The Crisis of Self-Knowledge in the West
Commentary: We Have Forgotten Who We Are
As a civilization, we have lost our minds and, with them, much of our bearing on reality. Is it any wonder that in some circles humans are considered indistinguishable from other animals? But lest we look at others with too much derision, we should recognize that such confusion is not unique to them. Too often, we don’t seem to know who we as Catholics are anymore. We have lost any semblance of coherence and identity.
Who are we? The leaders of the contemporary Catholic Church have spent the last 50 years apologizing. The West has spent at least as long doing the same. It is important to be diplomatic. But why this insistence on apologizing for important things in our past? Why has our past come to be regarded almost exclusively as something dark and shameful?
This uncertainty seems to point to one central problem: we no longer know ourselves. We are made in the image and likeness of God, Who Himself took on human flesh and founded the Catholic Church. It may be fashionable to apologize for our past, yet can we honestly say we have surpassed our ancestors? If we compare the Church of our ancestors to that of the present day, can we honestly say that our lives exemplify belief in our origins more than theirs? So indeed, are we surprised when a disbelieving world does not find our leaders compelling? Imagine if the head of a country spent all of his time trying to appease his enemies, granting concessions at the expense of his own citizenry. Would anyone take that country seriously? Yet something like this attitude is the approach the leaders of the Church have, too often, taken to diplomacy since the 60’s. Ultimately this policy, although well-intentioned, has led to a loss of internal cohesion and morale.
As an example, consider the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, the doctrine by which the substantial form of the host becomes the body of Christ with the accidents (appearance, shape, taste) of bread remaining. This belief commits the Church to a deep metaphysics of essences and natures. As Catholics, we are therefore required to believe in these things. Yet many theologians of the Church have abandoned the most robust philosophical tradition that defended this, neoscholasticism, in favor of a trendy continental phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophy that suspends judgment as to whether an experience corresponds to objective reality or not. Modern philosophies like phenomenology, however, are not robust enough to defend the Catholic belief in the real presence. And we have seen the fruits of that inability in continually declining belief in it. If we wished to better defend the Church against the errors of the world, we would continue with the program of Leo XIII and revive the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and his Thomist successors.
So who are we really? The reason that we don’t know how to answer this is that since the 60’s, we, as a Church, have stopped offering clear answers. We have lost our nerve. Instead we are lost in the morass of guilt and worldliness left to us by the legacy of our fathers. We talk about “dialogue” and “listening,” but fear to proclaim the clear truths of the faith. This has, in turn, emboldened those voices who wished to question traditions and established norms in the West. Some voices in the Church have spoken against this madness, but their witness has been compromised by other voices who seem to agree with parts of that insanity. We must rediscover who we really are.
But for us to rediscover who we truly are, we need to start with ourselves. Only those who know with confidence who they are can resist the systematic brainwashing we are exposed to on a near-daily basis. What are we? While we are the union of body and soul; the highest, most characteristically human part of us is the rational part of our soul (St. Thomas, Commentary on Nicomachean ethics 10.10.2080). According to St Basil (in his Homilia In Illud: Attende tibi ipsi) and his commentator Fr Matthew, we are an eternal soul, whose eternal life is given by God. The rational part of our soul is the part most characteristic of ourselves, while still remaining just a part of us. The body is also a part of ours, but we are not our bodies. We should be attentive to the highest part of ourselves (the rational part of our souls), not to what is ours (the body) or what is around us (the world). We should not be attentive to the flesh, nor should we admire wealth, reputation, or power. By constant vigilance and the sacrament of penance we will remove evil from our souls. Knowing that we must not mind worldly things so much can help us to stop caring excessively about our own reputations. By paying attention to our souls we can resist manfully any and all temptations to anger, comfort, fear, or human respect. The West is in decline because we stopped resisting these temptations and lost control of ourselves, giving in to the craven needs of consumerist frenzy. Instead, we must take back control of ourselves.
Instead of looking to human opinion, we can look to Christ as the standard, he is the head as we are the body. “[A]s in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22) Indeed, if we know that our eternal life comes from Christ, we can turn away from the care of our bodies, and from wishing to defy God to please men (unlike Adam). We must stop cowering and speak against the state when they trample upon the sovereignty of Christ the King.
We have achieved victory over death in Christ! We should rejoice from this victory so greatly that it is a marvel to others. Christians created a special name for Easter songs of Christian joy: jubilation. According to St Athanasius: “jubilation is a song of victory over the defeat of enemies; the archons of this world once defeated by Christ, all nations are commanded to sing hymns of victory.”
We have forgotten our dignity as Christians, a dignity that no man can take from us:
“As the soul comes to know herself she also knows God better, for she sees how good He has been to her. In the gentle mirror of God she sees her own dignity: that through no merit of hers but by his creation she is the image of God.” -St Catherine of Siena
If we only knew how unsurpassably valuable our reason is! This is the image of God in us. We did not give this to ourselves, nor did Evolution. Yet we sell it cheaply for thrills and pleasing others. Regardless of what anyone thinks of us, or what kind of position we have in the world, we will always have our reason. Only we can divest ourselves of reason, which we do when we accede to irrational and extreme desires or emotions. And then we can be bought and sold like our forebears, as marketing experts manipulate and control us via our passions. But with Christ’s victory over death, to the victor go the spoils! Grace can carry us through the other end, restoring our likeness to God, one cross at a time.