This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Vatican II – The Rise and Fall of Liberalism

What follows is an excerpt of a larger essay written some years ago. This should be kept in mind when references to ‘this book’ are encountered. I have provided this section here, outside of the structure of the manual and its main table of contents, as it may help to explain the significance of Vatican II as an expression of a larger re-adaptation necessitated by the advent of the modern world.

a. The Liberal Consensus

Loud and clear we proclaim it: Liberalism, as we have described it in the foregoing pages, neatly summarizes the philosophical consensus of the modern United States. Its premises and values go to form the context in which we all live and work, as well as the pseudo-religious creed under which we worship. It forms our institutions and dictates the unconscious principles from which we reason; and this is true whether or not we acknowledge our allegiance to its precepts. Our consent was implicit simply by our birth in this historical period and in this hemisphere.

This reality—our reality—becomes all the more important if we allow ourselves to admit that Liberalism is also the most significant and far-reaching heresy in the history of Christianity, if we may make such a judgment based on the amount of energy and ink the Church has spent waging war against it. Add to that the magnitude of the damages and divisions left in the aftermath, and the judgment becomes undeniable. Thus, any discussion of the Catholic Church’s relationship to the modern world must begin and end with the ideology of Liberalism.

Yet this presents an immediate difficulty because the philosophy of Liberalism, as it was originally developed during the Enlightenment period, and as it was immediately rejected by the Church, means something quite different than it is taken to mean in contemporary American speech. Here and now, the word has come to refer more or less to the political platform espoused by the Democratic Party. While this is true in part, because many of the policies of the “Left” are indeed products of Liberalism, it is also misleading, because in some ways its policies are not “liberal” at all. The issue becomes even more confused by the fact that, in opposition to the platform of the Left, we are offered an opposing platform labelled “conservative” and proffered by those calling themselves Republicans. Yet, truth be told, many of the ideas contained in this second set are just as much in the spirit of Liberalism as those of the first.

Obviously, if what has been said above is true, then both of these parties contradict themselves. And this is why it is so essential to restore to the term Liberalism its proper meaning before we go any further. If we can achieve this task, the reader will be enabled, from the start, to overcome two great obstacles which stand in the way of his study of the Catholic’s relationship with America:

First, he will discover that the two parties listed on his ballot sheet every four years are, from a philosophical standpoint, blatantly incoherent in their policies and propositions. Second, he will see that, rather than being diametrically opposed, they are in fact two “sects” within the creed of Liberalism.

b. The Meaning of Liberalism

Let us begin with the term itself. The word liberal is merely a derivation from the Latin liber, meaning “free.” In this respect it is a fairly innocuous thing. However, since the eighteenth century “the word has been applied more and more to certain tendencies in the intellectual, religious, political, and economical life, which implied partial or total emancipation of man from the supernatural, moral, and Divine order.”[1]

This “new form of Liberalism” received its most significant development through the Enlightenment, but to focus on this movement alone would be a mistake of oversimplification: it had its parallels in the religious and economic fields as well (represented by the Reformation and Capitalism, respectively).

The proponents of the new Liberalism argued for a very specific set of principles which, although radical at the time, are now universally recognizable: “unrestrained freedom of thought, religion, conscience, creed, speech, press, and politics.”[2] The consequences which naturally follow from these are:

“on the one hand, the abolition of the Divine right and of every kind of authority derived from God; the relegation of religion from the public life into the private domain of one’s individual conscience; the absolute ignoring of Christianity and the Church as a public, legal, and social institution; on the other hand, the putting into practice of the absolute autonomy of every man and citizen, along all lines of human activity, and the concentration of all public authority in one ‘sovereignty of the people.’ ”[3]

Through this development, the term liberal transformed from an innocuous adjective and became a fully-fledged “-ism,” which would in turn become the defining heresy of the modern period. It was against this profound shift that the Church was destined to expend vast energies doing battle. In fact, from the mid-19th century onward there have been so many warnings, refutations, and condemnations of these principles that to list them all would be unfeasible. Limiting ourselves to only the most significant documents in this vein, we are still left with a considerable corpus: Mirare Vos (Gregory XVI, 1832), Quanta cura (Pius IX, 1864), Immortale Dei (Leo XIII, 1885), Libertas Praestantissimum (Leo XIII, 1888), Lamentabili Sane (St. Pius X, 1907), Quas Primas (Pius XI, 1925), Humani Generis (Pius XII, 1950).

c. Too Close for Comfort

Because Liberalism is the context into which most of us were born, we might at first be taken aback by the suggestion that these precepts which we now treasure have been tirelessly condemned by one pope after another. We might struggle to understand why Liberalism is an evil at all. Its teachings are indeed so familiar to us that not only can we not imagine why they might be harmful, but we cannot even conceive of any alternative arrangement.

Were we not imbibed with such tenets as “free speech” and “freedom of the press” with our mothers’ milk? And yet, in the course of our study, we will encounter statements such as the following from Pope Leo XIII:

“We must now consider briefly liberty of speech, and liberty of the press. It is hardly necessary to say that there can be no such right as this, if it be not used in moderation, and if it pass beyond the bounds and end of all true liberty. For right is a moral power which – as We have before said and must again and again repeat – it is absurd to suppose that nature has accorded indifferently to truth and falsehood, to justice and injustice. Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them; but lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State…If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint.”[4]

And what of the “separation of church and state,” which is a practical reality, if not the acknowledged consensus, of both parties in America? To this we may return again to Leo:

“[C]ivil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.”[5]

Even popular sovereignty seems unable to pass the muster of the pontiff:

“Amongst these principles the main one lays down that as all men are alike by race and nature, so in like manner all are equal in the control of their life…In a society grounded upon such maxims all government is nothing more nor less than the will of the people, and the people, being under the power of itself alone, is alone its own ruler…The sovereignty of the people…is held to reside in the multitude; which is doubtless a doctrine exceedingly well calculated to flatter and to inflame many passions, but which lacks all reasonable proof…whence it necessarily follows that all things are as changeable as the will of the people, so that risk of public disturbance is ever hanging over our heads.”[6]

These sentiments are understandably difficult to swallow. But if we take a moment and open ourselves to the reasoning of the Magisterium, granting her the benefit of the doubt that she rightly deserves as Mater et Magistra,[7] at the same time adopting the spirit of docility[8] to which we are called, we might find that we are offered a collection of truths which we never thought we needed.

d. The Nature of the Heresy

To understand the problem of Liberalism we need to identify the evil inherent in every heresy.

In Faust, Goethe has the devil say: “I am a part of the part, that once was a whole.”[9] A better definition of heresy could not be found, for each one is not a lie, but is rather a partial truth wrenched away from the whole and then carried off into isolation where it is made into a little god. This is why Belloc said that “heresies survive by the truths they retain.” It follows naturally then that if the “truth retained” is of the highest sort, all the more difficult will it be to differentiate it from the original. For although a spark is merely a fragment of the fire, if it is bright enough it may hypnotize the eye long enough to draw it away from the source, even though it presents an inferior glow.

And the partial truth retained in Liberalism?—It was the simple acknowledgement that man is created to be free. This in itself is nothing alien to the Church. In fact, it is the oldest and most treasured doctrine of the faith. But through liberalism it was torn from the overarching context of the Church. “Liberty” was then exalted to the status of an end in itself—not just one truth among many about man, but the truth. Not just one value in a hierarchy of values, but the supreme value, absolute and overshadowing all others. This was a separation of “the part from the whole,” and the truth cannot survive the procedure. The life-giving arms of the Church provide a larger context which not only gives direction to man’s freedom, but harmonizes it with the supreme truth that is God. Without this, freedom is destined to become a perversion. This is why the Gospels say that only through the truth shall we be set free.[10] We are given no reason to believe that liberty can be had otherwise.

And so, as Paul VI recalled in his 1971 Apostolic Exhortation, Octogesima Adveniens, “at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.”[11]

It was not in holding high man’s capacity for liberty that men went wrong, but in carrying this single fragment into isolation and attempting to discard any overarching principle beside it. The Church, seeing this, chose precisely the same imagery as Goethe to identify the unfortunate path that men were taking:

“[M]any there are who follow in the footsteps of Lucifer, and adopt as their own his rebellious cry, ‘I will not serve’; and consequently substitute for true liberty what is sheer and most foolish license. Such, for instance, are the men belonging to that widely spread and powerful organization, who, usurping the name of liberty, style themselves liberals.”[12]

e. Three Heads of the Hydra

As suggested above, it is dangerously naïve to entertain a view of Liberalism that recognizes only its political expression. The movement invaded political philosophy, to be sure, but at the same time it reached both above and below that level, disturbing not only the mind of man, but also his body and soul. With its withering touch it dictated anew, not only how he would earn his daily bread, but even how he would relate to the sacred.

Consider for a moment that the heart of Liberalism is an exaggerated notion of human autonomy, which always carries with it, sometimes unconsciously, an unprecedented optimism about the mental aptitudes of the individual. If we survey the last several centuries, do we find corresponding movements within the religious, economic, and political spheres which all manifest this mentality?

Indeed, the task is too easy: The Reformation was nothing more than individualism of religion, transferring to the judgment the individual the weightiest of all tasks—the interpretation of both Scripture and Tradition. In the economic sphere, it is obviously Capitalism that represents an unrestrained embrace of individualism and liberty through the doctrines of sanctioned self-interest and “free markets.” And we have just finished describing precepts which, through the Enlightenment, expressed the same symptoms in the political realm: free speech, absolute rights, and secularism.

To confirm the links between these three, we will pause briefly to comment on each.

f. The Reformation

If we understand Liberalism to be an error of reduction, severing branch from vine,[13] then it does not take an extensive argument to show that Luther’s three solas unquestionably fit the bill. How else can we interpret sola fide (“faith alone”), sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), and sola gratia (“grace alone”) than as partial selections of a pre-existent whole? The atomized nature of these doctrines is itself implicit in the term, sola. They are the tenets of nothing-but-ness. Add to this doctrinal oversimplification the principle of private interpretation, and the concept of authority evaporates taking all hopes of traditional unity along with it.

Here we may draw benefit from a small work by Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, published in 1886 under the title El Liberalismo es Pecado, or “Liberalism is a Sin.” This thin volume meticulously and passionately refutes the errors associated with religious Liberalism.

But first, in case the bluntness of its title and the relative obscurity of its author give pause to the cautious reader, we should mention that it was initially intercepted by a Bishop of liberal opinions, who then submitted it to the Sacred Congregation of the Index, in hopes that the work would be put under ban. The Sacred Congregation reviewed the submission and responded on January 10, 1887 as follows: “not only is nothing found contrary to sound doctrine, but its author, D. Felix Sarda, merits great praise for his exposition and defense of the sound doctrine therein set forth with solidity, order and lucidity, and without personal offense to anyone.”

Thus reassured of its orthodoxy, we may comfortably cite from its pages and hear what case it brings against Luther’s movement:

“Rejecting the principle of authority in religion, [Protestantism] has neither criterion nor definition of faith. On the principle that every individual or sect may interpret the deposit of Revelation according to the dictates of private judgment, it gives birth to endless differences and contradictions. Impelled by the law of its own impotence, through lack of any decisive voice of authority in matters of faith, it is forced to recognize as valid and orthodox any belief that springs from the exercise of private judgment. Therefore does it finally arrive, by force of its own premises, at the conclusion that one creed is as good as another; it then seeks to shelter its inconsistency under the false plea of liberty of conscience. Belief is not imposed by a legitimately and divinely constituted authority, but springs directly and freely from the unrestricted exercise of the individual’s reason or caprice upon the subject matter of Revelation. The individual or sect interprets as it pleases—rejecting or accepting what it chooses. This is popularly called liberty of conscience. Accepting this principle, Infidelity, on the same plea, rejects all Revelation, and Protestantism, which handed over the premise, is powerless to protest against the conclusion; for it is clear that one who, under the plea of rational liberty, has the right to repudiate any part of Revelation that may displease him, cannot logically quarrel with one who, on the same ground, repudiates the whole. If one creed is as good as another, on the plea of rational liberty, on the same plea, no creed is as good as any. Taking the field with this fatal weapon of Rationalism, Infidelity has stormed and taken the very citadel of Protestantism, helpless against the foe of its own making.”[14]

If we were to characterize the gist of this reasoning, it is that a process which begins in disintegration must proceed toward disorder and terminate in death. Neither can this argument be called a “slippery slope,” for he was not conjecturing wildly about what might happen, but was observing what already had. He was merely connecting dots.

“Such is the mainspring of the heresy constantly dinned into our ears, flooding our current literature and our press. It is against this that we have to be perpetually vigilant, the more so because it insidiously attacks us on the grounds of a false charity and in the name of a false liberty…

“The principle ramifies in many directions, striking root into our domestic, civil, and political life, whose vigor and health depend upon the nourishing and sustaining power of religion. For religion is the bond which unites us to God, the Source and End of all good; and Infidelity, whether virtual, as in Protestantism, or explicit, as in Agnosticism, severs the bond which binds men to God and seeks to build human society on the foundations of man’s absolute independence.[15]

g. The Enlightenment

In much the same way that Luther could be considered the father of the Reformation, John Locke (1632-1704) has been considered the father of political Liberalism. He was the most influential thinker to come from the Enlightenment, and was the philosopher of choice for revolutionaries such as the American Founders.

And what were the “foundations” which Locke laid? For our purposes here we will adopt Christopher Ferrara’s summary:[16]

  • A hypothetical “social compact” or contract as the foundation of the State.
  • The origin of political sovereignty in the “consent” of the governed (invariably presumed to have been given by those who happen to be wielding power).
  • “Government by the people” according to the “sovereignty of the people,” meaning strict majority rule on all questions, including the most profound moral ones.
  • Church-State separation and the non-“interference” of religion in politics.
  • The confinement of religion, above all the revealed truths of Christianity, to the realm of “private” opinions and practices one is free to adopt (or to denounce) if it pleases him, but which are to have no controlling effect on law or public policy.
  • The unlimited pursuit of gain, including the freedom to buy, sell and advertise anything whatsoever the majority deems permissible by law.
  • Total liberty of thought and action, both private and public, within the limits of a merely external “public peace” essentially reduced to the protection of persons and property from invasion by others—in sum, a “free-market society.”
  • The dissolubility of marriage, and thus the family, as a mere civil contract founded on a revocable consent.

These principles found their most absolute expression in the French Revolution. The American Revolution, however, suffices as another clear example, and the Declaration of Independence acts as a neat summary of Locke’s ideas. This should come as no surprise, since the Declaration was penned by Jefferson who was so enamored with Locke that he added his bust to a special canvas alongside Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. These, he wrote, were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception…having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised.”[17]

h. Capitalism

That Capitalism is an expression of Liberalism should be painfully obvious by now. To illustrate the point further, however, we might take Milton Friedman, economic advisor to Ronald Reagan and internationally known proponent of laissez-faire economic policy. In his 1962 book titled Capitalism and Freedom, he wrote that “the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society.”[18] This movement “supported laissez-faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual.”[19] Friedman thus considered himself a thoroughgoing Liberal, as much as this might dismay his contemporary disciples. But the only reason for this dismay is that Friedman was consistent; our contemporaries are not.

At this point we do not intend to examine the policies or problems associated with Capitalism. We will spend a great deal of time on this subject as we progress further into our study. Here it will suffice to show what philosophical wellspring fed Capitalism in its beginnings, because that source has since been veiled by our confused terminology. If we had not taken care to clear this up, the phrasing used in many encyclicals and documents would have been impossible for us to properly grasp. For example, when Pope Pius XI applauds “boldly breaking through the confines imposed by liberalism,”[20] and John XXIII condemns “unrestricted competition in the liberal sense,”[21] they are speaking with a unified voice of Capitalism.[22]

i. The Dust Settles

By the time this threefold deluge had run its course over the surface of the West, nothing recognizable remained of the old structures. As the waters fell, the Church settled down, like Noah’s ark, on a mountain top, left alive but dry-docked, able to survey the damage but powerless to speak or act any longer against it. How different this was from the situation of Pope Gelasius who in 494 had been able to write to the emperor himself:

“There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy.”[23]

But now all future princes were to be cast in the mold of Henry VIII—answerable to no one but themselves and ready to form their own doctrines according to convenience and fancy, an act which Luther’s example had justified in advance. Scripture itself, that great treasure assembled and safeguarded by the Church through the centuries, had been wrenched from her grip and distributed en masse to be subjected to every interpretive novelty.

It has been frequently suggested that the Church should have embraced this new position outside of all temporal powers, and that She should not need involvement with worldly powers in order to reach the lives of men. But this is all to miss the point: no one has ever said that the Church required an acknowledged position of social authority in order to survive. It is clear that She has survived and will continue to survive without it. The question is not whether She “needs the help” of the temporal powers in order to thrive, but whether or not the temporal powers need Her. The cries and condemnations of the Church were not those of jealousy but of concern, warnings of the wolves closing in.

j. Orthodoxy and Heresy Rendered Incomprehensible

To say that this revolution changed man to his core—that it modified the way he sees Truth itself—sounds a bit drastic. Yet consider the way in which we imagine, or, more accurately, are no longer capable of imagining, traditional concepts such as heresy.

Heresy, from an etymological standpoint, means nothing more than “to choose for oneself.” Obviously, then, the word is entirely appropriate for one who departs from orthodoxy to blaze his own trail. Heresy, then, implies the existence of orthodoxy, which is its counterpart. In the past, every heretic believed himself to be orthodox. The two terms are related to one another, in the same way that “to be inside” of something implies the existence of an “outside.” But with Liberalism something altogether new was introduced to man. It was a heresy, to be sure, but for the first time it was a heresy that made no pretenses at orthodoxy. It was, in fact, the first heresy to more or less explicitly reject orthodoxy as a valid conception. And because orthodoxy signifies those beliefs which are true, to render it invalid is to render incomprehensible the traditional notions about truth and error.

To quote again from Fr. Sarda:

“Liberalism…transgresses all commandments. To be more precise: in the doctrinal order, Liberalism strikes at the very foundations of faith; it is heresy radical and universal, because within it are comprehended all heresies…”[24]

“It repudiates dogma altogether and substitutes opinion, whether that opinion be doctrinal or the negation of doctrine. Consequently, it denies every doctrine in particular. If we were to examine in detail all the doctrines or dogmas which, within the range of Liberalism, have been denied, we would find every Christian dogma in one way or another rejected—from the dogma of the Incarnation to that of Infallibility.”[25]

But Fr. Sarda will not leave his analysis incomplete. The explicit denial of the legitimacy of dogma carries with it an implicit affirmation of a “new dogma” which is both universal and negative in its character:

“Nonetheless Liberalism is in itself dogmatic; and it is in the declaration of its own fundamental dogma, the absolute independence of the individual and the social reason, that it denies all Christian dogmas in general. Catholic dogma is the authoritative declaration of revealed truth—or a truth consequent upon Revelation—by its infallibly constituted exponent. This logically implies the obedient acceptance of the dogma on the part of the individual and of society. Liberalism refuses to acknowledge this rational obedience and denies the authority. It asserts the sovereignty of the individual and social reason and enthrones Rationalism in the seat of authority. It knows no dogma except the dogma of self-assertion. Hence it is heresy, fundamental and radical, the rebellion of the human intellect against God.”[26]

The victory of liberalism meant the extinction of the concepts of both heresy and orthodoxy, which really represented nothing more than the primordial duality of truth and falsity. The old positive-negative pair was then replaced with a single, universal negative which rendered the previous paradigm illegitimate and, further, assured that anyone indoctrinated into the negative dogma of liberalism would be completely unable to understand the old terms. Man was left to sit alone in the privacy of his home, asking with Pilate “What is truth?”[27]

 k. Vatican II and the New Era

The Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but we’re given no guarantee that the Church will prevail in every single battle. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, we are engaged in “the long defeat.” This puts the Church in an interesting position. The Apostles were instructed that, if rejected, they should shake the dust from their feet and move to the next city; but the Church may never do this. Her assigned city is the world. She is with man until the end, for that is her entire purpose. So what is the proper course?

The Church is an expert in humanity.[28] She is its physician, and a responsible physician, if he senses the danger of disease or infection, does everything he can to warn his patient of the threat. Ideally speaking, his advice will be heeded (he is the expert, after all) and the patient’s health will be maintained. But sometimes, as we all know from our own experiences, the patient disregards his doctor’s advice and contracts the disease in spite of the efforts of his advisor. In this case and at this point, his doctor will accept this change in conditions and readjust his treatment. We would call him obstinate, ineffective, and even unwise if he did not make this change, for the disease has now set in and this requires advice of a different kind. The patient is diseased. The physician must treat him accordingly, and no amount of lecture about what he could have done to prevent the infection will be of any use to anyone: that course is not currently open to either party.

To put it another way, the Good Shepherd does everything he possibly can to keep his flock together. However, should the wolves scatter the sheep, he will, if he is indeed the Good Shepherd, travel far and wide to recover those who have wandered away. If they have wandered into the desert, the bog, or the forest, he goes there, and he goes not because he wishes it or because he enjoys the bog, but because that is where the sheep have gone.

We must keep this in mind as we approach the most significant Magisterial result of the Liberal revolution: The Second Vatican Council. Also called Vatican II, this event was nothing more or less than the decision of the Church to enter the bog of modernism, so to speak. Like the Good Shepherd and the Good Doctor, she chose this path not because it was good, but because Her vocation required it.

Formally opened by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965, this twenty-first ecumenical council of the Church was precisely the sort of action described above. The Church had made every effort to administer preventative treatment and curb the infection at its source. It had made war on man’s behalf for over 100 years on the Liberal contagion, but to no avail. Western Civilization was now diseased, and so a new form of counsel was necessary.

It is important to remember what was said earlier regarding concepts like “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” that they had been rendered incomprehensible to the modern man. A person born and raised in the Liberal context cannot understand why he must believe something any more than why he must not. Everything must pass through the lens of “freedom” which is the only discerning lens his cultural training provided him with. This ensures that those old notions do not compute.

Sensing this, the Church called together its best physicians from around the world in order to discern the idiosyncrasies of man’s new condition—in body, mind and soul. How has he faired throughout the revolution? In what ways has he been affected? What are his symptoms? And what sort of treatment can best bring him back to health?

l. Continuity and Renewal

Before we discuss the actual outcome of the Council and the responses it provoked, something must be said for the nature of the Church’s mission.

The Church is tasked with protecting the eternal and unchanging teachings of the Church, but at the same time she must provide appropriate adaptations, and, when necessary, re-adaptations, for each society and historical period. The Church must “become all things to all people,” and this means that when a new epoch presents itself, altering custom, language, and thought, it is up to the Church to make sure that the presentation and application are still true to the Tradition. This necessitates that the Church adopt a twofold method in regard to its message:

On the one hand it is constant, for it remains identical in its fundamental inspiration, in its “principles of reflection,” in its “criteria of judgment,” in its basic “directives for action,” and above all in its vital link with the Gospel of the Lord. On the other hand, it is ever new, because it is subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical conditions and by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society.[29]

The Church speaks with a voice that is “consistent and at the same time ever new.”[30] This is absolutely not a question of relevance. Relevance comes down to a matter of whim and attempts to achieve it often amount to self-compromise and an appeal to changing whims. The Church does not sacrifice at that altar.

It is a question of distinguishing principles from their concrete application: Principles are unchanging and eternal, but a particular application of a principle may not be appropriate for each and every historical circumstance. The Sun casts light on a different portion of the earth’s surface every hour; but does this mean that the Sun is on the move? On the contrary, it is we who are constantly in flux, and if the Light of the Church appears to alter itself, it is only in accordance with the inconstancies of the world. Loud and clear it must be proclaimed: when the Church demands something which appears different today than what it asked yesterday, this should not be taken as contradiction—much less should it be assumed that the Church is “admitting error” and “correcting its mistakes.” It is simply evidence for us of a changing world. More importantly, it is proof of a Living, Teaching Church.

m. Outcomes of the Council

By the time the doors closed on Vatican II, the members had produced four constitutions, three declarations, and nine decrees. Each of these has its purpose, although opinions seem to vary as to the exact significance of each. What is generally acknowledged, however, is that their doctrinal significance is hierarchical, with the constitutions acting as the most binding of the three, while the remaining two categories are of less gravity, aimed at addressing certain specific concerns or acting as appendices to a constitution.

We cannot go into depth here on each document that was produced, so instead we will mention only the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, which turned out to be one of the most divisive of the collection. It therefore serves as an appropriate illustration for us, because the arguments presented for or against it tend to be representative of the entire debate regarding the Council.

Dignitatis Humanae has generated a great deal of argument and debate for such a concise document. It is only a few pages long, so the reader cannot be excused from obtaining a copy for examination. This document, called the “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” addresses the relationship between the Church and modern states, as well as between modern states and the individual.

In brief, the document states that “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”[31] But its authors take care from the first paragraph to say that this document “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”[32]

Now it is understandable that those who have read and treasured the encyclicals of Leo XIII and predecessors would be at first confused at these two statements placed right next two each other. After all, we find there that “the State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion…it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit.”[33] Does the declaration of Vatican II contradict this saying?—and, if so, which is the faithful Catholic to accept?

But at this point we must marshal before us what was said above: that the whole purpose of Vatican II, and any other council for that matter, was to provide at the same time continuity and renewal of the unchanging truths of the Christian Tradition. It is entirely superficial to read the anti-Liberal documents of the warrior popes such as Leo XIII or Pius in precisely the same fashion and from the same point of view as the documents of Vatican II. Remember the role of the physician before and after the disease has set in: Leo XIII was trying, until the very last moment, to prevent the spread of the infection. He was trying to save the progression of the illness from entering a new stage. He and his predecessors did not succeed. So be it. The illness spread through the world and changed its character entirely. The good physician, tender and faithful, convened the Council in order to reassess and formulate the new treatment.

In its assessment, the Council found that it now existed on the outskirts of secular societies, individualistic in mentality, obsessed with rights, and largely unable to comprehend older notions. In this light, we must look again at the documents of Vatican II. Isn’t it clear that they are nothing but the unchanging doctrines of the Church specifically adapted for application within individualistic, secularized, rights-based societies.

In the past, when the Church was an institution intimately integrated into every level of social life, there was no danger of intolerance. The Church, in fact, was a bastion for religious freedom, despite the myths now spread about Inquisition and witch-hunts—convenient for secular states who are always trying to justify themselves. But Leo’s prophecy about the implicit atheism of secularized governments had come to pass, and so the emphasis of the Church’s message had to change along with the reality. A change in emphasis does not imply contradiction, but rather it displays its dynamism.

Because modern nations had become secular, man had to be protected from the State in his worship in a way that was never quite necessary before. The Church also had its own freedom threatened. This called for specific and new emphasis on religious liberty—hence the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Nothing was nullified, and what was declared in the past remained truth. Following the example of Christ, the Church preaches the truth, asks for perfection, but when man falls short, is always prepared to come minister to his wounds wherever he happens to be.

If we laid the entire collection of anti-Liberal documents right next to those produced during Vatican II—even Dignitatis Humanae—it is entirely possible to imagine that they were written by the same hand. All that we need in order to connect them and render their statements comprehensible is to imagine the following statement inserted between the two collections: “In the event that all of our warnings are ignored, and the worst should come to pass, see below:”

If every application of Church teachings “in the here and now” is contingent on present conditions, Vatican II was but the development and implementation of a new contingency plan.

n. Reception and Division

If we divided Catholics into groups based on their responses to the Council, we would come up with two: those who paid attention, and those who did not.

Of these, the second group comprises the vast majority of the laity. One of the unique aspects of the new era was that councils, synods, proclamations, declarations, exhortations, any other “official” actions of the Church ceased to matter to the man on the street. Just as the Church itself had been rendered as irrelevant to his daily routine, so also were the messages which issued from Her. Thus, the vast majority became insulated from the words of the Magisterium not by overt censorship but by the unconscious complacence that secularism instills. This left them to continue about their business without taking much notice of the whole affair.

But what of the other group?—those who were “waiting at the door” of the Council chamber, eager for its outcomes? These we can also divide again into two groups, based on whether their response was positive or negative. Yet that would not be sufficient, because on a very deep level both classes of reaction were evidence of a violent pessimism toward the Church Herself. What I mean is this:

Those who responded positively toward the new posture and plan of the Church, embracing the new emphasis of documents such as Dignitatis Humanae seemed, in general, to believe that this marked a departure from previous teachings. They seemed to believe that the new contingency plan was not that at all, but was instead an admission of the Church’s previous “backwardness” and that the Council had finally led the Church to “come around” to the truths of progress and Liberalism. And so this sort of response, although positive, is more accurately a sort of positive pessimism because it implies that the Church and its leaders, who worked so hard on behalf of man, had been laboring in vain all through the great war. It insinuated that the Church had been “on the wrong side of history.”

Those who responded negatively to the outcomes of the Council held an opposite view which we can call “negatively pessimistic.” They essentially agreed with the others that the Council represented not only a shift but a discontinuity in Church teachings. They only differed on which historical period they chose to reject: unlike their opponents, they sided with the warrior popes and rejected Vatican II, its participants, and its documents as heretical.

Neither of these two responses (whether a positive pessimism or a negative pessimism) seem to allow the possibility that it was not the doctor who changed but the patient. Neither seemed to be able (or perhaps, willing?) to give the Church the benefit of the doubt. The docility demanded by the Church is, it seems, one of its most difficult teachings.

And so, although there are no doubt many faithful Catholics who do not align with these general categories, the closing of the Council was met with two responses: indifference and pessimism. Coincidentally, both of these attitudes can be interpreted as symptoms of Liberalism, which can be expected to manifest itself differently according to the personality and disposition of each individual.

The Church is a prudent mother. She discerns when it is time to talk about something else. There is truth in the scriptural wisdom about throwing “pearls before swine.” You aren’t helping anyone by tossing them precious gems if their present condition prevents them from either appreciating or understanding the value of such things. The good shepherd feeds his flock—that was the mandate given to Peter. That is the task which concerns his successors. There may come a day when pearls—things of loftier value—are once again appropriate, but that is not today.

3. The Age of Ignorance

Let us tie all this together by observing the impact this process has had on knowledge in both its social and its individual aspects. We choose this subject because it is so often taken for granted that the modern world, if nothing else, has achieved wonderful things in the realm of knowledge.

If we had to summarize the frailty of man in one word, many of us would probably use the term “sin.” Man is “fallen,” we might respond. But to sin is simply to miss the mark. In what way does man tend to miss it?

To put the question differently, would it be more appropriate to describe fallen man as wicked, or could we say instead that he is merely stupid? Obviously both assertions are true: We all miss the mark quite frequently, both in thought and in behavior. But does the greater preponderance of our “woundedness” lie in our tendency toward immoral action, or, instead, in our innate ignorance?

Also, we should say that we do not mean to deal with these questions theologically, but rather sociologically: we don’t want to talk about Aquinas’s hierarchy of virtues; we want to talk about the way we perceive ourselves and those around us. And judging by the rhetoric we hear daily, it seems that most of us readily think of ourselves as morally frail, yet we become violently indignant when anyone suggests that we might, in addition, have vastly limited mental powers. This leads me to believe that somewhere along the line we chose the “wicked” answer and rejected almost completely the possibility that the greater problem was an epistemological one. We denied the possibility that, when Adam fell, he landed on his head.

It is the opinion of the Thomists and Antiquity that the preponderance of our human limitation can indeed be found in the intellectual sphere. Further, it seems that the conscious acknowledgment of this truth was the historical reality in traditional societies. Men of those times saw and accepted it with a humble realism, and they designed their sociopolitical framework accordingly.

At what point, then, did man’s opinion about man begin to reverse itself? Undeniably this occurred alongside the rise of Liberalism we have been describing. With the victory of this movement, there came a massive shift in regard to how man views his own limited state, and we believe that this change represents one of the most profound upheavals in the history of the world.

We will begin with an observation from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, which states the case well:

“In contradiction to St. Thomas (and to Luther, after all) the Church often seemed to take the position that man is rather stupid than wicked. Protestantism, though rather pessimistic about the spiritual qualities of the ‘sin-cripple,’ nevertheless gave him the Bible without explanatory footnotes, trusting in his intelligence (or ‘inspiration’). Catholicism, on the other hand, frequently tended to adopt the view that a superficial half-education was much worse than no education at all, and thus in Catholic countries we saw (and sometimes still see) a large number of illiterates side by side with an intellectual elite of high standards. The Protestant goal of education is usually one of good averages—the optimum for democracy. In democracies there will always be resentment and contempt for the ‘highbrow’ and the illiterate, the intellectual and the ‘peasant.’”[34]

Through the Reformation this great shift in self-perception, by which man’s carnal weakness and mental strength both became exaggerated, can be viewed with great clarity. Only within the context of this new, individualistic, rationalized, subjective sort of religiosity could the focus of hamartiology become so obsessed with man’s “total depravity” while, at the very same time, laying on this same “totally depraved” soul the immense responsibility of interpreting scripture and discerning the truth of a thousand years of doctrine all by himself.

Yet we need to go further than just identifying historical transformations, which has been our project so far in this study. We need to examine the actual consequences of the change, the most significant of which, in the case of Liberalism, has been the unprecedented empowerment of ignorance as a social force.

As we’ve already seen, the situation shocked Tocqueville, who remarked that the political conditions in America bestowed on its people “a very lofty, often very exaggerated, conception of human reason.” This, as we have shown, was the result of individualism fused with rationalism. If reason is a sufficient guide to truth, and every man is a self-sufficient island, then each man’s reason is self-sufficient.

Thus, Americans came to entertain an incredible view of their individual intellectual competencies, and Tocqueville saw that it was democracy itself which presses this grandiose idea of one’s own rationality onto the social psyche.

To understand this, consider the demands placed on the voting citizen. This “typical voter” requires two complex and very different areas of competence in order to assert himself honestly and effectively:

First, he must know the man for whom he is voting. If I do not know anything about you as a person, your strengths, weaknesses, experience, opinions, etc., then I am not competent to decide whether or not you can effectively govern, or do any other job for that matter. While I may conceivably achieve appropriate knowledge of this type about people who live down the street from me, it is nothing short of ludicrous to imagine that I can achieve that level of knowledge in regard to a presidential candidate whom I’ve never met and cannot meet, and about whom my only sources of information are a pair of warring tribes who either paint the candidate as a devil or a saint. The problems here are fairly obvious, but remember this is only the first area of competence I must achieve.

Second, after I attain knowledge of the candidate, I must attain knowledge of the job itself. If I do not know how the job works or what it is like, what strengths and aptitudes it requires, then I can’t select someone to do the job even if I know all of the candidates personally.

Now here again, I can conceivably fulfill this second requirement of competence if the candidate in question lives down the street and will decide whether or not the forest across town gets cleared for development. I know the man, I know the forest, and I know the town. However, the knowledge required to truly know what it takes to be a “good president” is astonishingly complex: here one needs not only knowledge of history, geography, rhetoric, military science, international law, and foreign languages, but he also needs experience. If I have neither knowledge nor experience, then I’m like a baker trying to judge the technique of a brain surgeon: the baker might have an opinion on the surgeon’s technique, but his opinion is not valid—it is but the expression of ignorance.

Because the attainment of the level of competence described above is obviously impossible for the average man who works and maybe even has a family, and because democracies like the United States are predicated on the notion that this same man can and should choose the president anyway, then democracy itself can be said to be predicated on the reinforcement of Augustinian ignorance. It not only suggests but demands that a man pick and choose between a thousand things he knows nothing about, and which he may have never even considered.

Needless to say, such an atmosphere is fertile ground for the enthronement of ignorance. Consider again our typical voting citizen:

  1. He thinks he knows what’s going on with global warming, whether the science is valid or not.
  2. He thinks that he knows, at any given moment, what sort of effect a tax adjustment would have on the national economy.
  3. He thinks he knows how immunizations work.
  4. He thinks he knows what “organic” means.
  5. He thinks he understands the conflict in the Middle East.

This list could go on and on, from Benghazi to the Big Bang, but I’m sure the point is clear: He cannot possibly have valid opinions about these things. Considered individually, the number of people who fully understand any one of the above points is undeniably very, very small. Considered as a whole and all at once, no one could possibly have reached a level of understanding that could be termed “competent.”

Further, although this alone is enough to achieve institutionalized solipsism, there is an even greater danger: it teaches men that this is how truth is discovered—by polling a mass of Augustinian opinionation and going with the greatest number.

This sort of “democratization of truth” ends by defeating itself. We think we have free thought, but it has been observed that never before was man more a slave to the opinions of others. To refer again to Tocqueville:

“When conditions are unequal and men have dissimilar outlooks, there are a few very enlightened, learned, powerfully intelligent individuals while the masses are very ignorant and extremely limited. People who live under this aristocratic rule are naturally inclined to take as a guide for their opinions the superior reason of one man or one class, whereas they are not persuaded to recognize the infallibility of the masses.

“In times of equality, the opposite prevails.

“Gradually, as citizens become more equal and similar, the inclination for each man to have a blind belief in one particular man or class lessens. The predisposition to believe in mass opinion increases and becomes progressively the opinion which commands the world…

“In the United States, the majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of ready-made opinions, thus relieving him of the necessity to take the proper responsibility of arriving at his own.”[35]

This is why Thomas Jefferson himself lamented that “the inquisition of public opinion overwhelms, in practice, the freedom asserted by the law in theory.” Odd sentiments for the Whig who penned the Declaration of Independence.

Even religious truth seemed to Tocqueville to have taken on this democratized guise: “Looking very closely, it can be seen that religion itself dominates less a revealed doctrine than a commonly held opinion.” Religious truth ceases to be the result of authority (knowledge) and becomes instead a simple matter of consensus.

Yet the strangest aspect of this enthronement of ignorance, which would be ironic if it were not so sad, is that the philosophy of liberalism which is responsible for it receives, at one and the same time, universal devotion and burning hatred. The American party system, for example, is in reality nothing but a war between the right and left arms of the liberal leviathan. Both parties are liberal, but neither of them, due to ignorance of both history and logic, realize that the philosophy they hold is also the philosophy that they hate in the other tribe.

This was true even from the beginning. The great figures of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, though they may have at times hated each others’ ideas, were merely applying the same ideas in different ways and in different fields. When Luther led liberalism against the church on one front, Voltaire did the same thing and with the same philosophy from an opposite front. Tocqueville is again our teacher:

“The philosophers of the eighteenth century…undertook to expose to the personal scrutiny of each man the substance of all his beliefs. Who cannot see that Luther, Descartes, and Voltaire used the same method and that they differed from each other only in the greater and lesser use they claimed to make of it?”[36]

Men apparently so opposed were, in actuality, fighting on behalf of their enemy’s philosophy. Liberalism, it seems, has a strange way of refusing to let those who hold it see it in its entirety. It reveals itself only in parts: one part to Luther, and another to Voltaire.

Things haven’t changed much. Today in America we have “Right liberals and Left liberals,” but everyone is a liberal. Our two parties are simply the Luthers (Republicans) fighting the Voltaires (Democrats)—the Pharisees against the Philistines. Historians will one day report, like Tocqueville, that they “differed from each other only in the greater and lesser use” they chose to make of their common philosophy.

Liberalism creates this chaos and this contradiction because they are its food and drink. It has a symbiotic relationship with strife. It takes one of its own adherents and gets that man to rant and rave against a “liberalism” which is nothing more than the other half of his own ideology. Thus, if liberalism were a religion, blasphemy would be one of its sacraments. In this way, liberalism always seems to be turning into its own opposite, promising Heaven and delivering shades of Hades.

Nor is liberalism truly liberating: Free speech is not free if what is said is not true. Thought is not free if it is not rational. Free opinion is a contradiction in terms if the opinion is an ignorant one. Thus liberalism, promising to deliver the individual from the arbitrary opinions of society, delivered him into total enslavement to the public. Public opinion now does not simply control man’s body—it also forms his very mind and directs his will.

There are quite a few others who have noticed the disappearance of truly intelligent public discourse, and who have lamented the shameless rise in assertive ignorance across the board. What no one seems to be able to explain, however, is the why.

That is the answer we’ve tried to provide, or at least approach, here. I’ve tried to illustrate that this endemic ignorance is not a new problem, or even a surprising one. It was seen from the beginning by perceptive observers. Tocqueville wrote hundreds of pages tracing it out.

This is not the spontaneous breakout of a disease that we can simply endure, and least of all is it something we can cure with “more education.” It is a system problem, and so long as the system persists it is unrealistic to expect people to behave in any other way.

It is time, then, to proceed to a vision of society that seeks to avoid these ills, and which we believe to be the most appropriate approach to social organization available to the Western World.

[1] Gruber, H. (1910). “Liberalism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 15, 2014 from New Advent:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Libertas, 23.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Immortale Dei, 26, 31.

[7] Literally, “Mother and Teacher.”

[8]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 87: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: ‘He who hears you, hears me’, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.”

[9] Faust, part I-iii, 1349.

[10] John 8:32.

[11] Octogesima Adveniens, 35.

[12] Libertas, 14.

[13] John 15:5.

[14] Liberalism is a Sin, ch. 2.

[15] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[16] Christopher A. Ferrara, Liberty, the god that failed: policing the sacred and constructing the myths of the secular state from Locke to Obama. Angelico Press (Tacoma, 2012). p. 15.

[17] Letter to John Trumbull, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 939.

[18] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Quadragesimo Anno, 25.

[21] Mater et Magistra, 23.

[22] See also: Sollicitudo rei Socialis, 20, 21, and 41.

[23] Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius in 494.

[24] Liberalismo es Pecado, Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, ch. 3.

[25] Liberalismo es Pecado, Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, ch. 3.

[26] Ibid.

[27] John 18:38.

[28] CSDC, 61.

[29] SRS, 3.

[30] CiV, 12.

[31] Dignitatis Humanae, 2.

[32] Ibid., 1.

[33] Immortale Dei, 6.

[34] Liberty or Equality.

[35] Democracy in America, 2.1.2

[36] Ibid.

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