The End of America

The end, I think, is very near. It isn’t that Americans today are worse than they have ever been. Most men, in most times and most places, are neither saints nor paragons of virtue. They don’t concern themselves much with ideas or with the business of sustaining a civilization. Their politics are selfish, their interests petty, their opinions conflicted and contradictory and fickle. So what is different about today? Why is our society disintegrating before our eyes? Why is there no one in power who is willing or able to resist? Why, out of 58 counties in California, is there not a single county clerk willing to say “we will not issue licenses for sham marriages!” Why isn’t there a coalition of counties telling the state Supreme Court to go jump in a lake? It is possible that the only way anyone advances a political or government career today – even on the level of cities and counties – is by not having any serious convictions. Convictions, sure, but nothing deep enough or serious enough to lose a job over. Nothing worth jeopardizing a career track. “I don’t like gay marriage, but hey, I didn’t make the rules, so let’s do what we’re told get on with our professional lives.” That’s how deep our “conservatism” is here in the red counties of California. And, left to their own devices, our great-great-grandfathers would probably have behaved in the same way.

So what’s the difference between our generation and that of our forefathers? The difference is that our forefathers were not “left to their own devices”. On balance they were probably just as shallow and conflicted as we are, except for one thing: authority. They deferred, willingly, to an authority beyond themselves and higher than the state. That authority was the Christian religion in one form or another, sometimes distilled through institutions and sometimes through exalted persons. The average man 150 years ago was keenly conscious of his own shortcomings and did not trust himself to answer the Big Questions in life. He relied upon his church, his parents, his community, and his received tradition – and in these he had a set of values in common with other men. Of course, 150 years ago that shared “authority” had already been diluted and compromised by the Protestant Revolt, and so it was well on the way to becoming irrelevant. But old habits die hard, and Western man, despite himself, was still not completely comfortable with making up his own rules without regard for inherited knowledge and revealed truth.

What he had – and what our contemporaries do not have – is humility. It is humility that allows one to receive truth with conviction, in deference to a trusted authority.

That world is completely gone. Today, everyone is a democrat and an individualist. It is forbidden to “appeal to authority” – especially religious authority – in the public square. Everyone is supposed to be an original thinker, and today’s herd of original thinkers has come to the unanimous conclusion that religious authority is illegitimate. You are free to argue for traditional marriage on the basis of natural law, but the original thinkers don’t believe in natural law; neither do they respect any of the great doctors and philosophers who have articulated the natural law; neither do they believe in the Church which sanctions natural law; neither do they believe in the God who established natural law. The original thinkers are a law unto themselves. Their moral frame of reference is a prison of their own feelings and prevailing ideologies, which they don’t recognize but from which they cannot escape.

The only arguments that matter are therefore impossible to make in today’s social climate. And even if they were not, there is no cultural consensus to which we can appeal. A consensus will have to be created anew, and that project will take generations. In the meantime, we are left with a civic polity that has only survived by feeding upon the remnants of a shattered Christendom and is now, finally and dramatically, running out of fuel. Our society’s moral capital is exhausted. All that remains is politics, a contest of wills. Power and money will win this contest: let’s not be deluded.

What of the Christian families of America, presently isolated and scattered to the winds? Should we abandon politics? For my part, I still hope for conversions, for miracles, for surprises. I will continue to vote and work with the system we have. At the same time, though, it is foolish to depend upon miracles that have not been promised. We need to prepare ourselves and our children for some very difficult times. Religious vocations are extremely important at this juncture. The next generation’s priests and monks and nuns will lead the Church through a new Dark Ages. If possible, it would be good to build new Christian communities with sustainable economies, where there would be strength in numbers and some refuge from the approaching chaos. But the most important thing is to get one’s spiritual life in order. Go to confession. Love your neighbors. Make war on your habitual sins. Increase your devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist. Increase your devotion to Our Blessed Lady. Do penance, for yourself and for others. The world may seem hopeless, but there is one thing that can turn it all around: a harvest of saints.


12 thoughts on “The End of America

  1. “That world is completely gone. Today, everyone is a democrat and an individualist. It is forbidden to “appeal to authority” – especially religious authority – in the public square.”

    Looking at the quote above, it’s pretty easy to be depressed, but it’s in the Catholic Faith we can be comforted.

    Catholicism has outlasted the Roman Empire (1000 years, rise, height, fall), the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire (remember that the “Sun never sets on the British Empire” – not so much anymore) and quite likely America’s rise and fall as well. Remember that Italy is still around and so is Britain as well. I think that America will be around in one form or another, but quite possibly in the form it’s in now.

    What’s the unifier for all of these great empires? A sense of purpose outside of one’s self. What was the downfall? Personal decadence.

    Through all of those empires, what has lasted? The Catholic Church. It’s “out of fashion”, “not with the times”, “inconvenient”, and a host of other names not PG-rated. But really, does it matter? If we are God’s personal Eternal Church, did we really expect that we’ll ever be “trendy or contemporary?” The longer I live, the more I think that we won’t be.

    I guess the tricky part is how much suffering will God call on us to be witness to or experience. I guess we can pray that that particular cup can pass us by, but until then I really think that we should be preparing ourselves and our loved ones for being “Extremely Unfashionable.” Whatever that might entail.


  2. Do you like the book _A Canticle For Leibowitz_?

    Worth reading. A little dark, but if it were really, really dark, I wouldn’t like it. I have a low tolerance for serious ickiness or despair, and I found the book very powerful and in an odd way encouraging. One thing that strikes one upon reading it is that he obviously wrote it when he had no idea that the Latin Mass was going to be wiped out for a while. It’s a futuristic novel written before Vatican II, and it pictures the Latin Mass as being the standard hundreds of years later, apparently without there ever having been any break in that.


  3. Danby: Mother Teresa? Wise words.

    Paula: We Americans have lately prided ourselves on not being as secular as Europe, but we’re starting to close the gap at an alarming rate.

    Francis: Yes, I agree with all that you wrote. Thanks for the reminder. And since you’re reading, let me tell once more what a delight it was to meet you and your wonderful family two Sundays ago. I hope you’ll visit again soon!


  4. Canticle for Liebowitz is wonderful. Sad that Miller later committed suicide after writing such an interesting Christian work. I haven’t read the second Liebowitz book; I am led to understand that it is not at all like the first.


  5. I haven’t read it either, but from what I’ve read it wasn’t (wholly) written by Miller anyway. He somehow bequeathed the rights to finish it to some other sci-fi writer and left it unfinished. So if it’s vastly different, that’s likely part of the reason.

    I think it’s rather funny that Canticle is regarded as science fiction, since a) people are riding donkeys around and using candles for much of the book, and b) the attempts to portray a mechanized distant future when he does get there are so quaint and clumsy. Dictation machines, for example, and of course vague references to space flight and colonization are as far as it gets.


  6. “It isn’t that Americans today are worse than they have ever been. Most men, in most times and most places, are neither saints nor paragons of virtue.”

    So civilizations decline and fall as a consequence of social changes that have no influence on human character? The average Roman citizen of the Republic was made of the same fundamental stuff as the one who succumbed to Empire? Have you ever talked to a cop who’s worked for decades? How about a teacher, a social worker or a nurse? Would they tell you that people even one generation ago were as “shallow and conflicted” as the ones confronting them today? Whether owing to technology, drug use or the spiritual vacuum left by the decline of organized religion, human nature is changing. It is growing weaker and more entrenched in evil.


  7. Hello Jane. I was afraid I’d be misunderstood on that point. What I wanted to say is that without the humility (there’s a virtue that changes over time) of obedience, which leads men to defer to the Church or some derivative authority, the men of 150 years ago would have behaved in much the same way when it comes to making moral decisions (such as whether to resist same-sex marriage in the county clerk’s office). But you’re right, human character changes and in that regard it has changed for the worse. The difference, as I said, is that in the past few people really believed they had the internal resources to “do the right thing” in every case, and so they instinctively relied upon some respected authority to form their convictions and give them courage. There were many exceptions then, granted – but it was easier in the past to be exceptional.

    I’m a Californian, and our early history on the Anglo side (the Spanish and Mexican history is quite different) is a good picture of 19th century man without Church or the Christian State to guide him. It’s as miserable and ugly as … sin. Decent, civilized East Coast men went bad – very bad – here in California because they were left to their own devices. After the Gold Rush, Californians gained a new appreciation for civilization and the state went from anarchy to order in one generation. Now it seems we want the old anarchy back. We shall get it. But we may not get another chance at civilization.


  8. “We need to prepare ourselves and our children for some very difficult times.”

    You are correct – I’m astonished at how quickly it has appeared. You are right about drawing near to the Eucharist as well, I try to spend as much time as possible before the Blessed Sacrament every day – the United States has indeed become like Europe.


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