Belmont Club

How Long Before the Fate of Benedict's Church Is the Fate of the West?

How Long Before the Fate of Benedict's Church Is the Fate of the West?
(AP Photo/Thierry Mallet)

In an April 2019 letter, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote an article describing how the church lost the ability to govern itself and found many of its formation centers turned into hatcheries for sexual abusers.  It was a two-step process. First, the popes lost the culture war within the Church. “In the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely.” Efforts to reverse the trend were dismissed as conservative claptrap.

Pope John Paul II, who knew very well the situation of moral theology and followed it closely, commissioned … an encyclical that would set these things right again … Veritatis splendor on August 6, 1993, and it triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians …

I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle … announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical “Veritatis splendor” that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal …

There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern “Catholicity” …  in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my [Benedict’s] books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood.

Then the popes found that, having lost the culture wars, the victorious memes started flying their flags from the seminaries. Benedict recalls that “in various seminaries homosexual cliques were established,” which brought not just new sexual mores but a deliberate new form of transgressive behavior. To Benedict, it seemed as if his Church was under deliberate attack.

He recounts the experience of  “a young woman who was a [former] altar server told me that the chaplain always introduced the sexual abuse he was committing against her with the words: ‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’ It is obvious that this woman can no longer hear the very words of consecration without experiencing again all the horrific distress of her abuse.” The choice of words suggested the target went beyond the actual children to an attack on innocence itself so that “the common believers … can be confounded in their faith by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever.” The ultimate purpose of the new counterconsciousnesss was to create a world without purpose or meaning, without joy or love except in the sardonic sense where “humanity is increasingly lost.”  He had a name for his foe.

The devil wants to prove that there are no righteous people; that all righteousness of people is only displayed on the outside. … Look at what this God has done. Supposedly a good creation, but in reality full of misery and disgust. That disparagement of creation is really a disparagement of God. It wants to prove that God Himself is not good, and thus to turn us away from Him.

Benedict’s recollections might be of little interest to non-Catholics did they not so closely mirror the recent experience of the secular West. As the devil was taking over the seminaries, something was also seizing the great universities of Europe and America, turning them into bastions of political correctness. Everything that happened inside the Church also happened outside with astounding swiftness. In less than 20 years, marriage was redefined from its centuries-old meaning as a union between a man and woman to include homosexuals. Abortion became a progressive sacrament. Concepts of gender and race, which some had thought to be immutable, were transformed in a few short years into a veritable smorgasbord of categories. Slate tells us Facebook offers users 56 genders to choose from.

Although the fires that damaged the Notre Dame in Paris and almost started at St. Patrick’s in New York City during Holy Week seemed to underscore the disaster that had overtaken the Church, Rod Dreher points out that the flameless burning of the Western world’s secular cathedrals has been happening for some time. An ongoing and relentless purge of politically incorrect academic thought at institutions of higher learning has been proceeding apace. Librarians call it weeding and have already removed millions of books from campus collections. “At the University of California, Santa Cruz … the removal of 80,000 books from the Science and Engineering Library last summer sparked uproar among faculty … more than 60 science and math faculty members signed a letter to university librarian M. Elizabeth Cowell complaining they hadn’t been adequately consulted on which books could be discarded and which ones had to be saved.” It’s not fringe behavior, but a program abroad in the noonday sun. Dreher points out that a senior librarian at MIT openly regards “white” books as a waste of space and a legacy of oppression. Her article in the Association of Research Libraries argues the challenge now is to “build diverse and inclusive library environments that contribute to social justice.”

Library collections continue to promote and proliferate whiteness with their very existence and the fact that they are physically taking up space in our libraries. They are paid for using money that was usually ill-gotten and at the cost of black and brown lives. In the case of my current place of employment, the university definitely makes money off of the prison industrial complex and the spoils of war.

How long before the fate of Benedict’s church is the fate of the West?  Almost overnight, concepts like patriotism, family, national borders and even masculinity have become bad words. If the years since 2016 prove anything it is that the crisis in Western culture is as extensive as that gripping the Catholic Church.  But having no equivalent of the devil to blame for events, perhaps the best secular framework for analysis involves lifelike information objects called memes.

A meme is an idea or behavior that spreads from within a culture that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution.  Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

Scott Adams has an interesting definition of a meme. Dilbert walks into a meeting and asks, “Who called this meeting?” The male coworker replies, “We thought you did.” Dilbert responds, “Maybe meetings have become a life form capable of calling themselves and thus reproducing via human hosts.” The meeting is the meme and it is concerned with meetings, not the well being of the humans through which they spread. This separation of interest explains why memes like socialism don’t go extinct. While socialism may be bad for the host, it still sounds good enough to remain viral.

If a viral cocktail of political correctness, socialist dysfunction, and moral relativism is now besetting the West, then reason is as useless against it as Veritatis splendor was against the devil. The meme can continue to spread regardless of damage until it pulls the host down to its energy level. Is there a way out? The Roman empire never solved the problem of how to dominate a malignant meme, but humanity found a way of outlasting it. “Western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock [seven] miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.” The mission of the monks was to remember God — to remember the truth — until the mysterious workings of the system brought them forth again..

It was a difficult life, but one they believed would bear much fruit. Along with a desire to go into the “desert” and contemplate God, the monks of Ireland held on to the concept of a “green martyrdom.”… “Now there are three kinds of martyrdom, which are accounted as a cross to a man, to wit: white martyrdom, green and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man’s abandoning everything he loves for God’s sake, though he suffer fasting or labor thereat. Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labor he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance.”

Benedict’s strategy is not to rely primarily on political measures but on millions of “Skellig Michaels” scattered through the human landscape. It is from these martyrs (as he calls them) and not primarily the church hierarchy that hope and innocence will be renewed. “Today God also has His witnesses (martyrs) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them. … The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic by which we are too easily duped.”

The approach of letting a meme burn itself out has some real advantages. After all, containment worked during the Cold War. Bolivarianism is discrediting itself in Venezuela, a reaction to liberal overreach is the primary driver of the conservative revival the world over. You don’t have to wait a whole Middle Ages for barbarism to self-destruct. But it takes a certain confidence to assert, as Benedict does, that the Church is indestructible and dare to face off with Satan. Yet even if truth triumphs, the devil will be back for another round. Nothing goes extinct, even the dinosaurs lived on — changed — as birds.  Certainly, something of Rome survives, via the three colors of martyrs (red, blue/green, and white, depending on how you died, sacrificed yourself, or withdrew from life) in Catholicism.  The Tower of Babel may be with us still in the form of the Green New Deal, however emphatic the rumor of its fall. The Tower still stands, it lives on as hidden information.

It may be enough to keep playing the game this side of the Last Judgment. Human survival from the beginning depended on the little flame of hope that keeps us living, having children, and showing up for tomorrow. The despair that is currently challenging our civilization knows it is unnecessary to douse the nuclear fires, but only that tiny flame, certain that there will be no Easter if we give up on Good Friday.

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