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What Will Save Civilization?

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once wrote “I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization.” At the heart of this statement lies Freud’s philosophy of culture. For him, the transition from culture to civilization is not a favorable one. Indeed, he said that “every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization.” In other words, civilization places too many restrictions on man’s need for instinctive satisfactions and too many obstacles in his path toward happiness. For Freud, civilization is man’s enemy. For this reason, Philip Reiff, editor of the ten-volume Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, refers to him as “the champion of the second best.”

The Catholic view, on the other hand, sees civilization is the crown of culture—it is the condition to which society aspires. Just as the individual person aspires to better things, so too, does culture (a society of persons) aspire to higher modes of civilization. Indeed, the scholars of antiquity contend that if all the great and broad contributions of the ancient Greeks could be distilled into a single word, it would be .

All human beings experience dissatisfaction and discontent with their lot. They naturally desire a better state. Therefore, they have a natural desire to advance from culture to civilization. Religion makes this advance possible; truth makes it practicable. Human beings can suppress their.aspirations and settle for “second best,” but Catholicism most assuredly does not champion the second best. It urges human beings to endure great difficulties and continuing struggles to realize more fully their humanity and their reflections as creatures made in the image of God.

The Catholic view urges people to live in loving relationship with their neighbors and to work together for a better tomorrow. For the Greeks, “aspiration” is a description of the soul; for Catholics, it also includes the supernaturally infused virtue of hope. Christ provides the objective correlative for our.aspirations. Catholics have little excuse for avoiding their role in helping to shape culture into a civilization.

But how is it to be done? What marks the difference between mere culture and genuine civilization? Religion is one necessary part. In Truth and Tolerance, Pope Benedict XVI comments:

In all known historical cultures, religion is an essential element of culture, is indeed its determinative center; it is religion that determines the scale of values and, thereby, the inner cohesion and hierarchy of all these cultures. (59)

Religion reminds people that they have a destiny that transcends their momentary satisfactions. But commitment to the truth is necessary to ensure that religion is guiding the people along a realistic path. Finally, culture is the lasting matrix in which man first plants his feet and begins to hope for something better. Religion, truth, and culture, then, constitute three pillars of civilization.

Religion and Truth Are Essential

Culture is omnipresent and irremovable. One might question the reality of God or the possibility of discovering truth, but no one can doubt the persistent and unmistakable presence of culture. For this reason, there is a tendency for societies to exclude religion and truth so that culture can become self-sufficient (a process known as enculturation or acculturation). Various attempts throughout history to exclude religion and truth, however, have failed. They have failed primarily because they deny the permanent need in the human being for God and the truth about himself that is indispensable for justice, peace, and mutual cooperation.

Pontius Pilate infamously set truth aside and, in so doing, invited the frenzy of the mob. In today’s world, it is relativism that attempts to set truth aside. It does so in the name of tolerance, but it really opens the door to what Pope Benedict XVI aptly labeled “the dictatorship of relativism.” In the absence of truth, either the mob or the dictator prevails.

Nevertheless, even some Christian theologians have argued for making culture purely secular. William O. Fennell, for example, in his “Theology of True Secularity,” maintains that God created a secular world and populated it with autonomous men free to use it. Fennell then argues that:

[I]n Jesus Christ, God has rescued the world from man’s “religiousness” and restored it to its original “secularity,” and in him has given back to man the freedom which he lost when he sought to make his culture a religious and therefore an idolatrous thing. (New Theology, 29)

The fact that Christian theologians—and there are many of them—believe that religion’s role in society should be eradicated to prepare the way for secularization shows well the seductive power culture has. That said, religion needs the guidance of reason so that it does not devolve into mere superstition. In 44 B.C. Marcus Tullius Cicero advised that “we should do ourselves and our countrymen a great deal of good, if we were to root superstition out entirely.” The great Roman statesman was pleading for the abolition of superstition, but for the retention of religion. We do not need superstition, he proposed, but we do need religion. Cicero’s g.asp of the consonance between religion and reason is worthy of inclusion in John Paul II’s longest encyclical, Fides et Ratio. The Church loves reason because it loves truth, and in loving truth, freedom.

Get Beyond the Realm of Caesar

It is the love of truth—not a wall of separation between church and state—that protects our freedoms by telling us what to render to Caesar and what to render to God. The great twentieth-century Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain opens his study on The Things That Are Not Caesar’s with the following impassioned statement concerning the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal powers:

Nothing is more important for the freedom of souls and the good of mankind than properly to distinguish between these two powers: nothing in the language of the day, has so great a cultural value. It is common knowledge that the distinction is the achievement of the Christian centuries and their glory. (1)

Failure to make this distinction opens the way to reducing the human being to the level of a pawn of the state, enclosed within a narrow secular framework. Recognizing and affirming man’s higher destiny allows him to exercise his God-given freedom as a person and to enjoy those spiritual realities that are not contained within the confining realm of Caesar.

The purely secular view absorbs the spiritual into the temporal and denies man his inalienable right to be who he is, namely, a being who has a spiritual dimension and an innate capacity to know truth and utilize his freedom. Freud’s final sentence in his Future of An Illusion is a lucid and disturbing example of his view of man de-spiritualized. It would be an illusion, Freud says “to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”

The truth of man—the anthropological realism that is the centerpiece of John Paul II’s personalism—provides him with the real possibility of working effectively within his culture in order to produce greater realizations of civilization. Just as the acting person has a civilizing effect on culture, so too, does civilization have a civilizing effect on the person.

The ultimate purpose of culture, then, beyond cultivating the more superficial differences of language, lifestyle, cuisine, forms of celebration, and so on, is to contribute to the development of the human person while also establishing a civilization. If we fail to effect the proper interplay of culture, religion, and truth, we become absorbed in and enslaved by culture, and lose sight of who we are and where we are going.

A River in the Desert

The Catholic view of civilization is as sound as it is simple. It is also as revolutionary as it is realistic. What, then, impedes its acceptance? One impediment is our culture’s almost exclusive preoccupation with making a living and keeping up with the Joneses. Materialism has brought about a lack of appreciation, or even awareness, of what is needed to maintain a civilization. As distinguished Catholic historian Christopher Dawson observes in his book, The Crisis of Western Education:

Our modern Western secularized culture is a kind of hothouse growth…[Man] seldom has to think for himself or make vital decisions. His whole life is spent inside highly organized artificial units—factory, trade union, office, civil service, party—and his success or failure depends on his relations with this organization. (173)

Nonetheless, Dawson offers us an image of hope when he tells Christians that they can contribute to the revitalization of civilization if they would only assume their appropriate roles as Christians. Though the following message was penned in 1952, it has a fresh and timely quality that is perfectly harmonious with the current mind and expressed hopes of Benedict XVI:

However secularized our modern civilization may become, this sacred tradition [Christianity] remains like a river in the desert, and a genuine religious education can still use it to irrigate the thirsty lands and to change the face of the world with the promise of new life. The great obstacle is the failure of Christians themselves to understand the depth of that tradition and the inexhaustible possibilities of new life that it contains. (Understanding Europe, 255)

Tend the Garden

Culture, religion, and truth are three pillars of civilization. The image of the pillar is appropriate in that it denotes firmness, strength, and support. Yet the image is imperfect because culture, religion, and truth are not discrete entities that can be separated from one another. They interpenetrate, intertwine, flow into each other. Civilization depends entirely on the proper interweaving of these three factors.

So, in addition to the image of three pillars, the image of a garden helps our understanding of civilization. Culture is the soil, truth is the light, and religion is the sun. The growth that is the movement from culture to civilization requires the coordinated activities of all three of these dynamic forces. Truth, informed by religion, stirs the culture, and civilization blossoms.

If we are to save our civilization, we must tend the garden and repair the pillars.


Culture in Crisis: Pope Benedict XVI on Europe

Pope Benedict XVI is particularly aggrieved when he observes the European landscape. In Without Roots (2006), co-authored with Marcello Pera, the Holy Father makes the diagnosis that “Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life” (66). Pera, though an unbeliever, is in agreement with Benedict’s assessment to a remarkable degree while averring that, “Christianity has been the greatest force in Western history” (2). He deplores the current relativism that is sweeping Europe, contending that it has “debilitated our Christian defenses and prepared us for surrender.” He fully agrees that Benedict’s diagnosis that Europe has “lost the capacity for self-love.” In fact, as he adds, the situation is “nothing short of pathological.” “How,” says Pera in a tone of near desperation, “can we restore realism” to Europe?” The Pope enumerates three phenomena that are contributing to this necrosis.

The first is a widespread disregard for human rights and human dignity. In the concrete sphere of biology, in reference to cloning, the freezing and storing of human fetuses for research purposes and for organ transplants, stem-cell research where human embryos are deliberately destroyed, one finds clear evidence that the notion of rights and dignity do not apply to the human unborn.

The second factor relates to the undermining of monogamous marriage through easier forms of divorce, widespread cohabitation, and the popular acceptance of a hedonistic lifestyle. Paradoxically, as monogamous marriage is being undermined, there is a clamor for homosexual “marriage.” If same-sex unions are perceived to have the same moral standing as monogamous, heterosexual marriages, the Pontiff, concludes, “then we are truly facing a dissolution of the image of humankind bearing consequences that can only be extremely grave” (77).

The third factor pertains to the decline of religion, particularly the practice of Christianity. To a significant extent, a loss of a sense of the sacred has been replaced by multiculturalism. Yet it is a spurious form of multiculturalism that routinely tolerates acts that dishonor Christianity in the name of freedom of speech. Such tolerance is not extended to other religions. Pope Benedict does not believe that a true multiculturalism can survive without a genuine respect for the sacred. Speaking for Christianity, he reminds us that

[I]t is our duty to cultivate within ourselves respect for the sacred and to show the face of the revealed God, of the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for widows and orphans, for the foreigner; the God who is so human that He Himself became man, a man who suffered, and who by His suffering with us gave dignity and hope to our pain. (79)

Of the three factors that the Pope enumerates, the first two pertain to truth: the truth of man, including his dignity and rights; the truth of marriage in its traditional, universal and Biblical sense as the union of a man and a woman. The third factor pertains to religion. Pope Benedict, therefore, is urging Europe to embrace the pillars of truth and religion so that it can overcome its culture of “self-hatred” and be restored to health.

Further Reading

  • The Cube and the Cathedral by George Weigel (Basic, 2005)
  • Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) by Pope John Paul II (Pauline, 1998)
  • How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods (Regnery, 2005)

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