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heresySo I don’t want to give the impression that heresies are all bad. They’re usually partly good: They highlight part of the truth that had been obscured or neglected. They’re rebellions that have a Christian point. Consider this partial affirmation of the heretical modern—or Lockean, nominalist–world by a very traditionalist and very erudite Catholic—Thaddeus Kozinski:

Now, great fruits came via their [the modern voluntarists] heroic attempts: the progress of medicine and human rights; what Taylor calls the “affirmation of ordinary life”; the dignity of persons seen as ends and never means (Casanova); the autonomy of politics, science, and economics from ecclesial control. This represents, as in the words of Maritain, a maturation of the political order and the Gospel seed coming to fruition.

The correct Catholic view, Kozinki explains, ue message of Gaudium et spes, when interpreted correctly–that is, not as a replacement of the Syllabus of Errors, but its complement. After Vatican II, no Catholic can interpret the prior social teaching and theology as simply a rejection of modernity, but neither can they reject or dismiss the prior teaching as outdated or simply has to be understood to never have been a complete rejection of modernity. The progress of science—liberated in a technological direction by the modern emphasis on serving the needs of the free person—has really been progress. It has made ordinary lives in some ways more secure and comfortable in this world. It is also, I would add, a revelation of who we are as free beings—although not, of course, a complete revelation. It highlights one purpose of science at the expense of others, just as it emphasizes personal freedom at the expense of personal relationality and openness to truth not of our making. Modern science overemphasizes, in its way, our homelessness—our personal contingency–in a sometimes heroic effort to make this world a better home for us. It, of course, fails to abolish our homelessness, because it can’t address its deepest cause. Nonetheless, there is something Christian in acknowledging our homelessness–our inability to be fully at home in nature or “the city.

The separation of politics, science, and economic life from theocratic domination is the true teaching of the Gospel. The separation of church and state—or the abolition of civil theology—only makes sense in terms of the Christian understanding of who each of us is. We can ever dare say that the relative impersonality of the modern state is a radical improvement, on a Christian foundation, on the ancient polis and personal monarchies. The authority of the king is different in kind from that of the personal God.

This maturation or delimitation of the political order, on that Christian foundation, circumscribes the relatively impersonal authority of the state with the more personal and relational church—the part of our lives that addresses our deepest longings as social and relational beings, just as it abolishes the authority of the priests, bishops, and the pope to make merely but necessarily political and economic decisions.

From this view, the “totalitarian democracy” of the French Revolution and its products (say, in Mexico or the Soviet Union) isn’t, most deeply, a Christian heresy but an attempt to restore the unity that Rousseau imagined was civil theology, a unity that was forever exploded by the Christian revelation of the whole truth about the human person.

Another danger, of course, is that the state become too impersonal and smother the web of relationality that is ordinary human life. But a modern antidote is that the relative separation of economics—the ordinary world of households and so forth—from political life is based, from a Christian view, on the truth that we are both more and less than political beings. The family, like the church, doesn’t exist for the city. The danger of the modern, Lockean heresy is the the individualistic thought that the personal identity can be separated and integrated completely independently of the family and the church. The danger is in identifying us as essentially economic beings—or existing simply to work to secure ourselves in the hostile environment of nature and other people.

As Tocqueville explains, premodern Christianity was aristocratic. The pretensions of aristocracy were chastened and moderated by the Christian insight of the equality of all sinful persons under God. But that insight far from obliterated the aristocratic thought that the many exist to serve the few in this world.

So the modern doctrine of personal consent—that no one exists as a means to somewhat else’s end—is a distorted but still real implication of the Christian discovery of the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every human person. Science, politics, and economics have to be justified through the elevation of ordinary lives, and manners and morals, for a while, were universalized much more than abolished. (Consider Murray’s complaint about the breakdown these days of the common American ethic and also, of course, Tocqueville on the religious and familial morality shared by all Americans.)

Modern Christian idealism—as expressed, say, by the Puritanical heresy—pointed toward a kind of aristocracy of everyone, including universal education to make the word of God available to every being with a soul. All the dangers here involve the application of the somewhat justified democrat distrust of personal authority too promiscuously and even to God himself. The result, of course, is the disappearance of the indispensable conditions for sustaining the true dignity of the human person.

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  1. Thaddeus Kozinski's original essay asks what the future will bring: "a further rejection of Tradition and the philosophia perennis…?" I would offer the opinion that Nature will always call human beings back to Tradition and the philosophia perennis. Each new generation arrives into the world fresh, and with a complete instinctive connection to the natural world — and, for that matter, with the moral world. As long as there is, to quote Kant, 'the starry vault above, and the moral life within', human beings will be spontaneously awestruck by both.

    I'd also suggest that Natural Law is a bridging principle between Tradition and secular humanism, and this might be used to effect a synthesis of the two opposing philosophies.

    Also: besides changes in the political order, secular humanism arose in connection with 'sexual liberation' — which is a kind of affirmation of the body, and a reaction against a kind of body-denying tendency of Christianity. This suggests the need for some kind of balance or integration of bodily and moral 'happiness'. Mankind's telos might fall somewhere between the aims of Epicureanism and Stoicism. (Perhaps I'm not explaining this very clearly, but, after all, this is only a comment!)

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