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Civilizing America

November 17, 2019 (1,204 words)

At the fall of the no longer Holy Roman Empire, the western territory had been laid waste by Visigoths and other barbarians, and found itself in pretty bad shape. The ravaged, war-torn landscape was slowly nursed back to health – civilized and reconverted to the faith – on its way to becoming the glorious continent called Europe, by small groups of Benedictine monks.

Starting in what are now thought of as the Germanic lands, these unmarried men dedicated themselves first and foremost to improving the material lot of the common rabble living in the immediate vicinity of each monastery.

Of course said monks were also keenly interested in the spiritual well-being of the unfortunates they were assisting. It wasn’t just about tending to temporal needs. They had a dual mission, fueled by the premise that for anyone who is not a contemplative or a mystic, the surest way to that person’s heart and mind is through their stomach.

They dutifully preserved the intellectual heritage of the early Church and naturally sought to communicate it to all those they came in contact with. But their unique form of evangelization consisted primarily of providing instruction in the domestic arts, such as agriculture and animal husbandry.

It’s also worth noting some of these hard-working men were of noble birth, yet physical labor was a big part of everyone’s job description, regardless of what one’s previous station in life may have been.

The intellectual heritage they were preserving and playing forward could be summed up as the natural law, with its acknowledgement of moral absolutes, which originate with an innate sense of right and wrong that is written on every human heart.

The humble Benedictines did a superb job of articulating all of this, along with a uniquely Catholic understanding of human dignity and human flourishing, by dint of their daily activities.

our prosperity does not automatically make us civilized…

On the face of it our situation here in the United States of 2019 is very different, since many of us enjoy a level of material prosperity unprecedented in the history of Western civilization.

But still we find ourselves at loose ends when it comes to the spiritual dimension. Or if that word makes you squeamish, let’s call it the meaning-of-life department. Having broken off into many different factions and special interest groups, we obviously lack any sense of shared purpose. In fact we almost appear to be on the verge of civil war.

Our most eloquent journalists and politicians speak of calling on our better angels, and suggest the path to a national reconciliation involves rededicating ourselves to the noble egalitarian ideals we think of our founders as having started out with.

Social conservatives who usually identify as traditional religious believers yearn for something even more profound – what they ambitiously refer to as a restoration of the culture. They correctly identify the modern world’s main malady as its collective dismissal of moral absolutes that once served as reliable guideposts for both private and public behavior.

This has, in turn, negatively impacted society’s sense of what constitutes a respect for human dignity, and what qualifies as human flourishing. It has confused us as to what real progress should look like.

trading moral absolutes for the primacy of individual conscience…

While this dismissal of moral absolutes in favor of the primacy of individual conscience had been advocated by a variety of elites who promoted their heterodox ideas over several centuries, it actually achieved widespread dissemination by way of the sea change in how we chose to do economics over those same centuries.

Concern for the common good and for the least among us, which permeates the Gospels and animated the medieval monks, was gradually but irrevocably replaced by an emancipation of the individual from such communal concern. The new economic paradigm came to be known as enlightened self-interest.

Our pastors talk of the need to integrate our prayer life and spiritual life with our work lives and our family and leisure activities. Thoughtful believers can trace the departmentalization our pastors so artfully describe back to when we moderns discarded the notion of moral absolutes.

But our pastors and our thoughtful believers are unable or unwilling to connect all the dots. The dismissal of moral absolutes has always expressed itself most clearly and forcefully in the way we as a society approach the economic question.

This is why our work lives so often seem at odds with our family life. Even thoughtful believers are stuck trying to conduct the public and private portion of their existence by following two different (and opposing) sets of rules.

There are a slew of astute social commentators coming up with all sorts of perceptive ideas on how to heal our nation’s fractures, and the fissures that are popping up around the globe.

But this layman with no special expertise thinks the key to everything is quite simple and straightforward. We have to take the concept of free enterprise, which has generated so much economic opportunity and enhanced the material circumstances of so many, and infuse it with the message of the Gospels.

the need for a modern-day alchemy…

We have to figure out a way to achieve what amounts to a modern-day alchemy. In this case the transformation of dross into gold will occur when we integrate the two sides of our nature – the temporal that is pre-occupied with our own material advancement, and the spiritual that inclines us to social responsibility.

Or as some might put it, we need to call on our better angels when it comes to how we conduct ourselves during the work week.

Affecting this dramatic paradigm shift will fall in large measure to our smartest and most successful citizens, and the hugely profitable corporations they oversee. They are the ones with their hands on the levers of power. They are the ones who drive public policy and the larger social agenda.

For example, we wouldn’t need to be discussing a wealth tax to fund something as basic as universal health care, if the clever and the advantaged who have benefited most from the “absence of obstacles” that gives free rein to their energy and creative ideas, would take to heart such familiar Gospel passages as the one establishing a moral obligation to share your cloak with the stranger who has none.

While the lion’s share of implementing this radical recasting of our public imagination may be out of their modest hands, thoughtful believers intent on restoring the culture can nevertheless help re-orient society’s current priorities by themselves finally getting around to admitting the boring, dismal science of economics as something that falls squarely under the heading of “morality.”

For those who think the New Testament has lost none of its relevance to daily living, why are you so quick to discount and disregard the sections that speak directly to the subject of “economic” behavior?

Along the same lines, why are so many of these same believers of the opinion “the Pope has no business” commenting on our economic life? Or likely to pay no attention when one of them actually does so?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
November 17, 2019

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