“If we deny Him, He will also deny us.” (2 Tm 2:12; cf. Jude 1:4)
A number of commentators are telling us that it’s alarmist and unwarranted to suggest that the political sky has fallen. John Paul Jones-like, they assure us that we have not yet begun to fight. We are on the side of the angels, after all, and everything will be just fine if we bide our time. This is, I fear, so much quixotic nonsense.
I wish these Panglossian pundits were correct. I wish that we could expect the moral and political resuscitation of the country we all love. Our country, however, is impossibly divided, and it will not much longer stand (cf. Mt 12:25) as we have known it. Change, of course, is inevitable, and it’s often desirable. But change is not bouleversement, meaning, not just upheaval, but a reversal of the things and thoughts which make us whole. We do not know who we are because we no longer know what a human being is; we no longer know who we are because we think we are gods, not God’s; we no longer know who we are because we have erased the memory of the paths and of the pathmakers who brought us here. (Consider, for instance, the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.)
We hear that we have lost our way but we can always turn back. That mellifluous assurance makes good sense to those who cherish the lessons of history, to which Jeremiah approvingly referred (6:16). But we (to use an old-fashioned and incongruous pronoun) have set about re-writing history, putting to shame the more modest efforts of the old Soviet Encyclopedia. Similarly, our fake news is something even Orwell’s NewSpeak could not have anticipated. Pilate’s question is finally utterly unnecessary: truth, and justice, are driven from the land. Moral chaos is the result, as Isaiah prophesied (59:14).
Daniel’s prophecy—that anyone who does not bow down to the idols will be hurled into a blazing furnace (3:6)—is not (yet) literally true. But the “soft totalitarianism” of which Rod Dreher speaks is imminent. Try to be a genuinely Catholic doctor, lawyer, florist, academic—or priest, and you will soon suffer the severe consequences of that principled choice. Does any reasonable person think that, in a Biden-Harris Administration, Catholics—and settled Catholic teaching—will be anything other than repugnant to the new Herodians? “In God we trust” has been repudiated and replaced by sybaritic idol worship, and all of us who trust in such false gods “will be humiliated and disgraced” (Is 42:17).
We live in the age of idols (even in the Vatican), and “the worship of idols, whose name should never be spoken, is the beginning and end, the cause and the result, of every evil” (Wisdom 14:27). The hallmark of our time is not the pervasive victory of moral disease; it is, rather, the terrifying specter of our society’s passionate embrace of such evil: “We all know that people can be so fascinated by evil that they cannot recognize what is good even when they are looking right at it” (Wisdom 4:12, 13:1).
Why all this allusion to prophets and wisdom literature? The moral rot is so extensive; the darkness is so deep; the ethical cancer is so metastasized that there is no prospect of reform (see Dt 32:15-33). “Do not despair,” we are (correctly) counseled. I do not despair. I trust in God. I believe in His mercy and in His providence. But I also fear God. I think His divine justice will not much longer tolerate a nation which so gravely offends Him and his Blessed Mother (cf. Is 9:8-21). If the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, we are utterly and forlornly stupid. For we no longer “recognize what is good even when [we] are looking right at it”—or right at Him. God loves all human beings, but He does not guarantee the existence of any insolent nation—biblical Israel or Judah, or the United States of America.
Ours is a cachectic society. We are in the throes of rampant and inexorable decomposition–cachexia–not merely because we are now practical atheists, but because we mock God, something His divine justice will not long endure (Gal 6:7; Job 4:8). St. Paul tells us that, by the grace of God, we can work out our individual salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)—thus, do not despair, but pray and work. One translation, though, of Proverbs 29:18 tells us, of our country, that “when people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild.” Is that not the crux of the moral cachexia of our day? We run wild—and we stupidly celebrate that as self-fulfillment, moral probity, and political acumen.
We sometimes hear quoted the hopeful words in Second Chronicles: “If they pray to me and repent and turn away from the evil they have been doing, then I will hear them in heaven, forgive their sins, and make their land prosperous again” (7:14). Of course, we believe that! We are, however, so consumed with haughtiness and hubris—we have gravely sinned for so long now—that the prospects of turning to Our Lord in sorrow and shame, while not impossible (given God’s great mercy), are negligible. We have tried to replace God; instead we will be “brought down to the deepest part of the world of the dead” (Is 14:14; 2 Thess 2:4). We have publicly and gleefully deviated from the moral law, thus, as the Catechism warns us, violating our own freedom, becoming imprisoned within ourselves, disrupting neighborly fellowship, and rebelling against divine truth (#1740). We not only permit perversion; we welcome it; we revel in it (Gal 5:19-21). And our public philosophy and legal codes now celebrate it.
So often, modern secular society gets moral issues, not just wrong, but inside out and upside down. The idea that men can marry men and that women can marry women is not just wrong theologically, philosophically, and anatomically, it has the idea of holy matrimony utterly reversed: instead of a sacrament that helps to lead us to salvation, this corruption of marriage leads us only to hedonism and hell (see Rev 21:8, 1 Cor 6:9). The notion that delusional males ought to be free to use females’ restrooms and locker rooms is not only contrary to what used to be called common sense, but represents a form of reasoning utterly at odds with what we know from Revelation (Mk 10:6-9), medicine, and biology.
We have murdered more than sixty million babies, but we tire of the prophets who dare to remind us of that horror, dismissing them as so many cranks and scolds at the orgy. We are desperately morally sick to the point of disintegration and death, but we frantically deny it, celebrating our moral depravity as “freedom” and as “progress” (Is 5:20). It is a kind of reverse moral hypochondria, in which nothing is diseased, nothing is disordered, nothing is debauched—and all are lampooned who insist that there are transcendent moral standards to which we ought to conform ourselves to find genuine happiness.
Oppose same-sex marriage or open restrooms–let alone abortion, euthanasia, and gender-by-scalpel–and one will be derided as backwards, benighted, or bigoted. The glitterati—the famous, wealthy, and glamorous people of stage, screen, and TV (and not a few politicians, professors, and prelates)—condescendingly tell us to be progressive and to compromise, or trash, old-fashioned Catholic morals and standards. And they will have nothing to do with sacred Scripture, or sacred Tradition, or settled sacred Teaching, for these are the laughable subjects of pasquinades, treating any mention of natural moral law as absurdly irrelevant to their lives, for the sacred interferes with their profane parties, their profane passions, their profane politics.
As a nation, we are terminally morally ill (cf. Hb 1:4), and the perversions of our day have infected all that we think and say and do. Plato thought that the progressive degeneration of political regimes would lead to the inevitable replacement of democracy by tyranny. A soul-sick society does indeed degenerate quickly enough into a political monstrosity unable to tell right from wrong, true from false, or virtue from vice. And we are there.
In his superb book about the founding of the United States (America on Trial), Robert Reilly writes that “No matter how democratic their institutions, morally enervated people cannot be free. And people who are enslaved to their passions inevitably become slaves to tyrants.” Benjamin Franklin said that we had a republic, if we could keep it. We have utterly forsaken those moral-political axioms, concepts, and principles, the application of which resulted in the Constitution. But the Constitution is rarely read (and the Bible never read) at the bacchanal.
As American scientist Leon Kass put it, “Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic ‘enhancement,’ for wholesale redesign.” The bioethical barbarians, promising us paradise, lead us into a brave, new world in which the only God is the self (cf. Ps 81:11-16, Dan 9:13). In this disordered world, what is false may be fashionable, for there is no truth. What is evil can be edifying; what is degenerate can be decent; what is sinful can be saintly, for there are no immutable standards of justice or judgment, and everything depends upon sexual pleasure and popularity or, in time, upon power.
Here is the testimony of John Dewey, the famous American educator: “There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there is no need for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.”
The new barbarians, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre told us about three decades ago, have already been governing us, teaching us, influencing us, and entertaining us, for some time. Listen to political and commercial ads, watch almost all television or attend almost all movies, consider the content of so many academic courses, and weigh all these in the light of the holy Gospel. All these contemporary neo-pagan factors and forces “instruct” us: they are the false prophets, the fraudulent teachers, the purveyors of filth, and the spineless bishops who aid and abet evil by calling it “winsome” (cf. 2 Cor 11:13; Mal 2:8).
Jude 4: “For some godless people have slipped in unnoticed among us, persons who distort the message about the grace of our God in order to excuse their immoral ways.” A Beatles’ song, we think: no worries.
Cardinal Burke has warned us that “Fundamental to understanding the radical secularization of our culture is to understand also how much this secularization has entered into the life of the Church herself.” As confirmed Catholics, we are called upon to be Christ’s witnesses against secularization (cf. CCC #2044) both inside the Church, when necessary, and outside of it, always. If, as Solzhenitsyn said, “Men have forgotten God—that is why all this has happened,” there are in our ordained ranks (cf. Mt 10:36) many practical atheists whose sacred privilege it is to dispense moral medicine; but they deny the disease, or, worse, praise it, blasphemers in league with what the very evil they are ordained and consecrated to fight as priests and as men.
G.K. Chesterton, in his allegorical poem, “The Ballad of the White Horse,” told us the story of King Alfred the Great (848-899), the Saxon king who heroically fought off a barbarian invasion, and who made his kingdom the nucleus of a unified England. In that poem, Chesterton told us that “I have a vision. And I know/The heathen shall return. They shall not come with warships,/They shall not waste with brands,/But books be all their eating,/And ink be on their hands.” Neither miter nor mortar board insures against infidelity or willful ignorance. Or against ink—or blood—on our hands.
Profane, if popular, books say there is no God or that, if there is, He hardly matters; and the progressives’ ink proclaims the days of new “truths”—the Great Reset; and their barbarian codes insist that they can turn the world inside out and upside down–and build again the Tower of Babel, if only it brings us autonomous power, prestige, or pleasure. In morals and in politics, we have achieved the sick Luciferian dream: we are become God (Gn 3:5). We are cachectic but, as we die, we fiddle and dance around the funeral pyre, in Foucault-like madness, celebrating because we have engineered our own fiendish destiny. This is a necrophilia which cheapens and corrupts what is good and true and beautiful in the lives God grants us.
If that moral cachexia leads to the savagery of the deaths of the innocent or the destruction of the sacred or the dethronement of God—well, that is the price of “progress,” isn’t it? Not for nothing was MacIntyre’s book entitled After Virtue, for what is authentically virtuous has been turned inside out and upside down (cf. CCC #398). Machiavelli substituted virtu or might, for virtue or right; thus the impious are celebrated, the pious, derided. Nice guys finish last, and winning is the only thing.
Our ethically beleaguered society has found the malevolent ring of Plato or Wagner or Tolkien. The lights are going out all over our morally sick country; but that is all right, we think: there is so much more pleasure to be had, if we are invisible, or under cover of darkness. Before cachexia deprived us of our sight, it had taken away our soul. And the dogma did not live loudly in us anymore.
We are left with the prayer of the Psalm with which the traditional Latin Mass customarily begins: “Distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.” We must remember well that “a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God’s grace” (Gaudium et Spes, #37). But grace is resistible, after all; and, led by false shepherds, we spurn it.
Habakkuk prophesied well: “Those who are evil will not survive, but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.” We live among the dead, by which I mean those whose consciences are victims of suicide (cf. Acts 28:26-27). But the voices in the darkness tell us that we have a “right” to physical and mental suicide, that we have a “right” to do and to be whatever we wish (if we have the necessary wealth), that we can turn traditional morality inside out and upside down. This is the result of the pervasive moral cachexia of our time, a kind of vertiginous virtue which, like Milton’s devil, commands evil to “be thou my good.” Bored by trying to distinguish right from wrong, we rebelliously deny the existence of the categories, and we kill our consciences and slay our souls, crapulously chortling that we did it “my way.” And then we die.
We should have listened to Chicken Little.
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.