Sunday, June 11, 2017

Grumpy Catholic Loses Culture War

Grappling with "truth"- a review of Charles Chaput's "Stranger in a Strange Land". 

Charles Chaput is archbishop of Philadelphia, a Benedict appointee and thorough conservative. In this book he bemoans what has become of America and offers an extended homily of Catholic platitudes and scripture to gird his flock for their swim against the tide of cultural depravity. A theme he returns to repeatedly, if not obsessively, is court decision Obergefell, which made gay marriage constitutionally protected and is evidently the final straw in Chaput's recognition that the culture war is lost, and his people are now wanderers in a hostile wilderness. All this despite the outsized dominance of Catholics on the Supreme Court and other institutions of public life. Add a sprinkling of disparaging references to Barack Obama, Saul Alinsky, and the "state" in general, and his position on the political spectrum is clear.

As a study in the vicissitudes of social power, and the remarkable rhetoric of self-serving institutions and world views, it is an interesting book. One topic Chaput hammers on, ironically, is truth. We all know that truth has taken a beating over the last few years. Between the internet and its unusual avatar who is now our president, we have had a lesson in an unmoored and uncurated media landscape, where each person can hide from unpleasant views, and descend with ever more certainty into a comfortable world view. But it was ever thus, and the Church is surely one of the most amazing examples of relentless and effective propaganda for a truly bizarre version of reality.
"These problems are the outward signs of deeper issues that implicate us as citizens. The weakness of the individual citizen is only partly coerced by democracy's structure. It's also freely chosen, because we find it convenient. It allows us to assign blame to others and escape our own responsibility. It's easier to accept lies by invoking the misguided alibi of tolerance and mutual respect than live outside the cone of public approval. This is clear in every recent national debate ober abortion, marriage, family, sexuality, and rights in general. Many of us are happy to live with half-truths and ambiguity rather than risk being cut out of the herd. The culture of lies thrives on our own complicity, lack of courage, and self-deception."

Very true in principle, but what are these truths being alluded to? He tries to be as diplomatic as possible, but his truth is that gay marriage is completely immoral, and disastrous to society, as is abortion and contraception, that Christianity is true in every particular, and that the Church, as keeper of all these truths, should have far more power over its own adherents and, logically, over society in general, if it were, ideally, to adhere to "truth".
"There is no justice, no beauty, no goodness, without truth, because truth is the voice of God's authentic reality." 
"Simply put, once a higher purpose and standard of human behavior are lost, moral judgements are nothing by personal opinions. In a nation of sovereign individuals, nobody's opinion is inherently better than anyone else's. All moral disagreements become rationally irresolvable because no commonly held first principles exist."

How convenient it is for Chaput to think that his and his church's opinions are "truth"! What a simpler and better world that was when that was the common definition of truth! And what a remarkable ploy to insert God into every possible crevice of one's argument, making of reality and of our human and moral natures a superstitous ghost-ridden confusion.

The fact of the matter is that religions such as Catholicism have never proven their many propositions, either on a philosophical level or a social one. The Holy Spirit, the resurrection, and the second coming, which Chaput refers to with some anticipation, are all phantasms of once-fevered, and now institutionalized, imaginations. They are prime examples of "fake news" parading as "good news", not to mention "truth". And the societies which have most completely thrown off these fantasies, i.e. European nations such as France, and the Scandanavian countries, are also evidently the most rational and happest places to live.

Heaven, by Fra Angelico

But all the same, I sympathize with a great deal of what Chaput writes. American society has significant problems, one of which is the loss of social cohesion. Religions are, at core, ways for people to connect and found institutions based on humanistic and moral ideologies. We are communal beings, despite the relentless propaganda, particularly strong in the US, of individualism. We have not thought deeply enough about giving our society over to corporations as the primary unit of social organization. Corporations which have no moral scruples or humanistic ideology, and have flooded our communal media with lies, (which is to say, advertisements), and are rapidly taking over our government as well.

Must all social groups be founded on an ideology that is fundamentally untrue, a narrative that puts meaning into the otherwise empty vessel of "truth"? The answer to that is probably yes, but with the caveat that different narratives can have wildly different levels of untruth. The Western secular narrative of technological and moral progress, based on rights that we award to each other and a vision of human dignity and prosperity, is hardly "true" in an objective sense. Our technological development has plunged the Earth into an almost irremediable crisis of biosphere-wide destruction. And our moral development took some seriously wrong turns in the 20th century, which have taken a couple of generations to recitify. Only to run into critics like Chaput who take the view that, morally, things have been going downhill every since the so-called enlightenment!

That may simply be the self-serving view of an instution that has been battered by modern skepticism and individualism, but it can not be discounted as "false", either. For all the objective measures of violence going steadily down over the recent centuries, and health and well-being going steadily up, judgements on our moral condition are, intrinsically, subjective.

Other ideologies like communism were much farther afield from reality, putting the utopian cart before the horse of present-day charity and humanity. And religions, such as Catholicism, take the cake in their profusion of extra-terrestrial doctrines, saints, relics, rituals, transfigurations, trinities, and other claims they force their believers to swallow. The enlightnment has thankfully forced most of this material into safely supernatural precincts, where it does little harm to "God's authentic reality", such that Catholic scientists can, for instance, press on in good faith with their endeavors. As long as there are skeptics around to dampen outrageous claims, and an educational system that trains children with a modicum of rationality, (and scandals which religious institutions regularly self-inflict), the problems of religious ideologies going to social and philosophical extremes will be minimized, while the social good of religious bonding preserved.

But as Chaput notes and as many have observed, that religious bonding is in general decline. What are alternative forms of social capital, with which we can fight for our communal, human interests, against the amoral leviathan of the corporation? Chaput, as a hard-line conservative, is dismissive of the state filling this role, as its moral ideology is little more than a weathervane of public sentiment. Even the non-profit sector has been taken over by an army of rich people setting up their vanity foundations, with little coordination or rationale. Organizing grass-roots activities around various grievances is also not a promising or durable approach. Something like educational institutions as a life-long hub of relationships and activism might fit the bill, but I do not have a good answer yet to this deep and troubling issue.

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