The modern post-heretic

It will be the thesis of this Idlepost that there are no heretics today — not even in Rome, alas. The classical heresies are alive, and repeated, but not with the virulence of old. We are protected from them by a secret not yet discovered by medical science: that you can’t get the plague when you’ve already got a cold. Modern error is like the common cold, or drunkenness: a condition which afflicts so much of the human organism simultaneously, that there can be no cure, no elegant diagnosis. We are enwrapped, or enfogged, by all the symptoms. Some may die from the development of effects — from pneumonia, perhaps, or cirrhosis of the liver — but most experience only general debilitation.

The attempt to define the heresy of “Americanism” — a noble effort on the part of Leo XIII, in his Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), developed from the noble effort of Pius IX in his “Syllabus of Errors” (1864) — is indicative of this. There was, by those days, no “silver bullet” for the modern condition, nor even a spray of silver bullets: the Enemy was already too heterogeneous for that. Scholars debate what the “real targets” of these documents were (was Leo badgering the Americans to get at the French? &c) but cannot agree among themselves. The first thing we see in reading them again is that they seem dated, since Western society has since “moved on” — though precisely in the directions predicted. (The great encyclicals, including Humanae Vitae, have this prophetic quality. They seem “dated” today because they were so true.)

Implicit in modernity from the beginning was what we call post-modernity today: something irretrievably irrational and post-Christian, though from a host or legion of causes; a swamp within which we cannot trace any single spring. Mud, quite impossible to drain; though as ever we remember that God could do it.

Some tidsear sgoile (Scots Gaelic for “schoolteacher,” I hope) once told me that modernity consists of two poisoned streams of post-Christian thinking, one of which can be traced to Descartes, the other to Hegel. And that we are the fish carried along by them; not actually dead, but close to it. It was, I thought, the beginning of a brilliant clarification. But then the mud infills on every side.

When I call myself a “man of the thirteenth century,” I am not really claiming to be eight centuries old; only expressing an aspiration. It has seemed to me from the beginning of my journey into Christianity, towards Catholicism, that the challenge is to overcome — if only in one’s own mental outlook — the catastrophe of the Reformation. And by this I mean the Reformation in the broadest sense, not merely as the origin of Protestantism, for the Catholic realms were almost equally altered by it. As I once put it, the Protestants had walked off with some of our silverware; getting it back would require getting them back. But the analogy isn’t good enough; for the whole (“Catholic”) vision is larger than any sum of its parts.

What entered on all sides was a “rationalism” that irrationally denied the mystical, the miraculous, and the boundaries of reason; which finally denies reason itself, and leaves each man in utter isolation. Our saints in their visionary experience could get it back; but our people were being taught not even to look for it; to reduce the visionary to optics, as it were; finally to discount everything divine as forms of superstition. Progress was conceived: towards some point at which God could be eliminated entirely.

The task of righting what seems capsized in the Church is of course beyond any human capacity, individual or aggregate. We can only turn to Christ for that. But that turning is, in itself, a challenge beyond the reach of modernity. To follow Him, we must verily give up everything we have.