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.