Thursday, November 5, 2015

Enthusiasm, II: A “Closed Chapter”?


In Enthusiasm, as we saw in the previous posting in this series, Ronald Knox claimed that the enthusiastic, anti-intellectual phase of the history of religion appeared to be a “closed chapter.”  There was still a need for constant vigilance, of course.  There were also the usual American aberrations on which to keep an eye.  All things considered, though, a certain calm optimism appeared to be in order.

Msgr. Ronald Knox
. . . in his opinion.

What calm there was, however, was the calm before the storm — in our opinion.  A rational thinker himself, Knox might not have been able to conceive of a situation in which reason would not be effective, at least, once the emotional element was eliminated — as it appeared to have been.  Sheen’s and Chesterton’s arguments identifying and countering the change in the basis of the natural law from the Intellect to the Will were not only persuasive, they seemed to be the last word on the subject.

The most brilliant and best-reasoned arguments in the world refuting error, however, are of no use whatsoever if people are not in a position to understand the arguments.  This is often the case if they have forgotten how to think, or never learned in the first place.

Social teaching a refuge for socialism.
True, by 1950, when Enthusiasm came out, modernism — “the synthesis of all heresies” — appeared to have been routed.  It was, however, only in retreat or remission.  It had not surrendered or been cured, as it turned out.  It had found a secure refuge in the social teachings of the Catholic Church, being distorted into a version of Fabian socialism or one of its clones, usually with Marxist overtones.

The problem was that Catholic social teaching is a body of thought that was and remains something not well understood by most Catholic laity, or even many theologians or philosophers.  Father William Ferree made this clear in his doctoral thesis, The Act of Social Justice (1942).  The situation has not improved since.

As Ferree analyzed the situation, people — especially academics — still confused things, even after Pope Pius XI clarified matters.  By and large people still insisted that “social justice” is either a new term for the old “legal justice” (and thus consisted of more intensive or widespread application of the individual virtues), or means that the State takes a greater and greater role in providing for individual good instead of the common good.

Jacques Maritain, Thomist
The common good, of course, is still (mis)understood in many cases as the aggregate of individual goods.  The State, as the guardian of the common good, thereby becomes the guarantor of every individual good — yet another “small error in the beginning” that has had devastating consequences.  Even the Thomist Jacques Maritain fell partway into this trap, confusing common goods owned by the State for the sake of expedience, with the common good proper.  (Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, 52-53.)

No, as Father Ferree made clear (and summarized in his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice), social justice is directed to the common good, that vast network of institutions within which people acquire and develop virtue by the exercise of individual rights, not individual good at all.  The goal of social justice is to reform institutions so that individual virtues can once again be carried out.  The goal of the act of social justice is not to replace individual virtue with social virtue, but to make individual virtue possible.

Pope Pius X
Such contradiction and confusion about the true nature of social justice is fertile ground for the growth of modernism.  This is because modernism thrives on the rejection of reason and embraces vagueness and inconsistency as fundamental principles, citing faith rather than reason for everything.  As Pius X noted,

“Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them.” (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, § 6.)

Further, as Knox seemed aware, enthusiasm was strongest in the country for which the popes had expressed the greatest hopes: the United States of America.  It was there that the attack from within the Church mentioned by Chesterton took root and spread.

Treason from within the Church
Knox hinted at all of this in Enthusiasm in both his introduction and his conclusion — even as he ostensibly maintained that the danger appeared to be past.  His hints were so understated, however, that Dr. James Hitchcock of St. Louis University claimed in his book, The New Enthusiasts and What They Are Doing to the Catholic Church (1982) that Knox believed that enthusiasm was on the wane — a statement with which we tend to disagree . . . or not.  Knox seemed to be saying two things at once.

Possibly resolving this, it could just be that Knox was speaking of the lessened danger for England, not the whole of the Catholic Church.  As he put it, speaking of the frequency with which Americans seem to yield to the lure of unreason, “The American continent has more than once been the scene of such an adventure; in these days, it is the last refuge of the enthusiast.”  [Emphasis added.] (Knox, Enthusiasm, op. cit., 3.)  As he concluded at the end of his study,

Aimée Semple Macpherson, Evangelist.
“In our own island, for the last century, revivalism [a form of enthusiasm — ed.] has shown a law of diminishing returns; each new wave, as it recedes, registers less of a high-water mark — Moody and Sankey, Torrey-Alexander, Aimée Macpherson.  And all these, it is unnecessary to add, were reimports from the United States of America.  (Ibid., 578.)

Evidently, in Knox’s opinion, the “twists to the mind” Chesterton noted may have been run to ground in England, but — in our opinion thanks to the work of Monsignor John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America — were alive and well in the United States.  And, given the predominance of the United States following the Second World War, was about to spread error throughout the world.

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