Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Long ago, in my capacity as columnist for the Register, I wrote a series of columns on what happens when a civilization stops paying attention to the idea of the Common Good and instead adopts the libertarian hyper-individualist notion that consent is the sole criterion of the good.
The basic point of the series is that we are living on borrowed capital from the Catholic tradition and burning through it like Paris Hilton spending Daddy's money while creating nothing of value to replace it. As each phase of history passes by, we keep saying that nobody will ever take the next logical step from the premisses we have just set up as a platform for jettisoning some aspect of the Christian tradition. Then we are perpetually surprised when somebody does and the new revolutionary attacks the old one by citing the precedent established by the previous revolutionary. The Protestant revolts against the Church and then is stunned when the post-Protestant rejects the Bible. The 19th Century post-Protestant rejects Christianity assuming that Christian morals are the natural habits of all decent ladies and gentlemen and then are surprised as one by one the 20th century strips all that away. Chesterton describes the process in detail in his essay "Is Humanism a Religion?" in The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic:
After all, when I come to think of it, all the other revolts against the Church, before the Revolution and especially since the Reformation, had told the same strange story. Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church's bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.
Again, the Calvinists took the Catholic idea of the absolute knowledge and power of God; and treated it as a rocky irreducible truism so solid that anything could be built on it, however crushing or cruel. They were so confident in their logic, and its one first principle of predestination, that they tortured the intellect and imagination with dreadful deductions about God, that seemed to turn Him into a demon. But it never seems to have struck them that somebody might suddenly say that he did not believe in the demon. They were quite surprised when people called "infidels" here and there began to say it. They had assumed the Divine foreknowledge as so fixed, that it must, if necessary, fulfil itself by destroying the Divine mercy. They never thought anybody would deny the knowledge exactly as they denied the mercy. Then came Wesley and the reaction against Calvinism; and Evangelicals seized on the very Catholic idea that mankind has a sense of sin; and they wandered about offering everybody release from his mysterious burden of sin. It is a proverb, and almost a joke, that they address a stranger in the street and offer to relax his secret agony of sin. But it seldom seemed to strike them, until much later, that the man in the street might possibly answer that he did not want to be saved from sin, any more than from spotted fever or St. Vitus's Dance; because these things were not in fact causing him any suffering at all. They, in their turn, were quite surprised when the result of Rousseau and the revolutionary optimism began to express itself in men claiming a purely human happiness and dignity; a contentment with the comradeship of their kind; ending with the happy yawp of Whitman that he would not "lie awake and weep for his sins."
Now the plain truth is that Shelley and Whitman and the revolutionary optimists were themselves doing exactly the same thing all over again. They also, though less consciously because of the chaos of their times, had really taken out of the old Catholic tradition one particular transcendental idea; the idea that there is a spiritual dignity in man as man, and a universal duty to love men as men. And they acted in exactly the same extraordinary fashion as their prototypes, the Wesleyans and the Calvinists. They took it for granted that this spiritual idea was absolutely self-evident like the sun and moon; that nobody could ever destroy that, though in the name of it they destroyed everything else. They perpetually hammered away at their human divinity and human dignity, and inevitable love for all human beings; as if these things were naked natural facts. And now they are quite surprised when new and restless realists suddenly explode, and begin to say that a pork-butcher with red whiskers and a wart on his nose does not strike them as particularly divine or dignified, that they are not conscious of the smallest sincere impulse to love him, that they could not love him if they tried, or that they do not recognize any particular obligation to try.
It might appear that the process has come to an end, and that there is nothing more for the naked realist to shed. But it is not so; and the process can still go on. There are still traditional charities to which men cling. There are still traditional charities for them to fling away when they find they are only traditional. Everybody must have noticed in the most modern writers the survival of a rather painful sort of pity. They no longer honour all men, like St. Paul and the other mystical democrats. It would hardly be too much to say that they despise all men; often (to do them justice) including themselves. But they do in a manner pity all men, and particularly those that are pitiable; by this time they extend the feeling almost disproportionately to the other animals. This compassion for men is also tainted with its historical connection with Christian charity; and even in the case of animals, with the example of many Christian saints. There is nothing to show that a new revulsion from such sentimental religions will not free men even from the obligation of pitying the pain of the world. Not only Nietzsche, but many Neo-Pagans working on his lines, have suggested such hardness as a higher intellectual purity. And having read many modern poems about the Man of the Future, made of steel and illumined with nothing warmer than green fire, I have no difficulty in imagining a literature that should pride itself on a merciless and metallic detachment. Then, perhaps, it might be faintly conjectured that the last of the Christian virtues had died. But so long as they lived they were Christian.
The process is still going on today, of course, and at different speeds in different places and with the jettisoning of different aspects of the Church's moral teaching. Long after places like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had decided the dignity of the human person mattered not one iota, the American culture was still relying on the mystical democracy of Jefferrson. But with the decisive blows of Roe v. Wade and the long march to reduce human beings to human doings whose value proceeds from utility and economic participation, that has become ever more tenuous. But, just as Chesterton descibes, our culture continues to assume that the bits and pieces of the Catholic moral tradition it takes for granted are self-evident to all people--right up until somebody says, "Why should I accept that mystical piece of dogma?" and flushes it away as we have already done with much of the rest of the Catholic moral tradition.
And so we stand at the place now where it is taken for granted that consent between two (or more) people is the sacred and sole criterion for whether or not a moral act is good. If two (or more) people wish to engage in any consensual activity, who are we to say otherwise? It's the one and only thing that matters, because the choice of the individual is the only sacred thing there is--goes the current narrative. Indeed, the current wisdom is that getting rid of the Judeo-Christian tradition to make room for a secular culture free from all that old mystical religious junk can only result in more freedom!
Eventually, of course, that mystical idea will, like all the others, collide with the culture of death and some bright philosopher somewhere (probably in the employ of a powerful corporation or government during a period of extreme society and economic crisis such as, oh, now for instance) could ask, "What's so sacrosanct about consent? We need to rid ourselves of this taboo about 'losing our freedom' if we are to create a society the can survive!”
Think that’ll never happen? The termites are already at work on the foundation. Here, for instance is useful idiot Steven Pinker, hard at work reminding us that the notion of human dignity is stupid since it is as much a mystical conception as marriage or the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Court Prophets for the Culture of Death don't see anything particularly dignified about trailer trash who spend their wasted lives watching Jerry Springer. “So,” these prophets shall surely ask, “why care if human debris is free? This religious dogma that all people are “created” equal needs to go. We have no Creator. In the words of the famous evolutionist, George Gaylord Simpson, "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind." And if Man wants to survive then he has to be fit to do it! Therefore, the state, in a time of economic crisis that is burdening our infrastructure, has every right to keep the reckless and diseased elements of the population from swarming and spawning. I think, like the great visionary Margaret Sanger, that human coupling should be subject to government regulation by the issuance of breeding licenses for the fit and the denial of same for the unfit."
When push comes to shove and the stakes are national survival vs. freedom, history points to the truth that human beings will sell their liberty to the first tyrant that offers them bread. And there are always Great Thinkers around to collect a fat paycheck from some corporate/state complex when press releases need to be written explaining why bulldozing a mound of corpses into a grave is just fine.
Thus does the post-Christian culture of death consume itself.
I wrote that in 2009. Here, just four years later the radical feminist website Jezebel (which takes mystical Christian ideas like equality and human dignity for women for granted) finds itself gobsmacked (just as all the previous revolutionaries Chesterton describes) by the stunning discovery that in the post-Christian pagan world they are laboring to create, the strong will do as they please, the weak suffer what they must, and consent will not be that big of a deal:
The word "rape" does not factor into Yale's new report on how the university is handling sexual misconduct; instead, the act is described as "nonconsensual sex," and it's usually punishable by "written reprimand." (Sometimes rapists have to spend some time thinking about respect!) According to the report, five of the six people Yale identified as nonconsensual sex-havers over the past six months either graduated without much stress or will be returning to campus in the fall.
Yale is a hatchery for members of the post-Christian Ruling Class. That class, being increasingly post-Christian, is less and less enamored of ideas like "consent" as being sacred. That's because, apart from the influence of the Christian tradition, the normal, room temperature state of fallen man is slavery for the mass of human beings and mastery by a few. Why does an enormously powerful person who faces no consequences for doing so have to care about the consent of the defenseless human being for whom he feels an itch for "nonconsensual sex"? In such circumstances, don't expect women to fare well. When the powerful are trained to think "What's so special about consent?" it's just a matter of time till it moves beyond "nonconsensual" imposition of their will on Yale women to non-consensual imposition of their will on the rest of us. The final apotheosis of a civilization in which consent is the sole criterion of the good will be slavery. Because the only consent that will matter will be the consent of the slavedriver.