Friday, September 8, 2017

Tonsor: Catholicism: Confrontation with Modernity


T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
"You speak about the confrontation with modernity," I observed in our next office-hour conversation. "More than that, you have dedicated your life to it -- it is your mantra. But what specifically does the Catholic confrontation with modernity look like?"

Tonsor answered: "It looks like Chesterton ... Belloc ... Dawson ... Maritain ... Gilson ... Guardini ... Sheed ... Ward ... Waugh ... and a host of others who led the Roman Catholic intellectual renaissance. It looks like Eliot ... Lewis ... Auden ... and many more who led the Anglo Catholic intellectual renaissance. 

"You no doubt want to know: What do these Roman- and Anglo-Catholics share in common? One element they share is humility. These Catholics -- integral humanists all, since they recognize that man is both matter and spirit -- these Catholics know that the underlying order which is perceived in the course of human experience and history never reveals itself in its completeness and perfection. Human limitations, passions, and sinfulness always stand in the way of a complete vision and harmonious accommodation.[1] 

"People are sorely mistaken if they believe God revealed what a specifically 'Catholic' social arrangement, political regime, or economic system should look like. The proclamations of today's televangelists notwithstanding, Jesus is not a registered Republican. He is not a Yankee-doodle patriot. He did not ordain our federated polity or free-market economics. These systems are of human devising. They are more or less satisfactory, and they are always conditioned by man's inadequacy and sinfulness. To elevate a human invention is to worship man rather than God, and Karl Barth was correct to call such excesses of enthusiasm by their right name: idolatry.[2] 

"Nevertheless, to be a Catholic in any meaningful sense is to confront the modern age, to critique modernity. The task of the Church in every age is to be like the parent who pesters teenagers with relentless questioning before they go out on a date. Since the modern age is a particularly petulant teenager, the Church must challenge the culture, standing up to any individual or authority who would harm life, violate religious freedom, or diminish the dignity of the human person. The Church -- along with her integral humanists -- should thus be a gadfly, a sign of contradiction to our base drives and animal motives. Note that I said 'should be.'

"In practice, the body of believers has hardly presented a unified front. That's because there are two kinds of Catholics -- positivists and realists. There are many nominal Catholics in the academy and they tend to be positivists. You will know they are positivists by their governing assumptions. Positivists believe that religion is a purely human phenomenon that reflects the evolution of human consciousness. Thus ethics are merely social conventions. Positivists would say that a controversial issue like abortion, if it is considered 'wrong,' is only 'wrong' because the hierarchy says so, or because the catechism and canon law say it is. In other words, it is only 'wrong' because human beings with authority claim it is wrong. Such positivism is similar to what one hears about rights: Human beings have rights because the state or society says so.

"There is another position, that of the official church and her integral humanists. They are realists. The realists think that morals are grounded not in social convention but in objective reality, a reality that is inseparable from the order of creation. For the realist, abortion is wrong because it offends God and disorders man.

"The gap between positivists and realists cannot be papered over. There is a perennial battle between them. Take, for instance, the issue of premarital sex since it is linked to other nettlesome issues like birth control, abortion, children out of wedlock, and intractable poverty. To think like a modernist is to be a positivist and say, Premarital sex is only 'wrong' because social convention makes it so, but that does not make premarital sex intrinsically wrong at all times in all places. To think like a traditionalist is to be a realist and say, Premarital sex is intrinsically wrong because it violates the order of nature, of reality, and it offends God. 

"The positivist-realist divide is one of the fundamental chasms in the modern mind. It is a fierce battle line in the present culture wars. When I say that to be Catholic is to confront modernity, what I mean is that the traditionalist Catholic will weigh the so-called truth-claims of the positivist against his own beliefs as a realist. Every ethical proposition, every action, will be sifted and tested -- not necessarily rejected outright, but sifted and tested: To what extent is it true, good, and in adherence to the natural law? To what extent can error teach us something of value? This has been the Catholic way from St. Augustine to the Dominicans to Lord Acton. It is the way of charity, and we are called to be charitable in our disagreements -- though I find it exceedingly difficult to be charitable toward silly people!" 

Tonsor was in a rare revelatory mood. To get him to admit a weakness was like trying to get a bone from a bulldog. But since it was best not to point that out, I simply said: "To disagree without being disagreeable, as Gerald Ford likes to put it."

"Yes," he nodded.


I wanted to stretch our discussion from the conversational to the civilizational. What elements in the critique of modernity united the Roman- and Anglo-Catholic realists? "From your teaching it is clear that the Catholic confrontation with modernity will also venture onto a larger stage, that which shines a light on the course of a country or a civilization. Won't Catholic cultural critics judge a country or civilization against its best moments. For the U.S. a benchmark might be what the founding fathers achieved to expand the empire of liberty. Another might be what the civil rights movement did to expand the empire of equality. For Western civilization a benchmark might be the advance of peace and prosperity in the nineteenth century; or the will of the allies to fight to the death to secure victory in World War II."

"Yes," said Tonsor. "And determining those benchmarks would be a good debate to have. 

"The important thing to realize is that becoming a Catholic, like being a conservative, is to embark on a quest for order. Ultimately this quest is not for a humanly created order invented as a form of political wish-fulfillment, but a discovery, though history and experience, that such is the way things are. The notion that the ideologue can create his own order out of whole cloth, fashion his own paradise out of nature, build his own utopia out of ideology, has been the human calamity of the past two centuries."[3]
Prometheus, by Otto Greiner (1909)

"It's a thin line between prudent progress and Promethean overreach." I offered.

"Yes," he said simply. "If the first requirement of the integral humanist in our day is to confront modernity with humility, then the second is to name things rightly; to say, after careful consideration, This pattern of thinking or that pattern of behavior is disordered. It is imprudent. Tragedy will follow in its wake." 


"Still one more thing is needed," concluded Tonsor, sitting squarely like a block of granite.

"What is that?" 

"The temptation for Catholics and conservatives to be as Faustian as the modernists. But we must be watchful lest we become what we disavow. In the end, perhaps the confrontation with modernity comes down to the simplest thing -- being an example, ourselves, of how best to live. That loving dedication to family, community, and all those who lent their lives in the past to the fashioning of a living tradition that can only be religious. Service in the cause of the good, the true, and the beautiful is always an act of compelling love."[4]


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Mistaken Assumptions," Modern Age (winter 2002): 59.

[2] Ibid.: 58.

[3] Ibid.: 59.

[4] Ibid.

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