College of Fellows

Report from Notre Dame Conference 2011

Here's a report and some personal reflections following the three-day conference at Notre Dame sponsored by its Center for Ethics and Culture NotreDameCenter. The theme was “Radical Emancipation: Confronting Secularism” and was in response to Pope Benedict's expressed concerns about our increasingly secularized cultural environment.

While I think that my report is accurate let me stress that these are my interpretations and conclusions as to the implications of the critiques.

“Secularization” is not easy to define because it has had various meanings and stages but, in essence, it refers to a society governed by people who either reject religious belief or at least see no need for its integration into society.

In general, historically at least, “secularists” have tended to affirm reason or some concept of science as a sufficient means of understanding human beings and their needs. Many of the more “radical” secularists have for over a hundred years attempted to impose a top-down non-religious social system and have succeeded to the degree that people have been ever more dependent upon either the State or the marketplace for their needs and livelihood. What is more difficult to define is what the contemporary “non-believers” actually believe, if anything.

In its final stages, that is, our own times, secularism – particularly following the failure of its most extreme form, communism – has become defensive and belligerent. From the Church's point of view this is because a secular society cannot meet basic human needs which are spiritual as well as material, and its advocates have thus gradually lost their credibility and authority.

The American version of secularism has been historically milder than elsewhere and somewhat extenuated in that it has largely “co-opted” religion in the past by limiting it to the private sphere and thus turning it into something vaguely “spiritual” and highly individualistic. Any norms of religious morality applied to the public arena are rejected as an imposition and threat to personal liberty. The Church has been therefore gradually excluded from public life except in occasions of benign formality. This “privatization” is in conflict with Catholic ethics and values which are inherently communal in nature.

There have been many forms of secularism including “hard” and “soft,” democratic and authoritarian, but their common denominator is the systematic exclusion of religion and particularly the Catholic Church, the largest and most universal, from public life and policy. It is in the face of this now radical secularism – made all the more extreme by its increasing loss of credibility – that Pope Benedict raised the question of what should be the Catholic response.

The major speakers at the conference were Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the most preeminent Catholic moral philosophers, Jean Elshtain, a conservative social critic (whom I didn't hear) and Christian Smith, now head of ND's major sociological research center. A young media-savvy priest, Father Barron, was the first keynoter and the sole speaker who expressed a more accommodating approach to the contemporary culture.

In addition to the main speakers we heard from three Catholic college presidents as well as an array of impressive young scholars in the numerous workshops – mostly junior faculty. It was a delight, incidentally, to behold MacIntyre, now eighty-three, being treated like a hot-ticket rock star by the students and faculty.

The conference was multi-disciplinary (philosophy, political science, sociology, anthropology, history, education) and all the more significant for me in that it confirmed most if not all of my own assumptions. It is even more significant that these views are held by the last three popes and now by most of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States. Catholics are hardly of one mind but the consensus was striking.

One central conclusion was that the incoherence in public discourse (including even academia) and social fragmentation is deep and worsening. We have, indeed, entered Walker Percy's “no name new age” in that no one can articulate a coherent analysis of all that is happening. (In my presentation I suggested a convergence of three crises: the end of modernity as an historical period, the continuing world-wide mass migrations and what Girard has termed the “mimetic crisis,” that is, the weakness if not failure of sacrificial “scapegoat” systems in resolving internal conflicts.) It seems clear that we are entering nothing less than a new period of history, something that happens perhaps once a century, and are suffering long-term “birth pangs” as new ideas and perhaps embryonic social structures are being developed.

There was agreement also that this is not primarily a political or economic crisis; those areas present problems that are serious but more symptomatic than causal. The fundamental crisis is cultural – that is, the loss of a coherent set of beliefs and a common “way of life” that has continuity and can be transmitted to the next generation. This cultural breakdown has been developing for more than half a century and what we are seeing is its final stages. We in the West have lived off the “moral capital of the past,” the resources of the traditions which are now rejected, and the bank account is now empty.

I was pleased to note that while these Catholic intellectuals perceived some validation of the Church's analysis and our moral stances, there was no “triumphalism” or sense of victory in seeing radical secularism in free fall. The chaos, indeed, the cultural barbarism that might ensue in the aftermath (rejectionist Islam, for instance) will be no friend to our faith traditions any more than to principles of liberty or reason. There is a recognition that one of the primary tasks of Catholics now is to mount a defense of personal liberty and rationality – the original secularist ideals that were subsequently so corrupted and abused.

Here are some assorted observations from a variety of presentations and speakers from various disciplines.

There was considerable discussion as to how the Jacobin goal since the French Revolution has been to accomplish nothing less than a reform or even transformation of the human race and there were different theories as to why this program failed whether in the totalitarian manner advocated by Lenin or the liberal approach of a John Dewey.

One characteristic of secularism that has contributed to its decline is its utter dependence on playing an “adversarial role.” Secularism was historically a parasitic growth on European Christianity and yet justified and defined itself primarily by what it rejected and first opposed in Christian society in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Christendom” was vulnerable because it had been co-opted by its alliance with the social status quo. As the industrial revolution created great inequality and injustice, this alliance with the upper classes made the Church a convenient and indeed legitimate target. However, without an adversary to oppose – and particularly the Church – the secular agenda falls apart. Secularism cannot recover because by its very premises it cannot posit any lasting or transcendent values without ideologically contradicting itself.

The increasing loss of moral authority and in time even the political legitimacy of the modern nation-state was thus inevitable. The question that remains is, what will replace it? The theocratic radicalism of some Islamists isn't going to be any more effective than the past right-wing Catholic dictatorships in Spain, Chile or Portugal. Beneath the veneer of their religious rhetoric all of these regimes are in fact as secular as any others in that they ultimately depend upon power and efficiency alone – Caesar is using religion as a fig leaf and not for the first time.

A historical perspective also shows that the half century of late modernity, the second half of the twentieth century, was inherently unstable with fundamental political changes in every decade and throughout the world. I think 1990 was a definitive turning point but one that we still don't understand well. If, as I suspect, the 1990s marked the “end of modernity” as an historical period then we've been ourselves in “free fall” for a generation. No wonder there is such a collective stutter among the young!

This inarticulateness of the young which some of us have discussed relates to their fear of a loss of basic relationships – family and tradition on one hand and peer identification on the other. What the Church must do is provide the essential foundation of identity – faith, family, community as well as friendships. Meeting these needs must now be our priority, not debate or argumentation.

In America, the highly secularized managerial class is statistically rather small and a highly socially-concentrated “information caste.” As such, it is highly dependent upon government and technology. This group is a post-industrial work category that could possibly replace itself with advanced computers. In any case, they, as with the growing sub-class, have no viable or coherent culture and cannot pass one on to their increasingly confused and inarticulate children.

It is significant that the academic researchers, including secularists, are aware of this development and an increasing number of books are now announcing the demise of secularism even though the authors see no alternative.

Strong resistance to an imperious secularism has appeared in many forms and led by sharply differing figures – John Paul II, the Dalai Lama as well as Khomeini, Solidarity and Al Qaeda. In the meantime, the nation-state has increasingly lost moral authority and is racked by internal divisions including the clash between traditional liberalism and statism in all its forms. The major religions are, of course, transnational and inherently threatening to a defensive and vulnerable nation-state. Yet religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, are also integrated into social hierarchies – yet another potentially serious contradiction as it was in the past, particularly in Europe. It may well be that the demise of radical secularism will provoke some institutional structural changes within the Church as well.

As to politics, there was a broad consensus that not only is the political stalemate reflective of the underlying cultural crisis, but what we are now witnessing is a form of “anti-politics” that offers the illusion of citizenship. The media presentations of politics is a form of mass diversion, a non-participatory sport that polarizes and trivializes the participants and their fans into “winners” and “losers.” This form of mass political entertainment doesn't engage people in real politics which means long-term commitments that address the concrete problems within communities. Real politics is not only inherently “local”- it must begin there, particularly in defense of the family and community.

The sociological data is fascinating in what it reveals about the depth of incoherence and fragmentation, far beyond what I expected. The percentage of Americans who have a serious religious commitment rather than merely a rhetorical one is probably less than twenty percent. This degree of serious participation actually isn't as strikingly different from the past as one might suppose in that studies suggest that much of past religiosity was merely conformity.

The “non-believers” are even less coherent. The so-called “new atheists” aren't really addressing religious questions about “God” but reflect the growing number of disenfranchised young people  – particularly young white males – who believe in nothing because they have no commitments to anyone, perhaps not even to themselves.

The present American version of religion – confirmed by several studies – is an insidious form of a corrupted Christianity that has been reduced, in effect, to a therapeutic application. Most young Americans “believe in God” as long as this belief makes them “happy” which clearly means not suffering and most certainly not subject to suffering by way of personal commitment. God is the great Therapist in sky, handy when you need Him as long as He doesn't interfere with your sex life.

The word “God” is a signifier that no longer clearly signs. For older Americans, most particularly secularists, it primarily signifies death – that is, points to the underlying questions as to how we deal with death. How do we integrate death into life? For the younger generation “God” signifies love and intimacy. Their question is, can we trust love or believe that any intimate relationship will last? Their debates about “God” are clearly evasive of the underlying fears and concerns.

My generation now has the advantage of age in that we inescapably face death and thus recognize our definitive limitations. We are now inherently “counter-cultural” and anti-secular in this respect even if we don't embrace religion.

Father Michael, Gil and I, representing the Dominican School, made joint presentations with Father Michael offering a thoughtful Thomistic theological understandings of the underlying malaise – the loss of genuine individuality – and Gil addressing the crisis from a religious anthropological perspective including, naturally, some astute Girardian analysis.

I addressed, of course, the role of the arts, and particularly the media arts. (I “boned up” by watching a little TV in my hotel room and, inescapably, on the airplane. It is striking how artificial the media images have become as well as the weak and arbitrary character of the media “idols.”) What is needed, I suggested, isn't simply a re-invigoration, a “resourcement” in the arts, but establishing a new and communal social context for the arts. Faith and art must be reunited after a long and artificial separation. The Church must pay less effort to imitating the media with its advertising techniques and “pop” imagery and be open to radical innovation in the arts and media. I pointed out that the role of art is important in providing a necessary form of communication when a moral vocabulary is lost and conceptual thought clouded by contradictions.

A not surprising consensus that was expressed at the conference was that the only effective response to the present crisis will be a religious one, the renewal of a moral and theological foundation and perspective. Alasdair MacIntyre concluded, however, that the most serious problem we face at present is the “internalized secularism” within the Church itself. He referred to a widespread acceptance of the philosophical framework of secularism with its hubristic positivist analytical approach. This approach reduces “God” to some kind of “intellectual problem” rather than the challenge of a living relationship.

Finally, there was considerable agreement that the Church must openly challenge the present society. Most of the disagreements concerned how to best do this. The response to what John Paul called “the culture of death” must be our radical affirmation of life and not simply our creedal belief in the Resurrection, but a witnessing to it in our lives and work. Similarly, our response to the latest expressions of disbelief must be to demonstrate the power of love and our personal experience of God's Grace. The debates are pointless without this; we must now concretely live our faith. To “believe” in anything or anybody assumes trust. This trust won't come out of a theory but out of working relationships that can be observed and tested over time.

It is clear that in offering my own analysis and my “desert path” proposals I'm not running ahead and am in fact somewhat in the middle of the pack of long-distance runners.

I conclude that my obligation is now to test my ideas by moving to implementation. The frontiers of art and sanctity have converged on the horizon and I feel little need for further arguments or analysis, at least not on my part. I thought I could just go on singing Nicely-Nicely's song from Guys and Dolls -- “Sit down, you're rocking the boat!” – but I fear I must now perform a rendition of Lisa's song in My Fair Lady: “Show me!”