When William Brinkley wrote his 1988 novel The Last Ship, besides writing a tale of survival after a third world war, he also wrote a modern parable for how civilized man may survive other destructive forces now gathering on the horizon.
The last ship in Brinkley’s book is a swift, rakish destroyer, the U.S.S. Nathan James. It is the only ship to survive a nuclear holocaust that leaves small clusters of humanity standing like pale ghosts along the shores of the radioactive continents.
When the captain of the James realizes that he and his crew of 250 men and 32 women may be the only survivors of the holocaust, he ponders the immense irony of that result. It is ironic because the world had turned firmly, and one might even say meanly, egalitarian. Yet, it is a monarchy, a fighting ship under the absolute rule of her captain, that survives to carry the seed of a future civilization. Brinkley’s captain speculates that, if there had been any way to install democratic rule on the Navy’s ships, the egalitarian world would have done so. The authority of captains over the hierarchy of officers and crew has endured simply because there is no other way that a ship can survive. This is the paradigm wherein Brinkley may have written a parable for modern man.
With regard to the nuclear war, Brinkley’s book is pure fiction, but his observation that we live in a “world where the plebiscitary, the ‘democratic,’ has been the onward wave” is an understatement. The destruction wrought by that egalitarian wave has been as thoroughgoing to the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization as a nuclear war would be to its material structure. The very idea of authority and hierarchy, the foundation of Western civilization, now lies in ashes in all places but one. That place is also a ship, the Bark of Peter, the Catholic Church, the oldest living, hierarchical institution in the world. It not only still functions as a hierarchy, but the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed its hierarchical priesthood and the moral authority of its captain, the Vicar of Christ. The Roman Pontiff, said the Council, “by virtue of his office . . . has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Lumen Gentium 22). This it did at that very moment the secular world was burning to the ground all other hierarchical institutions and challenging the very idea that there is such a thing as moral authority.
It may be objected that modern governments, if anything, are exerting ever greater authority over the lives of individuals. This is to confuse the tyranny of the majority (or those who claim to speak for the majority) with hierarchy. Hierarchy literally means “priestly rule.” Wherever it has existed in society, it has always been held to be a moral authority of divine or natural origin. Modern egalitarians are exactly the opposite. They claim that there are no moral norms that transcend time and culture. There is only the will of the common man, carried out not by rulers but by representatives, who decide what to do by observing election results or opinion polls. It is in this sense that the Catholic Church is like Brinkley’s last ship—the last office where any one man holds absolute moral authority in a world on fire with radical egalitarianism and where the fruits of that egalitarianism are now sufficiently well known.
At the family level, the authority of fathers is gone. Anyone suggesting that men should rule and lead their families is derided as a Neanderthal or sexist. Women pursue their own careers to avoid becoming the unpaid servants of their husbands, and the only options for ruling families are the joint rule of the husband and wife or no rule at all. Furthermore, the “no rule” paradigm is gaining ascendancy in schools, as they promote the idea that parents have no authority to force their beliefs on their own children. Children are encouraged to choose to be sexually active, to use contraceptives, to get abortions, and to enter homosexual “life styles”—all in direct defiance of their parents’ wishes or religious beliefs. A children’s-rights movement speaks of the right of children to have access to the media and to select their own religion. The destruction wrought by dissolving the bonds of hierarchy in the family has strewn society with broken marriages, single-parent families, pregnant children, child custody suits, and even has given rise to the modern crime of “child stealing,” in which parents steal their own children from each other in violation of custodial agreements.
Authority and hierarchy in the work place are less controversial but are likewise under attack. The relationship of secretary to boss is all but gone, and even these terms are now considered by some to be demeaning. The idea that rank or seniority has its privilege is disappearing, along with the idea that wisdom is associated with age or longevity. In the private sector, this philosophy has presented us with the youthful, independent hotshot as the exemplar for new employees and has given rise to euphemisms such as “downsizing,” as companies engage in mass layoffs of older employees. In the governmental sector, programs to “empower employees” have undermined the hierarchical authority of supervisors. One federal office recently destroyed its old hierarchical charts, which showed supervisors above staff. This chart was replaced with a drawing of a wheel with people’s names written on the spokes and no one shown to be directly above anyone else. The plan was to have the employees work in teams on tasks they selected for themselves. The teams would do self-evaluations, each team member evaluating all the other team members, with the results tabulated by an independent consultant. Thus, the relationship of supervisor to subordinate disappears. It is questionable whether any institution can function this way, but such an organizational gambit on Brinkley’s warship would immediately reveal itself to be pure folly.
Is the military immune then? Not entirely. The chain of command remains, now overlaid by a political template designed to change the military from the last bastion of male superiority to a gender-neutral force. Those who resist this new initiative find themselves on a short road out of the service.
All of the military academies have passed under the egalitarian yoke by admitting women and granting them a handicap in competing for class standing with their male classmates in a process called “gender-norming.” How the new gender-normed force would perform in the face of a tenacious enemy is never discussed. One thinks of the war in the Pacific, where American Marines seized islands from the Japanese even while sustaining casualty rates as high as eighty percent. William Manchester, who fought in the Pacific, claimed that such a combative spirit was the product of the American paterfamilias of the Depression years, when fathers “ruled homes like sultans” and families, communities, and the country were each something to be defended against all comers despite their own internal conflict. That such cohesion was seriously damaged even before the advent of gender-norming became apparent with the war in Vietnam.
Since then the anti-hierarchical fire has spread to every corner of Western society and is now being exported by the United Nations. The centerpiece of this strategy is the promotion of artificial contraception and abortion, not because it will reduce population growth, but because it is an attempt to break the grip of hierarchy at the level of human biology. The burdens of pregnancy and demands of child rearing are now characterized as the tools used by men in Third World nations to enslave women while leaving themselves free to pursue their own chauvinistic agendas. Thus propaganda, under the guise of family planning and literacy programs, links pregnancy to servitude and offers abortion, sterilization, and contraception as means for ending the so-called slavery of paternalistic societies. Women’s programs teach women to view themselves in roles independent of families and even as competitors or adversaries of men.
It is in this theater that the true adversary of the egalitarians becomes apparent—the Catholic Church under the authority of the Vatican. Like Brinkley’s last ship, it is the last place where hierarchy and authority still function. It was, after all, the Church that adopted and blessed the paterfamilias of the ancient world, while adding the commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not divorce,” and “Husbands love your wives as you love yourselves.” It is the Church that still defends this traditional family as the fundamental building block of society. It is the Vatican that stood in the path of the crusading egalitarians at the United Nation councils at Cairo, China, and Istanbul. It is the Vatican that declared that no one should be required to violate his religious beliefs as a condition for receiving aid; that fathers deserve a living wage to support their families; that women should be honored, not demeaned, for staying home to raise children; that the elderly should be respected and the weak protected; and that governments answer to a higher morality than naked materialism.
This is not to say that the Vatican’s is the only voice defending these values. Both Muslims and Protestants have cried out against the new agenda. The irony is, though, that both these religious communities are themselves the results of anti-hierarchical movements. Both have taken religious authority out of the hands of men and left it in the pages of a book. Those who guide and control Islamic society are scholars of the Koran, not priests. They claim no authority to themselves, and there is no single individual who can speak for the Muslim world. Likewise, Protestants have no single figure of authority around whom they can rally. It is a further irony that the most vehemently anti-hierarchical Protestants, those now called Bible Christians, are the ones who now most want to stop the destruction. These Christians see the necessity of hierarchy in the civic sector, the military, and in the home, but they cannot bear the thought of it in the pulpit. Divine authority in the hands of man is as much of a scandal to them as divine nature born of woman was to the Nestorians.
Yet, there stands the Vatican, with the Holy Father as the most effective defender of the very things that the Protestants hold dear. Whereas Protestants have yet to find a way to enter directly into international negotiations, the Vatican has engaged in these negotiations down through the centuries. It has faced off with Roman emperors and kings, just as it now faces off against prime ministers and presidents. It always proves to be one of the most fluid and adaptable organisms ever to exist, meeting the dominant culture on its own terms in every age, while carrying within its bosom the unchangeable truths of its creed.
The pontificate of John Paul II is a good example of this phenomenon. He is not only a priest, but an author, playwright, philosopher, and theologian. He is a linguist, speaking not only the Latin of the classical world, but a dozen or more modern languages, and his most recent encyclicals have been downloaded from the Internet long before they hit the bookstores. He is an international statesman and one of the few, perhaps the principal one, of whom it can be said that he was directly involved in the demise of the Soviet Empire. He is a jet-setter par excellence who draws larger crowds than any other living human being. When the crowds press in around him, be it in the most modern state or the least-developed of developing nations, he leads them in the 2,000-year-old liturgy of the Mass, then teaches them how to apply ancient Christian principles and the love of Christ in the modern world. Unlike the captain of the last ship in Brinkley’s novel, the Holy Father does not run from the destruction, but maneuvers the Bark of Peter straight through harm’s way.
As he does so, it becomes apparent that modern governments, if they are to have their way, will eventually need to attack the Church as directly as the Roman emperors attacked it. In this gathering confrontation it is also apparent that there are weak knees and dissent among the ranks. For this reason, we should acknowledge here an issue as real as it is regrettable. The issue is mutiny. In Brinkley’s novel, the Nathan James loses one-third of the ship’s company to mutiny. These are men and women who lose faith in the captain’s ability to plot the course for their survival. They want to take command of the ship, turn back to the radioactive continents. The captain stands the mutiny down, knowing that to do otherwise is to invite chaos. The mutineers, though, are allowed to leave in a boat, heading in a direction that can only mean their own destruction. He watches them leave with sadness, but knows that to keep them against their will would be to maintain a poison in the ship’s body.
There is evidence that such a mutiny is now brewing in the body of the Catholic Church. Dissidents are calling on the Vatican to release the reins of power. They call for the Church to become democratic, electing clergy and deciding doctrine by popular vote. For starters, they would make women priests and bless homosexual unions with the sacrament of matrimony.
This is an attack on hierarchy from within the very body of the last hierarchical institution. It is a foregone conclusion that this pope and all the popes to follow will stand firm, for to do otherwise is to hand the Bark of Peter over to the same fire that is now ravaging the world. Those who press these demands, like the mutineers in Brinkley’s tale, eventually will leave the ship and sail for the burned-out shores of the secular world and the liberal Protestant denominations. Those who remain on board will stand all the more firmly with the captain, and the ship’s company will be strengthened rather than weakened by the trial.
In the meantime, the question remains whether the secular world will shake off the moral principles that formed it. It seems intent on doing so. If it fails to break free, this will be largely owing to the presence of the Catholic Church under the moral authority of the Holy See. If it is successful, it will not find the autonomy it thinks awaits it. Every political theorist worth his salt from Plato to Tocqueville to John Paul II has warned us that when people vote to give themselves total freedom, tyranny follows. When the egalitarian spirit eliminates every distinction in society, a dictatorship rises up, not equality. If this happens on the scale that the advocates at the U.N. conferences seem to want, will that mean the end of the civilized world as we know it? Yes, it will. Would the destruction be complete? No, it would not. There would be suffering on an unprecedented scale, that much is certain. One needs only to look at Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, China, or Cambodia for a preview. It is unlikely that any simply human institution could stand against the winds that would then blow. But there would be one structure not simply human left standing against the chaos and tyranny that would ensue. It is not the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, or the World Council of Churches. Its head is not the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalai Lama. It is the last ship, the Catholic Church, and it functions best in the face of adversity. Should the worst happen, it carries within it the tools and the plan with which to rebuild civilization when the new Dark Ages come to pass. It has done it before.