism of the West, for the most part, isn't yet ready to embrace the logic of abortion and go all the way to infanticide, is a sign of the lingering influence of the Christian worldview on it. Perry suggests that the sharp demarcation between abortion and infanticide, in fact, is not how things have worked in practice in most cultures and civilizations. Even in the Christian world, the reluctance of societies to truly punish women who exposed their children, or sought abortions (she mentions the reluctance of juries to sentence women to the required punishment, among other examples), suggests the complicated, conflicted nature of common moral intuitions towards the killing of the unborn (a reality that manifests itself in all kinds of ways in our post-Dobbs world).
There are some memorable quotes in her piece:
In other words, secular humanism is just Christianity with nothing upstairs.
This presents a problem for feminism, because a prohibition on abortion places on women burdens that it does not place on men. And given the widespread practice of both abortion and infanticide, even in Christian cultures, it’s apparent that people struggle to abide by a moral principle that causes huge practical problems. Christianity only ever blended with paganism, rather than fully replacing it, because Christian teachings do cause huge practical problems for followers of the faith. It is difficult to be a good Christian; it is supposed to be.
Most horrifyingly, at least for Christians, and I suspect, for many non-Christians and post-Christians of good will, is that what is replacing post-Christian moral systems is something resembling ancient Rome (Perry does a good job explaining why that the alternatives are not as stark as Christian civilization, or National Socialism). This is especially evident in our enlightened neighbor to the north, where the (my language), the new religion is firmly in place.
When it was first introduced in 2016, the Canadian Medical Assistance in Dying program (MAID) offered medically assisted suicide only to those patients whose deaths were foreseeable. But now MAID will be made available to the disabled and those suffering mental illness. Disturbing reports out of Canada suggest that the poor and the disabled are already under pressure to make use of this “service,” and depressed teenagers are eager to see it extended to so-called “mature minors,” as some euthanasia lobbyists propose.
Indeed, Pope Francis referred again to this "brave new world" in his latest in-flight presser, on the way back from Marseille last weekend, when he asked folks to read Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, precisely in response to a question about Euthanasia in France. [These scattered remarks (on abortion, euthanasia and gender ideology) aside, his signature project, the upcoming Synods, seem not to take this challenge to a dying Christian culture in the West at all seriously. Or, it seems, the ones in charge are bent on further secularization within the Church, along the lines of the immediate post-Conciliar self-destruction. Or perhaps, this will, in fact, somehow, turn the ship around, this time. When I look at the hierarchy in the West, with a few bright exceptions, it is a rather bleak outlook.]
Perry's final image is definitely disconcerting -- paganism is like a dark, magical forest. Christianity is what made a clearing, tended a garden, opened up a clear view of the heavens, and let the light in. Now, it seems, the forest is creeping back. Or rushing back in.
As always, my thoughts go back to that famous radio address of Joseph Ratzinger. Things will get worse, from one perspective. But that which created Christian civilization, faith, will always remain, as islands of sanity in a mad world.
Louise Perry: We are Repaganizing. First Things, October 2023.
|Obeisance to the new religion
A notice board outside the library of a Catholic university in Canada