Modernity and History (or, “What’s wrong with kids today”)

Click here to listen to the audio version

The following reflections have been percolating for some time. I have expressed them sometimes more, and sometimes less thematically, in one form or another, over the course of the past twenty years. This most recent occurrence of them has been occasioned by two unconnected things: a statement I heard to the effect that politics ought to foreshadow the City of God, and the recent observation of a certain university professor, to the effect that we ought all be mindful of the dangers of using terms before having an adequate grasp of their meanings (an alarming number of people are pathologically committed to this imprudence, although the vast majority of them have not been diagnosed with the Vizzini complex).

The term I have been hearing bandied about – for years, even decades, really, but more often and with even greater willy-nilliness of late – is “secularism” in its various permutations.

I would like to clarify the meaning of the term, before those tempted or prone to indiscriminate use of the term actually succeed in rendering it practically useless for the purposes of critical discourse.


“Secularism” and its permutations are derived from the Latin, saeculum. It is etymologically linked to cycle, derived in its turn from the Greek κύκλος. Its first appearance as a unit of measurement appears to have been in Etruscan civilization. It is often mistakenly taken as a quantitative measurement of time, though its standardization as a 110-year period of time during the reign of Augustus, however, was a late and it turns out rather a confusing innovation.

Even after acquiring its standardized periodization, saeculum continued to be what it always had been: a qualitative measurement of a given people’s historical progress.

Theological-political development

In the Western intellectual tradition, the very Roman Christian, St. Augustine of Hippo, appropriated the term, saeculum in his master work, the De civitate Dei contra paganos, which is known more briefly as the De civitate Dei or the City of God.

The most important aspect of Augustine’s treatment of the saeculum in that work is his expansion of the term beyond a single people or civilizational project, i.e. Rome, and application to the present state or condition of the world, coupled with his differentiation of the saceulum senescens, literally the “age growing old,” meaning, “the last age of the world, which is passing.” It is the first and fundamental step in the development of a philosophy of history (here you will not be surprised to learn I am heavily indebted to Eric Voegelin), in which human action in history has implications in and for the eternity that permeates time, and is intelligible as such, while history itself does not hold the key to its own meaningfulness – history itself is to be read in light of the eternity that is beyond it.


By Juan de Valdés Leal – Juan de Valdés Leal, Public Domain

Within the unfolding of this history, the Church emerges as the carrier of eternity in time; her authority is spiritual and her membership extends through all time from the creation of the world and into eternity. She is not of this world, though she is in the world that is passing. Political society, which is proper to the world, nevertheless contributes genuinely to good order and serves the purposes of the spread of the Church, while not strictly depending upon the Church for its authority.

It shall, I hope, be fairly easy now to identify the distinct spiritual and temporal spheres out of which the idea of the separation of Church and State rose, beginning in the late middle ages. The idea of a distinct sphere, over which the civil authority had no competence, marks the beginning of the process of differentiation that would continue for centuries, and continues in the present.

In this sense, therefore, the great Bishop and Doctor is the first secularist.

A good book for non-experts (good for experts, too, in fact, though they should already have read it) is R.A. Markus’ Saeculum: history and society in the theology of St. Augustine.

Modern and Contemporary Confusion

In order to bring the problematic nature of the present confused use of the term in all its permutations fully into view, I would need to revisit the whole intellectual history of the past 1600 years, at least.

Suffice it to say that the modern period has been characterized by two great currents of thought. One holds that human history is intelligible on its own terms, i.e. that it contains within itself its principle of intelligibility (Eric Voegelin calls it an eidos of history).

The other denies the basic intelligibility of the world, reducing history to a merely contingent succession of events.

They are only apparently antagonistic, for their deepest roots tap a common source of (mal)nourishment: the desire to escape the eschatological tension of existence.

So that’s where modernity comes from.

Etymologically, the English word, “modern” and its cognates are related to the Latin expression, mox hodie, which means, “just today” (I seem to recall Jacques Barzun making much hay of this in his monumental work, From Dawn to Decadence, but I cannot find my copy to confirm this).

The modern world is, in other words, the world that is mox hodie: “just today” – which is to say, a world without history.

The Church is the carrier of salvation, and Her claims are intelligible only as part, indeed as the culmination of a particular Jewish theology of history, which becomes universally intelligible by a peculiar process of synthesis with Greek inquiry into the ultimate reason of things and the Roman genius for social governance.

Only, a world that has no history will not only have no need of salvation; worse, it is a world for which the historical is as such essentially meaningless. The unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness (as Eric Voegelin puts it with such magnificently dense eloquence in the introduction to his New Science of Politics) is not observable from the vantage point afforded by a world in and for which yesterday is by definition meaningless and even unthinkable.

345px-george-orwell-bbcGeorge Orwell at the BBC, photo by the BBC, Public Domain

So, what does the Church mean when she addresses herself to the modern world?

I have often thought that the II Vatican Council called Catholics to courage and forthrightness in their engagement with Modernity, specifically to the frank and courageous spirit that is proper to Christian warriors: verba suavia aut verbera – or as CS Lewis makes his king Tirian say in The Last Battle, “No warrior scolds. Courteous words or else hard knocks are his only language.”

It strikes me that the Council Fathers were preparing their soldiers for a massive sortie, by which they hoped to regain enough ground to form ranks and force a pitched battle, after long years and decades of siege.

Unfortunately, many people (and many institutional persons within the Church, including a frankly appalling number of bishops and priests) took the Council Fathers to be calling for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to a negotiated settlement.

To be sure, there were sinister forces at work in the Council and in the Conciliar aftermath.

Nevertheless, the thing that gave the appearance of far-reaching success to the machinations of the sinister camp was at once simpler and more alarming than bad faith: there was a sort of inebriation – a spiritual drunkenness that temporarily impeded the ability of pastors and faithful alike to engage in prudential reasoning.

Prudence must be exercised if it is to be kept, and the longer a person or an institution or a group of institutions persist in folly, the harder it will become for them to recognize it as such. We are now well into the third generation of this folly – and most of the few intellectual swords that were not beaten prematurely into plowshares, are by now blunt and oxidized, while those who might yield them are untried and untested, in a word, soft.

They have been taught to despise the martial spirit.

On the other hand, the situation has become manifestly untenable, and necessity is a severe, though often the only effective teacher. We are yet in time to put off the folly and return to the fight.

At present, those, who have been preserved from the worst effects of the folly, are nevertheless unused to the exercise of prudence, and untrained in the needful disciplines – though they would – perhaps – form ranks and fight, they do not know how to gain the field.

This compounds the problem.

The symptoms of this forgetfulness are most patently manifest in the moral sphere. Nevertheless, the forgetfulness itself is a disease of the cognitive faculty: of individuals and of whole societies; its effects are evident wherever one looks within the vast expanse of the civilizational project called “Europe” and indeed palpably present in every society that today exists in some relation to what we used to call “Western civilization”.

Benedict XVI was not the first to diagnose the problem, but he has been the most consistent, cogent, and eloquent diagnostician of the past three generations in public intellectual life.

The lynchpin on which the Holy Father’s vision of Europe turns – or if you will, the lode star from which it takes its bearings – is that Europe is essentially – not merely that it arises from, but that it is in essence – the “encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law.”

That was how Pope Benedict couched the matter in his monumental discourse to Germany’s federal parliament in 2011. It was not, however, the first time Benedict articulated this vision. In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict said:

[The] inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The implicit premise or understated upshot of Benedict’s articulation is that Christianity is both the catalyst of this convergence – this synthesis – and its stabilizing agent – and that verifying Christianity’s effect on the process is an empirical matter: not a nebulous matter of values, but a hard fact – a hard fact of history.


TWTC 0.2 – “mailbag” edition


Dear friends, in this second teaser edition of #TWTC you’ll find answers to the questions so many of you sent regarding what we’re doing here at Vocaris Media, as well as thanks for your support and helpful, encouraging criticism. The link to the latest teaser edition of #TWTC at the link:

Advent: a season of war and longing

I wrote this last year, just a few days before Christmas, in response to a homily I heard that focused on Advent as preparation for Christmas: that’s not wrong – not wrong at all – but it did not seem to tell the whole story, or to capture the primary focus of the season. – CRA

Roman Observations

Advent concludes with the celebration of Christmas, it is true: but all through this season of expectation the Church reminds us that we are awaiting the Second Coming of Him, who was born in Bethlehem twenty centuries ago. She tells us that, as quiet as His first coming was in a manger, so great and glorious shall be His coming this second time, that it shall break the Earth.

Advent is a privileged season, in which the Church prayerfully reflects and longingly sighs for her Spouse, who is the Christ, the Glorious King, coming soon to judge the world.


The Church in Advent waits in joyful hope for the coming of her Savior, doing penance and making acts of reparation for past sins – her members’, and the sins of the world.

In her official public worship, the Church proclaims Christ the Lord of creation, and implores the protection of…

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Sneak Preview: Thinking with the Church

Listen to “2016 16 12 TWTC SNEAK PREVIEW” on Spreaker.

This is a sneak preview of Thinking with the Church, featuring extended conversations with the fundamental theologian, Prof. Nicolas Steeves SJ of the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the philosopher, Fr. Philip Larrey, Professor of Logic at the Pontifical Lateran University. Hosted by Christopher Altieri.

Prof. Steeves is author most recently of Grâce à l’imagination : Intégrer l’imagination en théologie fondamentale464pp., Cerf, 2016

Prof. Larrey is the author most recently of Connected World: Talking About the Future With Those Who are Shaping it (Penguin, March 2017)  and Futuro ignoto. Conversazioni sulla nuova era digitale, 304pp. If Books, 2014

Episode – 0 – *sentire cum ecclesia*

Click here to download or listen to Episode – 0 – of Thinking with the Church

What does “Thinking with the Church” mean? – What does it mean to think with the Church?

The Latin expression – if this is a little hifalutin, well, I’m sorry I’m not sorry – from which the English is roughly translated is: sentire cum ecclesia.

It is a dense expression.

The verb, Sentio, sentire, is a rich and a prolific one – it says a lot on its own, and it sired lots of children in all the Romance languages and in just about every language that Latin has influenced. In English, we have words like: “sentence”; “sentiment”; even “sense”, all of which either come directly from, or are etymologically related to the Latin, sentire – and the interesting thing about the Latin word is that it “says” all the things that the single, individual words we listed a moment ago each say: so, Sentire means at once “to feel”, “to speak a complete and well-ordered idea”, and even “to pronounce a sentence” in the judicial … sense … – all in a way that “makes sense”.

Said simply: sentire cum ecclesia means to see the world as the Church sees it – to think with the mind of the Church – to feel with her sensibilities – to speak and act with her words and out of her thoughts and ideas.

On one level, this sounds easy – easy, that is, until one actually tries to do it. Then, one is brought up almost instantly against a whole host of problems, not least of which are: “What ‘does’ the Church think about THIS?”; “Does the Church even HAVE an opinion about this matter?”; “Does the Church need to have an opinion about this matter?”; “Is there pertinent teaching available to guide us in thinking through this?”; “If there is, then what is it, and how ought I to let myself be guided by it?”.

Even when there are ready answers to some or all of those questions, there are very rarely easy answers to any of them.

In fact, Christians – and Catholics especially, but by no means only Catholics – sometimes find themselves wondering, and even saying, “I wish the Church would just make up her mind and TEACH US!” … about this or that or the other thing: from what to do with fertilized, frozen embryos; to whether going to Mass on the vigil of a Holy Day of Obligation, when the day on which one actually goes to Mass is also a day of obligation, covers BOTH obligations, or only one (and if only one, then WHICH ONE?!?); to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Careful what you wish for.

You might get it – and rarely is any authoritative pronouncement of the Church received – even and perhaps especially by those who clamored most loudly for it – with anything like perfect satisfaction.

In fact, most of the time, throughout most of her history, the Church has been happy to let people argue.

Arguing is going to be a big part of what we do here at Thinking with the Church.

By no means will arguing be the only thing we are to be about here – it might not even be the primary thing, unless you will allow argument to be a means of discovering the truth of the matter – and really that is what argument ought to be, and really is when it is at its best, and when we are, too.

Catholics have a peculiar way of thinking about things: peculiar, that is, in that ours is a universal way of thinking.

Isn’t that a paradox?

Not necessarily: if this way of thinking is peculiar, that is, proper to the Catholic tradition and having a sort of claim of its own on the Catholics who practice it, it is nevertheless neither unique, nor inaccessible to people who do not share or subscribe to Catholic claims regarding the basic structure of the world (“We believe in one God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible…) and the ultimate reason of things (“For God so loved the world…”).

Indeed, its very universality – the universality of the claims Catholicism advances and by which Catholicism professes to live as true – requires Catholics to engage discussion and debate in the public square by way of publicly available arguments, i.e. by way of reason deployed in a manner that does not require even notional assent to the data of faith in order to be comprehensible and even cogent.

This is not an easy task, though it is one that, as far as public life in a society that claims to love and to have and to want to keep a decent measure of ordered liberty is concerned, all citizens – of every tradition of faith and religion, and none at all – all share together and in equal measure.

As Benedict XVI put it when he visited the United States in 2008, “[Freedom] also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.”

Take careful note: it is freedom that requires such courage, not Catholic faith specifically, nor even religious conviction broadly considered.

Nevertheless, the measure to which Catholic faith is compatible with ordered liberty in society will always be established in the concrete by the measure to which Catholics actually do display such courage in public life.

The difficulty for Catholics – not only for Catholics, though for Catholics especially – is that we very often disagree about which of our convictions ought to guide us in our consideration of a given public question, and about where our faith is guiding us in this or that public matter, great or small.

This ought not be a surprise to anyone, since Catholics are and always have been people who – to say it with the great 20th century journalist, G.K. Chesterton – agree about everything, and disagree about everything else.

The matter is complicated, however, by an ineluctable, often troubling and even embarrassing fact: the “everything” about which Catholics agree is an intricate weave of truths the Church teaches, which do not come to us all directly from a single source.

Some of the things the Church teaches as true are things the Church has learned directly from God, e.g. that He is one nature in three persons, and teaches as true because God has revealed them to the world through the Church; in fact, it took a good deal of thinking to understand that God had taught the Church about His Triune nature, and still more very messy and often quite bloody history had to happen before we had hashed out exactly what that teaching means and does not mean, especially regarding the Second Person of the Trinity – but I digress.

There are other things that the Church teaches because they are true and that we know to be true quite apart from a direct and immediate Divine didactic intervention.

For example: that there is a cause of, and an order to all that is, and that we are capable of knowing a good deal about that order and about the principle by which things are ordered – and examples of some of the things that we know about the order of the universe are that good is to be done and evil to be avoided, and therefore that it is wrong – for example – deliberately to destroy innocent life.

We know also that human life begins at conception – this is not a matter of religious conviction, as is so often erroneously claimed – for if real assent to the truth of revelation were necessary in order to recognize the intrinsic evil of procured abortion, then, quite frankly, advocates of legal abortion would have a much stronger case; we know that  defrauding a worker of his just wage is not only wrong, but one of the worst things one human can do to another.

I almost said that we know these things quite apart from being Catholic – but that is not quite right.

We can understand all the things I mentioned just now without any recourse to or mention of the Catholic faith, or Christianity – or we might come to understand them even if we did not have Christianity in any form – and this, in point of fact, is what people did before Christ came and founded His Church.

When Christ came and founded His Church, one of the things that “proved” – if I can put it that way – to people that His followers were not all wet – at least in what they thought and what they taught – was that they thought and taught the things that everybody knew already.

(That’s not to say Pagans always did the right things, or even ordered their societies in a way that made it easy for people to see what was right and do it: they didn’t – certainly, no more than we do today. Indeed, they were every bit as attached to the customs and practices they had in their day, which ran counter to their own understanding of “good morals”, as we are to our own in our day. The point is: they knew, and they made very few bones about it.)

(I’m painting in broad strokes here, and with a broad brush, too. Any historian of antiquity worth his salt could dig into the nooks and crannies of daily life in the ancient, pre-Christian world, to find all manner of “little differences” that made all the difference in the world. For our present purposes, all I can or ought to do is note it, and move on – with a promise to come back to it.)

There was nothing new in Christian morality insofar as what Christians thought was right and what they thought was wrong; the main difference was in Christians’ proclamation of a carpenter’s son as the incarnation of the very principle of intelligibility – the uncreated source of order and rector of the whole cosmos took on the nature of the chief animal creature in the order of His creation, and He did so out of love.

That’s something.

What it is not, though, is an easy answer any of life’s hard questions.

Even though Christianity taught nothing new as far as right and wrong were concerned, it did expand the scope of moral action to include – even chiefly – our duty to God the Father and Creator of All, and it enlarged the circle of moral community to the point of embracing the whole human family – a notion of which only a small number of learned men were aware and of which only a small fraction of that small number of men were in any meaningful sense convinced.

As we mentioned just a short while back, it took some doing to work out even the bare bones of the meaning of the incarnation – what it was and what it wasn’t, what it meant and did not mean.

Life in the ancient world was hard, and busy, and brutal – and Christians’ outwardly unintelligible internal debates and inwardly wrenching attempts to be in the hard and busy and brutal world without internalizing its coarseness, business, and brutality – made for serious complexities for which no one was really prepared.

In our day, it appears that little has changed.

When everything is so complex, everything else is inevitably complicated, and we owe it to ourselves, to our fellows in religion, and to our fellows in citizenship, to be mindful of the complexities as we engage in discussion and debate about matters touching what we used to call, “the public weal” – whether these be internal doctrinal matters or questions of order, discipline, or even basic right-and-wrong in society.

For example: The Church teaches us it is an act of charity to welcome the stranger, but she does not tell us how to conduct that charitable activity – upon which our salvation mysteriously and at once doubtlessly depends – in a manner consistent with our duty as citizens to obey the laws and our duty as participants in the government of our republic to make laws that provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.

The danger in taking principles meant to be guides to forming prudential judgment, and erecting them into principles of conduct from which policy directly flows, is clear and present: it leads in short order both to irresponsible citizenship and to ineffective Christian witness.

In many political societies – especially in my own United States, but by no means only there – we have come to a sort of surreal point in our national life, in which we are willing to let ourselves be “sold” on political and religious leaders who “speak my language” and “represent MY views” etc.

I am not speaking of mere demagoguery here.

This willingness today comes coupled with our unwillingness to expose the leaders with whom we tend broadly and generally to agree, to the caustic process of critical examination.

At precisely the same time, we are almost eager to believe the absolute worst about the people – not just people in positions of political and religious leadership, but our neighbors and our friends relatives, as well – with whom we broadly and generally disagree.

For Christians generally and for Catholics in particular, this is especially potent poison: the more we go in for it, the greater our exposure to an old, but dangerous accusation, namely, that Christianity is not a religion suitable to republican virtue, and that the morality it teaches is in fact inimical to the morals of a republic.

In the midst of our needful debate and discussion of the proper attitude to adopt toward the world in its turns, let us recall the reply of St. Augustine of Hippo, the architect of the first Christian response to sustained attack from sources claiming Christianity incompatible with republican virtue:

“Let us be such soldiers, doctors, lawyers, agents, laborers—in a word, such citizens as Christ commands.”

“Then,” St. Augustine instructs, “let those who call Christ’s doctrine incompatible with the State’s well-being … dare to say that it is adverse to the State’s well-being; yea, rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the commonwealth.”

Here, Catholics have a tremendous opportunity once again to prove, contra Paganos, that Catholic religion is not only not inimical to the morals of a republic, but can – if practiced – in fact have a quite salutary effect thereupon: indeed, the Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual tradition that ever there has been or shall be; that tradition has always inspired those in it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger (the Church wiser, and God greater) than one’s own powers of apprehension.

Indeed, true religion has always inspired men and women to think all the good they can of those with whom they find themselves in disagreement; to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it; to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives, i.e. the salvation of souls (the salus animarum, which in the present context also has the added incentive of serving the salus rei publicae).

If we can do that tolerably well together, we will be on our way to toward the kind of thinking that is thinking with the Church.

What we are going to try to do – what I hope we can do through “Thinking with the Church” – is to show – in the interviews and round-table discussions with officials of the Roman Curia, professors from Rome’s Pontifical universities, and Catholic thought leaders from every area of intellectual and cultural life – what thinking with the Church sounds like.

The goal is to give listeners a chance to hear and understand how the Church thinks at the highest levels of governance – and by creating a genuinely interactive listening community, to make it possible for everyone to participate in the kind of thinking that thinking with the Church is.

Just exactly how we are going to do this is still something we are figuring out – and we hope – I hope – that you will help us figure it out together.

So, don’t be a stranger.

God bless you all.