July 14, 2005
Nothing At the Center
Nine Popes Without a God
The Menace of Nice People
Falling Leaves in Late Winter
Politics and Communion
Remote, lofty, and vast, the inside surface of a dome is a natural spot for the placement of art representing the highest aspirations of the builders of the edifice. In churches and cathedrals the obvious thing to do is to represent some aspect of heavenly Glory: twinkling stars, at least, and, more often, saints and angels, or Christ himself, or His Mother, bathed in the artist’s best attempt at Uncreated Light. The dome of St. Peter’s is, appropriately, a very fine exemplar of this impulse: inside it, circles of beatitude rise, beginning with popes and Fathers of the Church and culminating in the symbol of God the Father, arms outstretched in blessing, haloed, at least by day, in light from surrounding windows.
For the designers of the secular temple which is our nation’s capitol, though, the choices were not so clear or so readily adaptable to the artist’s hand. Allegorical Liberty, perhaps, might do; but nothing “sectarian” would have been appropriate. If any of America’s founders dreamed of the Beatific Vision, they kept it pretty well to themselves, and certainly out of the deliberations and documents which formed the new nation.
They seem to have been children of this world, mainly, and wise enough “in their generation;” the children of light had torn Europe to pieces with their religious wars, and the good solid Englishmen of the American colonies were happy to have a chance to design for themselves a new world in which such things would no longer happen because the state, the natural proprietor of the machinery of war, would henceforth offer no allegiance to any transcendent doctrine. Never again would the state be appropriated for the violent furtherance of anyone’s idea of the Kingdom of God; such concerns were to remain within the doors of the churches, and those who entered there might think whatever they wished.
Outside those doors no more was required of one than an observation of what were held to be the obvious essentials of practical morality: honesty, justice, the observance of one’s plain duty toward country, community, and family. Religion was expected to receive a decent respect, so atheism was disapproved and public insult to religion disallowed. But there was to be no state religion, and the state itself was to be a modest instrument for preserving these liberties—not a partner or a guide in some cosmic quest, but a humble entity concerned solely with the maintenance of good order in the earthly city.
It was not a bad idea. In many ways it was an excellent idea. But it did leave the artist, staring up into the huge dome of the new and considerably more grandiose capitol of 1865, somewhat at sea. Not at liberty to deal with heaven, and distanced even from most of his cultural roots, which were more or less at odds with this new pragmatic rationalism, he was obliged to fall back upon a Hero of the State. And so it was that the dome of the capitol came to bear the image of George Washington.
I did not know this until last summer when I stood with my wife and children in the capital rotunda and looked straight up into the dome. There, looking down at me, was Washington, partially draped in a dark robe and surrounded by angels (or something). But he was not contemplating the divine. He was looking down in a detached and not-entirely-pleased sort of way, as if upon his subjects. And I learned later that the title of the fresco is “The Apotheosis of Washington.” We use the word “apotheosis” to mean “glorification,” but the fresco in the Capitol seems to partake of the more literal meaning: “deification.”
“And so,” I thought to myself, “having no God in our temple, we have tried to make a man into a god.”
Then I said aloud to my son Will, “Look. They’ve put Washington in the center of everything.” He looked up, studied the painting for a moment, and replied, “Not exactly. Washington’s a little off to the side. There’s nothing in the center.”
It has frequently been observed that American institutions presume the existence of a coherent, more or less universal, more or less Christian, ethic. It has been pointed out that the collapse of this consensus will lead, is leading, has led to the collapse of society. Both these statements are true. And nothing confirms them more clearly than the present condition of the Supreme Court.
Americans, mostly Protestant by heritage and instinct, have always honored the Bible (even when misinterpreting it rather seriously, as in the pre-Civil War doctrine of “Hamitic Bondage,” which held that slavery was ordained by God for Africans because they were the descendants of Ham, Noah’s son and father of Canaan, upon whom Noah laid the curse that “a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren”). But the Bible is not the law of the land. The law of the land, the law which really must be obeyed on pain of punishment, is the Constitution. I will ignore the question of whether the Constitution is presently in many respects a dead letter; the belief, still, is that the Constitution is our Supreme Law.
It would be unwise to try to make Scripture serve as the constitution of a civil government; Scripture is not meant for that purpose and can reasonably be invoked as sanction for a number of different forms of government. But it is equally unwise to make the Constitution into a scripture. And that is what America has done, or at least tried to do, because there is no other place than the Constitution to look for the establishment of fundamentals upon which all Americans must agree.
It is no one’s Bible, no one’s Magisterium, to which Americans may, in the end, legitimately appeal on public matters. There is, literally, no higher law in the United States of America than the Constitution. If the framers of the Constitution believed in a higher law they kept any mention of it out of the Constitution itself, and we, obligated by a sort of fundamentalism to honor only the framers’ one scripture, are free to ignore what they may have thought or said in private. As far as the law and customs of the nation are concerned it is the Constitution which judges religion; it is the Constitution which says what really matters, what is right and wrong. This is quite a burden to place upon a thoroughly pragmatic document written one summer in Philadelphia by a group of men trying to organize a government. And of course now that the ethical consensus which underlay that document has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them. To look to it for assistance in matters of first principles is like reading the owner’s manual of your car in hope of learning where you ought to go: as if a family, having decided to pack up and move, were to expect that by reading the instructions for checking the oil and changing a tire they would learn whether or not they could expect to find contentment in Chattanooga.
Protestants in the United States and elsewhere have always denied the necessity of an authoritative interpreter of Scripture. Some appeal to a general Christian consensus, some acknowledge the weight of tradition; others, more typically American, attribute sovereignty to the individual and assume the individual’s right to decide for himself what Scripture really means. The fact that this has led to schism within schism is by now accepted as inevitable and tolerable, the price of freedom.
But such a rate of division could not be tolerated in civil society. You cannot have little groups of people founding city-states based on some private reading of the Constitution; you cannot have Constitutional schismatics setting up rival governments, collecting taxes and raising armies. In the nineteenth century the Southern states made such an attempt, and the rest of the nation did not hesitate to compel unity by force.
Therefore the notion of an authoritative and definitive interpreter of the national scripture is accepted as easily in this temperamentally Protestant nation as the doctrinal authority of the Church is accepted by the more traditionalist groups within Christianity. That interpreter is, of course, the Supreme Court, and it is often astonishing to see how much trust is placed in this institution by people who otherwise pride themselves on their skepticism, independence, and ability to answer every significant question without direction or assistance from anyone. Even those who approach the Constitution as a fundamentalist approaches Scripture accept the fact the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means.
It is in many circles somewhere between bad manners and villainy to admit to having fixed beliefs on most moral and philosophical questions. Yet it is clear that the human mind requires such points of fixity, and so we find the most skeptical intellectuals placing the most naive trust in the judgment of the Supreme Court. It is not just that they acknowledge the fact that the Court has the last word; there is almost a sense that they believe that the Court’s decisions constitute what is right and true, at least for the moment.
To place such trust in these nine popes without a God would obviously be a mistake at any time, but now it is ridiculous. We find ourselves in the position of expecting to have the most serious moral questions answered by a group of lawyers selected by politicians, and we are getting the sort of answers that might be expected.
Twenty years ago the Court discovered, in some murky “penumbra” surrounding the words of the Constitution, an apparently inalienable right to abortion. Who knows what else it may espy in those shifting lights and shadows? The political situation almost guarantees the selection of people with bad ideas and something less than firstrate minds for the Court. It is unlikely that any Democratic candidate can attain the Presidency without an obligation to impose strict ideological tests on prospective justices, tests which will require support for many policies inimical to Catholic teachings. The Republicans speak in terms more acceptable to Catholics, at least on matters of personal morality such as abortion; yet, whether through confusion or lack of confidence or sheer dissembling, twelve years of Republican presidents have left us with a court which has recently informed us that every American has “the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” I suppose we have always had this right, though most of us choose not to exercise it, preferring to accept, with our equally conventional neighbors, the prevailing consensus on the question of which way is up and other aspects of physical, if not spiritual, existence.
Still, the declaration says much about what we can expect from the Court. In a time when people seem deracinated as never before, the Supreme Court has declared our right to be mad, which I suppose must imply our collective right to turn the country into a madhouse—a permission which we hardly seem to have needed.
The Menace of Nice People [top]  [next]  [prev]
Some years ago I was shocked by the words of a very nice man. It was sometime during the Reagan administration, perhaps about halfway through it, and Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority were much in the news. I was working for a large high-tech corporation at the time, and many of my co-workers were the sort of thoroughly secularized people whose lives are so pleasant and secure that they seem to have lost the capacity to understand the questions posed by religion. Some of them were nonetheless tolerant of religion; others appeared to see it as a kind of madness, acceptable when confining itself to works of charity, an outrage when venturing, as the saying goes, “to tell people how to live,” as if it had any other purpose. In such company I generally did not say all I was thinking, but my argumentative nature frequently got the better of me.
One day a group of us had gone to lunch at a favorite barbecue restaurant. The conversation turned to the Rev. Falwell, and its tone was one of immense contempt. Though I would not call myself a great admirer of Falwell, I found myself unable to contain my dismay at what seemed a flippant dismissal of the entire ethical tradition of the Christian world, a calm presumption that no one in his right mind would pay attention to Christian morality regarding sexual matters. Trying to make the case that Falwell was at least speaking to a huge hole in the modern world’s view of the universe, I made the statement that “the United States is in a condition of moral anarchy,” that we could no longer agree about the nature of the good, much less its attainment. I thought this a fairly uncontroversial statement, as most of the group had grown up in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the great modern revolt against absolutes had attained real popular success. But to my surprise the statement was met with groans and chuckles; I had uttered another of the nutty statements which they had come, I suppose, to expect me to deliver now and then.
“Oh, come on,” said one friend. “Everybody still agrees about the basics.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “We’re losing our respect for human life. At the rate we’re going we’ll eventually be executing the old and the sick.”
He laughed again and shook his head, as if thinking what an alarmist, and said, “People will always draw the line at that sort of thing.”
Well, he won the argument, because I was speechless after that. In the age of Hitler and Stalin, the atomic bomb and the corner abortionist, my friend had suggested that we could trust the goodness of human nature.
I believe he could do so because he is such a nice person himself. I didn’t know him all that well, but he struck me as a person of natural virtue. I always had the impression that it came naturally to him to be faithful to his wife, good to his children, honest with his co-workers, diligent in his work. And he certainly would never approve a scheme of mass murder—provided, of course, that he recognized it to be such.
I, on the other hand, am not very nice. I can manage a creditable imitation of virtue as long as I keep myself in circumstances where the line of least resistance leads in the right direction, but I know myself to be inconstant and irresolute, with a heart always ready to slip into darkness. And so perhaps it is easier for me to expect evil of the human race. At any rate, history provides much more justification for my pessimism than for my friend’s optimism.
My friend is a liberal who detested Ronald Reagan. Yet I think his naivete is connected with the sort of sinister innocence which has been a part of the American character from the beginning and which Reagan also exemplified at times. It has to do with the delusion that America has somehow been removed from the fatal drifts of history, perhaps exempted from original sin itself. James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus says in a famous line that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” Americans have often believed that they have awakened, that the ancient self-destroying evils which have always dogged the human race have somehow been made inoperative in them; we “aren’t perfect,” we “make mistakes” (or, as the government has taken to saying, “mistakes are made”), but we are incapable of real evil. If we occasionally do something that we might have condemned in the wicked old powers of Europe or the sinister regimes of Asia, such as dropping an atomic bomb on helpless civilians, well, we meant well. (The inverse of this, the belief that the United States is uniquely wicked, seems to be a side effect or reaction to the doctrine of perpetual innocence, and evidence of an equal inability to see us for what we are: a nation of many virtues and many failings, and in this respect not different from any other whose rise and fall has enlivened the pages of history.)
The belief that the American people are somehow uniquely certain to draw ethical boundaries where they belong is manifestly mistaken as regard the past and the present, and dangerous as regards the future. The movement toward euthanasia, which was dismissed as a figment of the Catholic imagination ten or fifteen years ago, is gaining constant ground, and those who would approve it when it is voluntary are aiding the progress of an ethic which cannot provide any reason why it should remain so. That line, like so many others which have been crossed, will, when the time comes, appear to minds shaped by the doctrine of inevitable progress as simply one more outdated restriction upon human liberation, and the fence which marks it will be trampled as soon as there is a strong motive for doing so, as there certainly will be within the next few decades, as the population of elderly people increases disproportionately to that of those who must care for them.
Thus, paradoxically, nice people like my friend are, in the absence of a strong and recognized moral authority, a menace to society. Meaning no harm themselves, they are fatally naive about those who do mean harm and about the natural tendency of ordinary well-meaning people to drift with whatever philosophical winds are blowing. And those winds are, at this hour, blowing bitter and strong and very cold.
One Saturday in February I sat at the kitchen table after breakfast, reading the newspaper. From my usual seat there I can see the front door, which was open (winters are mild here). I looked up from the paper just as a small storm of dead leaves drifted across my view, and felt a pang of sharp sadness which I often feel in autumn. When I was much younger I thought this sadness was caused by the knowledge of doom impending in the form of a return to school after summer vacation. Later I decided that it was something deeper and more elemental: an awareness of the passage of time and of the necessary death of all things.
At any rate it was the falling leaves which had sent this moment of grief and foreboding through me. And as it passed I realized with a lift of the heart that it was not autumn, that I was watching the work of a February breeze stripping away leaves which had been brown and dead for months.
Christians of all stripes have been fretting for some time now about the end of Christian culture and its replacement by secularism. The more perceptive observers began to take note of this phenomenon in the 19th century, some of them even treating it as an accomplished fact by the end of the century. Others have seen it as a struggle still in progress, the outcome still undecided. Filled with dismay and foreboding, they shout alarms to all who will listen: if we do not act now, and decisively, our civilization will be lost, and calamity will be upon us.
But somewhere in Chesterton or Belloc there is a line that goes something like this: “My friend, you have mistaken the hour of the night; it is already morning.” And it is something of the sort that I would say to those who believe they are fighting to shore up the disintegrating framework of Christian society: it is true that the wind is sweeping away the leaves, but the season is not autumn; the winter is well advanced, and though we have probably not seen the worst of it yet, still the time is past for lamenting the summer, and the time has come for looking to the spring.
The battle to preserve the traditional Christian culture of the West as a living thing has ended. Perhaps it ended with the French Revolution; perhaps it was the First World War; perhaps it was the revolutionary hedonism which flowered after the Second World War and triumphed after the 1960s. These things are arguable. What does not seem to me to be arguable any more is that we are now living in an atheistic civilization.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I do not mean that most of the people in our society are atheists (relatively few profess atheism, though many practice it) or that the government is forcing us to be atheists. I do mean that the word “secular,” which is commonly used to describe our society, is too vague and neutral to fit the situation, and that the word “atheistic” is more precise. To put it plainly, we have a society whose governing institutions and dominant culture operate on the assumption that there is no God. Accordingly, religious considerations are disallowed, formally and informally, as determinants of policy, and often considered eccentric or suspect as guides to personal behavior.
This may seem an overstatement. After all, don’t the Catholic bishops seem to catch the ear of the government and the journalists from time to time? The bishops talk, at any rate, quite freely, and their hearers are, for the most part, at least polite. And don’t evangelical preachers by the score fill the air with sermons, attracting millions of listeners, and their dollars? Hasn’t the so-called “religious right” been a force of at least some power in the political world? “Yes,” of course, to all these questions; the noise made by the churches and religiously-oriented lobbies is sometimes enormous.
But consider the terms in which these debates are framed. Whether it is the bishops taking a liberal position on economics, or Pat Robertson taking a conservative position against feminism, the position is considered legitimate—not necessarily correct, but deserving a place in the debate, eligible for consideration and response—only insofar as it is framed in worldly terms. A position which is explicitly based on religion is simply thrown out—“inadmissible evidence,” as they say in law. Consider any moral question, such as sexual activity outside of marriage. Those who say that society ought to oppose it must prove that it makes people unhappy, or poor, or ill, or that it causes them to commit crimes. Try to imagine yourself appearing before the Senate and explaining that young people ought to be taught to discipline their sexual urges for the sake of their immortal souls. The idea is absurd; the government simply cannot listen to such a line of argument; it is, in a vague sort of way, prohibited by law from doing so.
lf the ultimate purpose of human existence is the attainment of the Beatific Vision, and if we have a culture which prohibits all official and many cultural acknowledgements of that purpose, we have a culture which denies that purpose. And in its place the culture puts—for nowhere does nature so bitterly abhor a vacuum as in this question of the meaning of life—the atheistic pursuit of happiness in this world.
That was my first point. My second is that this atheistic culture is also dead. I don’t say that it is finished. It will be with us for a while. It will rule us for a while and it may eventually persecute us. I do not take these prospects lightly, for it will do much harm. But there is no life in it.
The vision constructed by most elements of our culture is entirely materialistic: an imperial self sliding through life in a bubble of technology, intent on enhancing its physical and emotional comfort, jealously guarding its sovereignty, perpetually distracted by consumption of goods and services provided by government and industry (at a cost not immediately obvious), met at the end of life by a smiling doctor holding the needle for the lethal injection. This is a vision of death-in-life which will always be met with revulsion by men and women of passion; of these, many will lose, or never find, their balance, and will prefer anarchy and nihilism. Those who accept the vision will turn ever nastier as the empty promises—none other than those of Satan named in the ritual of baptism—fail to deliver real happiness.
But human culture is not, after all, quite like the climate; spring will come to my home, and nothing in this world can stop it, but whether there will be a cultural springtime is another question altogether. Christianity will never die, and if the world lasts long enough there will probably again be a Christian civilization someday. But whether it will come directly on the heels of the atheistic one is far from inevitable. Something will replace atheism at the center of our civilization, but that thing will not necessarily be Christianity.
The November 1992 issue of Harper’s contained a sort of symposium on the issue of abortion. Most of the contributors were predictably pleased with it, though the editors were fair enough to include the wisdom of Juli Loesch Wiley and Wendell Berry. The last of the dozen or so short pieces was one of the few things I have ever read which literally frightened me. The writer is Frederick Turner, Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas:
It might help if you think of abortion as a sacrifice—the later the abortion, the heavier and graver the reason had better be, and the more sacred the whole thing is. ... But the way I look at it, a sacrifice demands respect. It had better be done in a good cause, or it will come back to haunt us. That’s why we often make a beautiful communal ritual out of sacrifice, even if it’s a highly symbolic one…. What traditional religious ritual tells us is that sacrifice can be enriching, creative, evoking powers and values that can contribute great gifts to human existence. Isn’t it possible that abortion, in the right circumstances, for the right reasons and intentions, could be like that?
There you have it. An intellectual, a sensitive man, an educated and thoughtful man, has suggested that human sacrifice may be, after all, a meaningful—moreover, an effective—part of life. Moloch is stirring in the Department of Humanities.
Something must fill the vacuum at the heart of the secular constitutional democracies. It might be said that the struggle for Christians at present is not so much to preserve the past as to shape the future, except, that as far as the faith is concerned it is precisely by preserving the past, ever giving it new life in our own hearts, that we shape the future.
One summer evening I was driving home at night with two of my children, twelve-year-old John and five-year-old Clare, in the car. We were on a two-lane country road. The night was clear and quiet. Clare sat beside me and leaned over against the door so that she could look up into the sky. There was little traffic. Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice right away that Clare was singing. Eventually the sound caught my ear and I realized that she was inventing the song, as children often do, and that it was a song to the stars at which she was gazing:
Sweet little stars
I love you You are so beautiful 0 sweet little stars
The astronomers tell us that the stars are not little and not sweet, that they are unimaginably huge, hot, and distant. Let us assume that the astronomers are correct, as far as the physical facts go, though I sometimes amuse myself by imagining the consternation that would result if it were suddenly proved that the stars are really, after all, relatively small lights in a sphere a few million miles away. The really fairly minor difficulty which the Catholic Church had in adjusting to the Copernican theory would be nothing compared to the catastrophe that such a discovery would be to the scientific world.
But even if the astronomers are right, as I have no reason to doubt, I deny that their knowledge of the stars is fundamentally more accurate than Clare’s. In fact, I hope for their sakes that theirs is not less accurate. Their knowledge is, obviously, far more detailed than hers, and I don’t in the least intend to disparage the noble work by which that knowledge was attained. But if the astronomers have lost the knowledge which Clare possesses then she knows the stars better than they do. For she knows that the stars are here for our delight.
There is a certain kind of dull materialist who enjoys disturbing unreflective people with the phrase “nothing more than.” The earth, he will say, is nothing more than a coalescence of space dust; human beings are nothing more than highly evolved apes; life is nothing more than a form of chemical organization. And so, boringly, on. When I was twelve or thirteen I had a textbook which claimed that the average human body is composed of about ninety-eight cents worth of chemicals; my friends and I were much taken with the shock value of this and enjoyed throwing it in people’s faces. I don’t think we took it seriously, but I sometimes wonder if it didn’t have some subtle effect on our opinion of the worth of human life. And it is easy to see how an education that contains much biology and no theology would encourage the habit of seeing the human person as a collection of biological systems. We are that, of course; the error is in the implied “nothing more than.” It is true that the human eye is a biological apparatus, but it does not follow that we are deluded when we read a look of love or hate in a person’s eyes. And anyone who would tell a young man that his beloved is “nothing more than” an elaborate food processor would deserve the contempt (and I want to say even the fist) that would be the just reaction to such an insult.
So it is with Clare and the stars. Her knowledge that the stars are sweet and beautiful and to be loved is precisely accurate. Even her “little” is accurate as far as ordinary perception goes, and more to the point than the spectacular numbers which physicists like to throw around (which is edifying if done in a spirit of wonder, but irritating if done, as it sometimes is, in the spirit of a witch doctor donning a mask and making weird noises). If the stars are actually huge balls of incandescent gas, if they shine as suns on other worlds and other peoples, if indeed they have, as they probably do, purposes under God which neither theologian nor physicist has so much as suspected, all this is, for us, secondary; not without interest, but not of the first importance. What matters most is what they are in relation to us. God has placed them so that they are, for us, sweet little lights.
And I was struck by something else in Clare’s address to the stars: her impulse to treat them as persons.
There is a certain look that crosses the face of nearly everyone from time to time: a look of expectant, shining delight, delight which has as part of its source the expectation of further delight. The eyes are alight, open and unguarded. The corners of the mouth rise involuntarily into an unfeigned smile which looks at the point of breaking into laughter. It is a moment of positive tension, of pleasurable anticipation building toward some release. Sometimes it does spill over into laughter, into physical joy; sometimes it simply passes quietly.
I notice it most often in conversation, when the person is speaking with another toward whom he feels at least good will and perhaps affection, perhaps even love, but not necessarily—though there is, I think, love in the moment. This look is not only a sign of joy in the person whose face exhibits it, but a means of joy to those who behold it. I have noticed how it can transfigure even the dullest, even the ugliest, face. It is impossible to dislike a face in the moment when this look passes over it. One of the reasons we like children so much is that this look comes so easily to them.
This delight is fundamentally that of beholding something which pleases, but it is more. The natural world or the creations of human work can give us something of it, but the look of which I am speaking is more; it is the delight of communion, of beholding not just something which pleases, but something which has spoken to us and will speak again, something which is in turn delighted by our own delight, pleased by our pleasure. Lovers and parents find it most readily, I suppose, but a great heart can find it everywhere—do you not see it in the face of Mother Teresa?
Because this communion with another soul is our deepest joy, we naturally tend to attribute a soul, personhood, to anything which pleases us deeply; hence the universal and natural impulse to personify, to make a person of, everything in the world-for instance, the stars. And we are partially right in doing this, for though the object which gives us this delight may be inanimate or at least without speech, its creator is not; Fra Angelico intended that his Annunciation should delight us, and God intended that the wave-skimming flight of a pelican at twilight should delight us.
As the look of delight which I am trying to describe seems to me the crown of human beauty, so the experience of it is the crown of experience, and both are less than what is to come. The look that crosses our faces in these moments, the expectation that brings forth the look,are anticipations of the Beatific Vision. We will find in the end that our intimations and intuitions were right, that the ultimate reality is the ultimate person, the ultimate partner in the dance of communion, the Beheld and the Beholder whose visage will delight us and whose delight in us will give us still more delight so that what we feel is no longer containable in that word, but must be given the name of ecstasy.
I began by speaking of the American Constitution, and it may seem that I have lost my way. But my excursion into heavenly matters was made deliberately, because it is only in the light of them that we can judge anything we do on earth. And that is the fundamental flaw in the constitutional democracies that have been erected since the 18th century. Those rational men, “wiser in their generation than the children of light,” thought they could avoid quarrels over heavenly matters by constructing a system which excluded such things. But what those rational men had done was to remove the only rational foundation of any social system: an agreement about what is important. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this world are good things, as those who are deprived of them will attest, but they are not the purpose of life, and those who try to make them so are possessed by that sad unfocussed hunger that now seems so characteristic of life in the West.
We cannot have, in the long run, a system of government which professes to be indifferent to the purpose of life. Even in the practical realm, the realm in which such a system is alleged to be supreme, disintegration will eventually come where there is no principle by which right action can be determined. We find ourselves now in a climate where the only accepted principles of such determination are narrowly utilitarian and frequently lead into a web of contradictions which can only be escaped by a purely arbitrary exercise of power.
Perhaps we shall one day have the opportunity of thinking seriously, once again, of how a Catholic polity might be arranged. If we do, I hope that we will not neglect the worldly wisdom of those good and solid men who wrote the Constitution. It is not the place, and can never be within the power, of government to compel anyone to be saved, and the attempt to have it do so is productive of mischief. But it is not unreasonable to expect that government should refrain from placing obstacles upon the path to salvation, and from encouraging people to leave it, and that it should restrain its citizens from so endangering their neighbours. We will have to begin with the conviction that whatever structures we establish have as their ultimate purpose to nurture and protect that smile of simple delight.