This post is adapted from the essay, “Babylon’s Falling: Recovering an Exilic Christian Consciousness,” which appears in Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis: An Anthology of Visions For the Future, published by Solidarity Hall.
In the summer of 2014, the Vatican published a working document – titled, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” – in preparation for an extraordinary general assembly of bishops planned for that autumn. That assembly’s task was, in part, to examine this question: Why do Catholics routinely ignore Church teaching on marriage, sexuality and family life?
In the section of the working document that summarized responses to a Vatican questionnaire, the following answers were offered by episcopal conferences around the world: “pervasive and invasive new technologies; the influence of the mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; the fragility of interpersonal relationships; a culture which rejects making permanent choices, because it is conditioned by uncertainty and transiency, a veritable ‘liquid society’ and one with a ‘throw away’ mentality and one seeking ‘immediate gratification’; and, finally, values reinforced by the so-called ‘culture of waste’ and a ‘culture of the moment …’”
I’m not aware of a better list of the existential waste products generated by the Empire of Man. To it we might add the worship of the state, on the left, and the nation, on the right. The Goddess of Liberty, that “New Colossus,’ lifts her lamp beside the golden door, but in its reflected glow we see a darkness descending that was hinted at by the poet Leonard Cohen:
“Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore.
The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
And has overturned the order of the soul.
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant …
I’ve seen the future baby:
It is murder.”
Babylon is falling. But then, Babylon is always falling, which is to say that there has always been a Babylon and the Christian people have always been exiles within it. I once attended a talk by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, in which he made the case that St. Augustine is the most important Christian figure for our time. It might seem strange, Fr. Benedict allowed, to talk about a Fifth Century bishop in this way, even one whose work is so central to Western civilization. But Augustine lived at a time very much like our own: the classical, pagan world he inhabited was collapsing and beyond it laid a darkness that would be broken only – and only incompletely – by the emergence of Christendom. In our time, the last echo of that imperfectly realized Christian civilization is like background radiation in the cosmos, detectable only by experts with finely tuned instruments and a passion for discovery.
Christendom’s successor, the Empire of Man, now stands at the brink of its own denouement, the result of its internal contradictions: ordered liberty collapsing into disordered license, wealth dissolving into the poverty of conscience, the exaltation of reason yielding vast ignorance, neutrality toward religion devolving into hostility toward all truth-claims, democracy perverted by corporate elites, the vision of peaceful cooperation among nations betrayed by militarism. Those who built the Empire of Man thought they could make reason alone the cornerstone of their project.” They denied any telos beyond “the pursuit of happiness,” and sundered the intimate connections between tradition and community. They made “liberty” their god, but at the expense of virtue, the one thing that could sustain it. As Eliot observed,
“They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect
That no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.”
The man that pretends to be now stares into an abyss, but he can’t see it. Nor can he hear the man that is whispering in his ear, calling him back to virtue, tradition and community. He has, in the words of Jeremiah, eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear. The Empire of Man is all he’s ever known, and the strange babbling of the Christian remnant around him merely deepens his confusion and stokes his anger. Before him, like Augustine, lies a period of chaotic darkness, made, to quote Churchill, “more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” What follows that, who can know?
Theoreticians of collapse have abounded during the past twenty or so years. Some can be easily dismissed, but others have important things to say about how civilizations decline and ultimately fall apart. They include the evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, author of “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed;” the systems theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization;” and the anthropologist Joseph Tainter, author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies.”
Each of these thinkers identifies hyper-complexity as the prime driver of social collapse; but their work is largely confined to exploring the environmental and economic pressures that contribute to a fatal loss of social resilience. Unfortunately, none of them explores the contributions of moral hyper-complexity, especially in a society where atomized individuals, detached from tradition and community, are encouraged to define, in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such a society – indeed, such a civilization – is infinitely more complex and therefore far more susceptible to shocks than one in which there is general agreement about ethics, morality, the meaning of life, and the purposes of community. The inability of even leading social scientists to see that is further evidence that the Empire of Man is built on an what Pope Paul VI called “an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.”