It’s been said by many, it’s been heard by many… How did we ever get here? How has the world become what it’s become? While change offers good and bad, the more general impression one takes from such questions is that the change isn’t a good one, meaning something good has been lost or something bad has been embraced.
One word suffices to answer these questions: sin. Yet in a world that now doesn’t acknowledge sin, we have to dig a little deeper into natural reasoning. Perhaps the term vice would be more understandable to some. Yet, even vice denotes that there is a measure that communicates what is acceptable and what is not. Virtues and values are foreign to daily living, even the pursuit of them. Family, the bedrock to society, has been replaced by the pursuit of individual rights. Life consists of a quest for bodily goods and life’s pleasures instead of care for the soul. The fact of the matter is that man has forgotten he was created by God and for God. When and how did this happen?
Just as the devil was subtle in his temptation to Adam and Eve, he has continued to act with mankind throughout history. The devil isn’t opposed to partial truth, just the whole truth. His minions work to trick man into believing and embracing something good while letting go of the better. While it can be said that sin has been rampant throughout the world since the Fall, history shows a decline in Christian society beginning with the Reformation. A brief recap ought to show the general unraveling of Christian society.
The Truncating of Man:
A Redefining Of Ends Is A Redefining Of Means
During the Middle Ages, in spite of mankind’s perpetual tendency to sin, it was a time when society lived and worked together. It was a family-based rural society that focused on the common good, crowned with the worship of God. Monasteries were vibrant, flourishing and central to life. Art was a public good, a means of educating and drawing man toward his final end, and speculative sciences were highly regarded. Beginning with the Renaissance, however, life changed. People began moving into the city, monasteries were not thriving nor held in as high of esteem. Holy living in general had decreased. Art became more of a private good, something of a spectacle or pleasure of the viewer. The literacy rate was rising, and the art of rhetoric now the most highly regarded.
As mentioned, the Renaissance brought great change, and with that change innovative thought. New thought is not in itself bad, per se. However, when it limits man’s intended end, it is harmful. The Renaissance brought about the loss of the common good, crowned with religious worship. It was the seed for modernism, and in fact one of the catalysts for the Reformation, fathered by Martin Luther.
Loss Of Communion With God And Pursuit Of Virtue
While Luther was a God-fearing man, and didn’t limit man’s final end with God, per se, he did limit it. The Catholic Church has always taught that man is continually sanctified through the Sacraments and thereby participates in divine life. Luther, on the other hand, limited man’s end to salvation instead of sanctification. Born out of a personal crisis, Luther began to preach the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In essence, he taught that man had no free will and could in no way cooperate with God in his salvation. Faith was pure trust in God, and this trust granted him righteousness and salvation. As a result, Luther desacramentalized the faith, as he viewed the Sacraments as “works”, in which man had to cooperate. Doing away with Sacraments, Luther’s teaching on them was that they were to remind man of Jesus and recall what He had done. With the exception of Baptism, they had no affect on man’s soul. Moreover, with the ceasing of feast days and Masses for the dead, Christianity started to become more private, individualistic and interior. In addition, Luther vehemently opposed the teaching of Aristotle because of his teaching on man’s composite of body and soul. If man were able to be changed (ie the reordering of his soul through growth in virtue) Luther’s claim of justification by faith alone had no weight. It is therefore under Luther’s influence then that we also see a loss of the pursuit of virtue.
Although Luther professed a love for God, his teachings and actions in the Reformation paved the way for secular modernity. Luther set the ball rolling through his already mentioned limitation on man’s final end of participation in the divine life through sanctification, as well as his rejection of the tradition and authority of the Church, the Sacraments and his Principle of Private Judgment.
Loss Of Religious Influence In Society
Modern secularism was birthed through John Milton and John Locke. In his writings, Milton expressed his desire for religion to be kept in monasteries and the Bible taken out of circulation lest religion influence culture and society. As a result, society did become more and more secular and religion more and more private and interior. Furthermore, Liberalism was born under Milton, and an emphasis on individual liberty, rights and wealth (over the common good) became a new focus in society. Locke furthered modern secular thought. He had no regard for the Catholic Church because he thought it was “intolerant” as it didn’t allow for independent thought/doctrine. Like Milton, he didn’t want any religious influence on society or politics, which further lessoned the focus on the common good of man in the public and political sphere.
Loss Of God, Reason And Virtue
This focus on individual (proximate) goods, life’s pleasures and property was exemplified through the rising of the slave trade that followed the era of Milton and Locke, which in essence helped spread the folly of the Enlightenment. The individual’s wealth and pursuit of pleasure superseded the common good and often was acquired through an injustice toward others. In regards to this new era, while the term “Enlightenment” is used, it should be duly noted that it is not the appropriate title for the period of time. In fact, it was an era where Reason was darkened and squelched under absurd philosophy, which further deterred man from his intended end of communion with God. A person of great influence, unfortunately even in present day, is David Hume. A contemporary of Kant, Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, Hume furthers Enlightenment through a series of Essays, which dictate that more importance ought to be granted to man’s passions than to his Reason or intellect. Hume goes as far as to say that Reason is and ought to be the slave of man’s passions. Such arguments, rampant throughout his writings, leave man with no incentive to pursue virtue or the reordering of his soul. Hume goes as far as to say that vice ought to be fought with vice. In addition, the Enlightenment era was one were family was beginning to be more and more negatively viewed or granted little importance. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were either not fathers or not actively present in the lives of their families to understand the nobility of this office. Much of the philosophy of this time undoubtedly stemmed from Milton’s Doctrine on Divorce.
As seen, the Enlightenment in itself completely lost the understanding of the need for man to grow in virtue and further lessoned the importance of family in society. Furthermore, as most Enlightenment thinkers were atheist or agnostic, God wasn’t even a question, He was merely disregarded from any argument or thought. Man completely lost sight of his intended end. While one would think the Enlightenment have given preference to Reason, (or shown an increase of Reason) this is not the case. Reason itself has been murdered by man’s passions or is now only used as a tool to achieve his passions.
Loss Of Family And True Freedom
Already on a slippery slope, mankind was then catapulted into secularism via the French Revolution. Not only were individual rights set higher than the common good, laws were set in place that preferred the individual over the family. Divorce was on the rise, workman’s guilds were abolished. Materialism and consumerism were born through an increased focus on accumulation of personal wealth and property. And finally, man began to reinterpret the term “freedom” into the absence of any limitation placed on him. The aftermath of the revolution left man living in an individualistic, money hungry, “freedom” seeking, family antagonistic and religion free society… Which brings us to present day, in which we live in a culture of death.
Loss Of Life And Purpose
Since the 1960’s America has seen great growth in youth who don’t have to work to support their families; rather, they are living independent lives pursuing careers and family and have a little extra cash. This formula has basically brought about an Age of Youth. What has happened, unfortunately, is that these young people, who used to dedicate their time and efforts on the greater good (their family, the health of their parents, or the education of their younger siblings) are now inward focused. Any “extra” money that is earned is set aside for their wants or passions. They have become inward thinking and more selfish. While tourism and crossing off one’s bucket list are at an all-time high, marriage and childbearing continue to fall. Furthermore, contraception, abortion, euthanasia continue to climb all too often because some individual(s) want to live a certain type of life-style or feel they deserve or are owed a “right”. They disregard the expense it is on another, even when it comes to another’s life. Coupled with the sexual revolution, this extra time and money has consequently hurt man even more. He is even more blinded from his final end in God, and there is no talk about a life of virtue. In fact, it has gotten to the point where sin is barely recognized. Man is purely living by his passions and his Reason is only used as a tool to obtain his current fancy.
Francis Crick is a good example of a personage from this era. An agnostic with atheist leanings, his whole reason for getting into science was to prove that man had no immortal soul. Crick, not a family man nor a man of morals or Christian virtue, was esteemed by society. He personified a modern-day Francis Bacon, who also sought to master and dominate nature through science. A sophist, skilled in the art of rhetoric, he shamefully spoke against the birth of children and of their intrinsic value. Crick led man people away from God. What is even more unfortunate is the amount of people who blindly followed him because they didn’t know any better… their Reason was unexercised and held captive by their passions.
A Needed Refocusing Of Man’s End
Since the Fall, in spite of all that God has done, man has struggled to find his eternal destiny in God. His original states of Original Holiness and Original Justice find themselves in need of reestablishment. History has shown an ebb and flow of man seeking God and holiness, specifically under that guidance of the Church. That said, the time periods following the Middle Ages are marked with a continual descent into secular culture. Blessed John Henry Newman once said that history is a “warfare of ideas,” referring to the incarnation of ideas into social movements. The retracing of the most prominent time periods from the Renaissance until present day has illustrated the truth of Newman’s insight. In order for man to find his end in God, he needs to be aware of his destiny and be wary of any philosophy that may deter him from this end. Aware of man’s tendency toward sin, his lack of formation and the lies of the world, the Church instructs her members in faith and reason, and exhorts them to be greater witnesses of life and truth to the world through the New Evangelization.
Director of Religious Education