Is This the American Apocalypse?
COMMENTARY: The most valuable thing the Catholic Church can do — in good times and bad — is to preach the Kingdom, and give witness to the existence of heaven, which will never pass away.
First came a pandemic, then an economic crisis and now, riots. The last two, we have had, at least to some extent, in the living memory of many Americans. For pandemic, one must reach back to 1918. To have all three of these at once poses a distinct challenge to the resilience and sense of equilibrium to which most of us are accustomed. One can add that in just five months we face a presidential election that promises to be as acrimonious as any in recent memory, and this against the backdrop of a political environment that has been vexed by the disintegration of familiar categories for years.
These successive blows have led some to ask whether what we see around us is the disintegration of our country, a kind of political end times. Our Catholic faith and Catholic intellectual tradition should help us make sense of these unprecedented challenges. I think it does, but it is important, first, to note that making sense of a problem is not the same as solving it; and, second, to properly identify our circumstances.
The novel coronavirus pandemic, related drastic economic contraction (the ultimate severity of which, we still don’t know), and subsequent civil unrest are new and sudden problems. What is not new or sudden is the sense — widely shared — that our political institutions are buckling, and that our leadership class does not know what to do. In some ways, this second worry is the most disturbing phenomenon of the moment, but it has been long in the making. Our leaders seem to be just as much at sea as the rest of us because--they are.
It is increasingly clear that we are witnessing the end of an era in the West, the Post-World War II era, when a broad consensus about the menu of political options lent a stability to politics in the United States. The end of the Cold War and globalization, with both its positive and negative consequences — and among the latter are both an economy that has displaced many American workers, scrambling traditional political alignments, and the rapid spread of coronavirus — have overturned the old categories of political thinking and deprived the political class of a dependable playbook. As the pandemic hit the country, many were still trying to make sense of an economic environment that, since the Great Recession of 2007-2008, has placed more and more Americans in precarious circumstances. This perhaps explains the seeming whiplash of politicians who urge us to “follow the science” one moment and enjoining us to “open our economy” the next, often with no clear explanation for their embrace of or moving from the one or the other.
And if that were not enough, the unrelenting media environment and political-cultural polarization (and maybe the stress of the COVID-19 lockdown) has also made the dreadful killing of George Floyd not just a moment of (necessary) national reckoning with the continuing problems of racism in our country, but also an occasion for public authorities to bob feebly in the surf of events, seemingly at a loss for what to say or do.
To say what is incontestable, racism is a deadly vice and police brutality is a sin and a crime, as are wanton mob violence, looting, and destruction of property. And yet, some jurisdictions continue to fail to weed out racist police officers. At the same time, while some local officials seem oddly complacent in the face of riotous crime sprees (sometimes incited by quasi-professional provocateurs), others deploy overwhelming force against peaceful protesters.
The present crises and end of the old categories, however disorienting, do not mean the end of this country. It predated them and will certainly outlast them, and we have faced worse. But it is a salutary reminder of several important truths. The first is that, the system that is the United States will end someday. Not today or tomorrow, not for centuries, one hopes, but someday. While this thought is no more welcome than the thought of one’s own certain eventual death, it provides necessary perspective.
St. Thomas Aquinas often used the simple Latin word patria to refer to heaven. A human being, in whatever country, he often referred to simply as a viator, or wayfarer. St. Thomas was in this way very much an Augustinian. Heaven is our homeland and here we are travelers. This doesn’t mean that one does not love one’s earthly country any more than the fatherhood of God means that one does not love one’s own parents. Pietas, “piety,” is a virtue that St. Thomas tells us is a part of justice that disposes us to love and honor both parents and country. Most people don’t live their whole lives in the same house, but they maintain and improve the houses they live in almost as if they will, and that is as it should be.
Patriotism is a good thing. Yet, the present world is always passing away and everything in it will someday not be. No sane person wants to see his country in distress, not least because, come what may, he still must live in it, but our country is ultimately the kingdom of God. Everything else will pass away eventually.
Second, as valuable as technical expertise is, our most important decisions are not simply the applications of technical expertise, whether that of medical professionals or economists.
The most important decisions we make are decisions about our own flourishing in this world and hopefully the next; and our most important political decisions are those about the flourishing of the community that we often refer to as the common good. While various technical questions are relevant to both cases, they are rarely decisive. They are factored into decisions that are informed by the chief practical virtue, prudence.
Prudence is itself partly a function of deeper practical principles, for example the most important moral principles, and partly a function of experience. This is the virtue of the all-around good person, but, at a higher level, it is the chief virtue of the statesman. It is a hard-won virtue and it seems to me to be one — at the political level — that is particularly difficult in our time.
This is partly due to the pluralism about moral principles in particular that exists in contemporary societies, a pluralism that makes it difficult for any leader to address everyone, but it is also due to the huge scale and complexity of modern political communities. Nor is it made easier by the relentless glare of the 24-hour news cycle with the interminable and often uninformed and irresponsible chatter of pundits, now made innumerable and even louder by the contemporary social media landscape.
Thoughtful deliberation must give way to instant answers. It is little wonder that so much of our public discourse is reducible to clichés and groupthink. Under these conditions, there is always the temptation to pass difficult decisions off to the experts or to science. But our most important political questions are always also moral questions, and to act otherwise is to duck moral responsibility, a point made repeatedly by Pope Francis in his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si, mostly about economic questions.
So how we respond to a pandemic or its economic aftermath, and how we police our streets and enforce our laws are never simply a question of “following the science” or applying “best practices.” These are moral questions about what sort of community we will be. Those ultimately responsible will be judged accordingly, and, in a democracy, that is always to some important extent, all of us.
This suggests a third and final point. The present crises are an opportunity — not one any of us would have chosen, to be sure — but an opportunity nonetheless, to take notice of our limitations. We must recognize what we don’t know and perhaps what we cannot do.
The myth of progress retains its hold on modern people, particularly our elites. The part that is most mythical is not that there has been no progress; it is rather that progress is inevitable, that, as Marx said, mankind never sets itself a problem that it cannot solve.
Prudence recognizes its limits. This is not despair, but self-knowledge.
Our country faces stiff challenges at a time when the old solutions have stopped working and the old categories have stopped explaining. But no set of political solutions and categories lasts forever.
Facing these challenges will require a citizenry that is more engaged, more creative, and more realistic, and leaders who are more modest and more prudent. I do not believe that our country is failing in any final way, but it is well to remember St. Augustine’s counsel to the Romans at a time when their imperium was in terminal decline.
He advised Christian officials to do their civic duty, to maintain the political institutions that they shared with non-believers; and he advised the Romans that they would find Christians to be the most valuable citizens, not least because Christians know that wherever they are, they are on the way to their true country.
The most valuable thing the Church can do — in good times and bad — is to preach the Kingdom, and give witness to the existence of that patria that will never pass away, even as we love the one that will.
V. Bradley Lewis, Ph.D., is an associate professor
of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.