Bishops and Borders

Eamonn Clark

I had endeavored to write a post some time ago when all eyes were turned to Catalonia because of the separatist fervor threatening the unity of Spain, but I never got around to it. Let this supplant it.

The recent history of the Iberian peninsula is rife with political conflict… (In fact, it is only barely out of living memory that Spain was in a war with the United States.) It should be entirely unsurprising that there are still problems… And only time will tell if Catalonia earns its independence, with violence, with voting, or with a mix of the two.

There is a singular voice in the Catalonian Church which sticks out like a sore thumb, aching to teach us an extremely important lesson about the way ecclesiastics ought to treat politics. It is St. Anthony Claret – priest of the Diocese of Vic, 3rd Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and confessor to the Queen of Spain, Isabella II.

During his entire life and ministry, St. Anthony was surrounded by fierce political controversies and enemies of the Church, including the Carlist civil wars raging around his home, an attempt on his life in Cuba, the confiscation of the Papal States, and the dethronement and exile of the Queen. Certainly, St. Anthony’s immense tact guided him during all this – such as when he would say he was from the Diocese of Vic when questioned by Carlistas and that he was from the town of Sallent when questioned by the Isabelinos – but beyond this, two things are striking about St. Anthony’s response to political clamor.

First, he was positively and intentionally aloof from political affairs which did not directly concern the Church and the salvation of souls. This is most evident during his time in the Queen’s court, an assignment which he utterly despised, calling it a “continual martyrdom.” (Anthony Claret is one of the few saints who left us an autobiography. It is excellent.) By that time in his life, his fame was widespread, and to have the Archbishop’s approval on some matter would carry immense weight, especially with the Queen. He wanted no part – it would be alienating to those who did not agree with his decision, threatening their relationship with the Church, of which, after all, he was a steward and representative. Despite an average of a hundred letters a day asking for his help in various matters, he remained disinterested, answering none. He saw involvement in politics as an abuse of his office, as something beneath his dignity; his principal duty was the care of souls, not care of the country. When affairs did directly concern the Church or salvation of souls, such as the unification of Italy, or the anti-clerical sentiment in Spain and Cuba, he was ready and willing to act appropriately. During the Risorgimento, for instance, the Queen faced immense pressure to give her approval of the dissolution of the Papal States, but her confessor was there to warn her of the grave spiritual danger which such a move would bring… He was also there to lift the canonical penalty she incurred after having finally given her assent to Italian unification, as she sat in exile in France, disgraced and contrite.

Second, he was engaged in entirely non-partisan works as a civic leader. Given the incomprehensible amount of preaching and sacramental work which Claret performed – in his 6 years in Cuba alone, he wrote many books and pamphlets on spirituality and doctrine, validated over 9,000 marriages, confirmed some 300,000 people, and conducted 4 missions in every parish in his large and rugged diocese, always traveling by foot – one would think he would have time for little else. On the contrary, he was up to his neck in public works, such as supporting orphans, educational institutions, scientific research, agriculture, and healthcare. All of this was neutral work that no reasonable person could object to. Those who smeared him for it did so because of an animus against the Church or his own person, not because the work was partisan.

All this brings us to comments made by some bishops on illegal immigration which are only the most recent manifestation of a disturbing trend.

Unlike other so-called political issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, the Church has no teaching on the treatment of illegal immigrants as such. All we have are some basic ideas about human dignity and the authority of the state. Who could object to a preacher who says, “We should treat every human being with charity because all are made in the image and likeness of God”? It is easy, however, to imagine an objection to a preacher who says, “It is uncharitable to defend our nation from illegal immigrants,” and yet this is the kind of thing which is sometimes said, including presently. Not unlike the rhetoric which surrounds the current debate on gun-control, those of a liberal mindset accuse those of a conservative mindset of immorality prima facie – to oppose stricter gun laws is simply to care too little about people’s lives, especially children’s lives. In this case, to oppose sanctuary cities and spotty border patrol is simply to care too little about the oppressed who are fleeing from the south.

Of course, this trick could be reversed easily enough (and sometimes it is done to good effect), but making accusations of immorality due to differing prudential judgments does not make for a healthy political forum. Let me suggest that it makes for an even unhealthier ecclesiastical forum. Perhaps – or even, dare I say, probably – both sides really do care about the common good of the nation and have compassion for the suffering, but they simply have different ideas about how to reach the goal of political flourishing and the role of jurisprudential factors in border control and deportation.

Since I am not a cleric, I will go so far as to say that the past shows us that our current tolerance of illegal immigration has been extremely expensive and dangerous, the principle of subsidiarity seems to be violated by accepting a long-term responsibility for people of other countries who do not legitimately become part of our own, and that writing laws based on empathy for those who suffer is, in general, a bad idea, because it blinds one to the broader impact of that legislation.

And what good does it do for a bishop to risk scandalizing the faithful who might hold a different prudential assessment of the situation than himself by insisting that a certain position on DACA is immoral? Usually little to none; it is either ignored, is used by those who already agree as a moral sledgehammer, or simply annoys people who disagree, as they rightly sense that this is not a matter for the Church to be involved with directly. It certainly seems good for a bishop or any cleric to have a well-informed opinion on immigration policy, but it seems extremely unwise to reveal it. Perhaps the time of an ecclesiastic could be better spent by prayer, devotional and doctrinal preaching, administering the sacraments, studying theology, or building up the common good by entirely neutral means. Anything more is a waste of time at best and positively harmful at worst.

“A sacerdotes,” says St. Anthony, “must never align himself with any faction.” This is the great lesson our Catalonian saint teaches us: that a cleric is to render unto Caesar what is his by simply leaving him alone.


Main image: the Cathedral of Vic, where St. Anthony was ordained a priest and bishop

The Most Relevant Thinker You Have Never Heard Of

Eamonn Clark

I have argued elsewhere that postmodern millennial culture is shaped by two dominant strains of thought – the positivist strain, and the existentialist strain. These opposing worldviews have merged to form an intellectual chimera that prompts a kind of neo-Albigensian approach to anthropology and ethics… But I have not investigated postmodern millennial politics.

Enter Herbert Marcuse.

Postmodern millennial (PMM) culture has taken the so-called “Frankfurt School” and run away with it as their own. The Frankfurt School’s “Critical Theory” gave rise to what is known today as “cultural Marxism.” Haven’t heard of it? Wake up, it’s on your doorstep (language warning):

I have just recently read the essay by Herbert Marcuse which is referenced in the video. It’s typical dense German writing, but there are lines which leap out… The general idea is that the “majority” which is in charge tends to allow for a kind of false tolerance of free speech on the part of the “minority,” which is designed to keep the majority in power and is therefore necessarily repressive (thus “repressive tolerance”). Therefore, the minority needs to push back against the ones in charge (of government, culture, schools – whoever is “repressive”) and silence them in order to make things fair.

“The telos of tolerance is truth,” writes Marcuse (Repressive Tolerance). To borrow and elaborate on Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of this aphorism, tolerance is ordered toward rational discourse… In other words, there is an intermediate step, because – guess what – a person in a minority group might actually have an opinion or desire which is wrong or bad, even about how he/she/ze should be treated!

Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization (1955) undergirded what little intellectual justification there was for the 1960’s sexual revolution, with the basic message being, “Don’t work, have sex.” The integration of Marx and Freud (both pseudoscientists, of course!) which Marcuse attempted in this book then played itself out in wonderful rejections of capitalism such as were found at Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village back in hippie heyday. Can you imagine if that were all of human society?

As far as I can tell, this was the kind of “libertarian socialism” which Marcuse envisioned as utopian, although until that utopia was universal he perhaps wanted it to be less about pot smoking and more about activism, including violent activism. Think angry hippies who are protesting more than a war in Asia… Think angry hippies who are protesting not being given free stuff all the time and not being treated as demi-gods for being part of a minority. That is what he wanted, from what I gather.

He’s got it now.

His ideas aren’t on the fringe anymore, they are mainstream Leftist doctrine. They aren’t just fueling sporadic uprisings like ’68 in Paris, they are causing the countless campus riots over conservative guest speakers. (Here are just a few recent examples.) They aren’t for the dustbin or relegated to historical studies in philosophy, they are living and breathing in PMM activism. They are running the mainstream media. They dominate liberal arts departments at universities. They are the Western Left.

I am still researching this man and his ideas. I am still learning about the effect they are having in Western culture (especially American colleges). I have no clue what the answer is other than to know who we are and what we believe as Christians, to pray for mercy, and to be happy about sharing the Faith with those who want to listen. Most of these folks do not want to listen – that would be too threatening. They would rather stay comfortable in their identity politics than allow themselves to be challenged, which might cause discomfort. Exposing them to threatening or offensive ideas, some of them argue, actually counts as a kind of physical violence against them. Let that sink in.

This is where “political correctness” grows out of all proportion (if there ever was a healthy proportion for such a thing, which is doubtful, at least as public policy or law), as this is where microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings come from: they are about protecting people from violence. That is how you shut down the other side’s legitimate act of free speech. And the Church is high on the list of entities to silence and compel to fall in line with Leftist identity politics. Think “hate speech” and anything normal that goes on inside an even remotely conservative church, and then you will see the scary, scary picture.

Herbert Marcuse. That’s the name… Even though very few PMM’s have ever even heard the name, that’s where it’s coming from. This is what the Church in the West is up against. Read him. Study him. Denounce his ideas where you find them.

This topic deserves more attention, especially in terms of evaluating Marcuse in terms of Catholic teaching (namely anthropology and social teaching), but this will have to suffice for now. Derrida is also someone to investigate as connected with this phenomenon.

In the meantime… God help us.

Covenant Communities, PART III: My Own Bright Ideas

Eamonn Clark


What is the draw of a Covenant Community, anyway? Isn’t being baptized into the Church and living within the parish enough? Isn’t having a biological family enough? Isn’t having a spouse enough? After all, these, too, are covenant communities. People see the good and understandably want more… Living in an intense form of common life, where certain things are shared and there is a structure of obedience, is freeing. It is what human beings are built for. It’s what Heaven will be in full. (By the way, Heaven is not an ecumenical community – true friendship and common life mean a common order of worship!)

I understand the pull to an additional form of covenant community quite well, as someone looking to enter religious life. The thing is, unlike most people, I’m planning on not marrying… That means no spouse or children to account for when discerning where God’s will is leading me – or to drag along where some manipulative superior says “God’s will” is leading me. That’s a major part of why religious life works so much better.

Other differences usually include: immediate oversight and control from the hierarchical Church, a rotating leadership (typically with a large democratic component), many internal checks and balances on governance and financial transparency, strict requirements of theological and spiritual formation for those entering, a clearly defined exit path, and a particular charism which is being offered for the good of the universal Church.

There are also differences between Covenant Communities and “religious movements” like Communion and Liberation, Focolare, or the Neocatechumenal Way. These are massive organizations – with no real “covenantal” dimension, at least not in the same way – that more or less propose living ecclesial life in a certain way in some kind of community with one another, integrated into the hierarchical Church. While there can develop eccentricities (and even real problems) in such movements, the successful ones are closely linked with normal ecclesial structures like parishes and dioceses and/or are so massive that well-defined statutes and close hierarchical oversight are guaranteed. These kinds of movements provide a healthy alternative to signing one’s family’s life away to some charismatic leader and his friends.

So that is one option for families: join a well-established, global movement which is vetted by the Holy See and has a clear purpose and appropriate transparency.

Someone should have told Silas about that option… And also about the real Opus Dei.

But maybe that isn’t enough or right for some people. What other options might be out there? Let me propose two, beyond Third Orders, and/or simply picking friends wisely and making an attempt to spend time together, and/or just really trying to involve yourself with a parish to make it better and let it make you better. (Another Maryland community comes to mind which has this very healthy approach of the last two paths…)

The first is to form associations dedicated to some particular work of mercy, corporal or spiritual. (This is usually how religious orders start, of course!) One of the biggest problems is that Covenant Communities are an attempt at an extra-parochial parish… And they attempt a self-sustaining utopia founded on shaky ground. Associations dedicated to works of mercy actually go and encounter the dystopia head-on with a clear purpose in mind: feed the hungry, heal the sick, pray for the living and the dead, instruct the ignorant, etc. The last one is especially big, as it would involve forming homeschool co-ops (or even private schools in some cases). Such an association satisfies so many desires and needs… For community, for social/spiritual aid, for witness, for working toward common goals. This is especially true for educational projects, which are obviously easier to involve the whole family with. These groups are out there… Go find one that suits you, and make it better!

But maybe even that is not enough… Well, then, in most cases a person simply has to realize that family life is a massive obstacle to the desire for common life with others. (Aristotle teaches that we can only have 2 or maybe 3 friends of virtue, the “real” kind – true common life founded on authentic virtue is that hard, at least in this life!) Because of the prudential issues involved with entering into a Covenant Community, it is better to just wait until the general resurrection. But for single people, including those not really considering religious life or priesthood, there is another option…

Dioceses could establish houses of formation for lay people. Basically, lay seminaries. (Not men and women in the same houses, of course, or at least entirely separate halls/floors/wings without easy access.) There could be an application process of some rigor, tons of diocesan oversight, and membership would be conditional on several things, such as being regularly employed, not getting married, not doing anything too crazy, etc. People could apply right out of college (22) up until about 25 and stay for 3-4 years. Rent would be minimal. Mere “houses” could be set up I suppose – and this is very popular in Africa – but if the diocese is setting up a house for single laymen, why not just go the extra mile and bother to give them some education in the evenings and on weekends? Teach them some basic theology. Teach them how to pray. Teach them how to grow personally and practically. Teach them about what makes family life work well in the long-term.

How many recent college grads do you know who would stop, drop, and roll into such an accommodation?

If you don’t get a few priests and religious after a while out of such a set up (highly unlikely), you will definitely get plenty of well-formed young adults ready to take on life. In the meantime, they can have a serious communal life regulated by an external structure, without having to worry about whether their kids will “grow into” the community life they have promised for them, where their money is going, etc.

Well, that’s it. What are your thoughts? Do you know of any concrete examples of my two proposals? Do you have any experience with a Covenant Community, good or bad? (And I do know that some good people have good experiences, which is fine!) Let me know in the comments.

Covenant Communities, PART II: WOG, MOG, and LOG

Eamonn Clark


SOS. No, I’m not crying for help, that last one stands for Sword of the Spirit, a group which has indeed made people cry for help. Before we begin our superficial case studies of two Maryland-based covenant communities gone haywire, I want the readership to know of my own personal connections with one of them (LOG). I have close connections with people who were involved, I have been to their school, I have talked with people affected by the community’s activity and fallout, and I have met their former leader. Let me be clear: I mostly don’t want to talk about people… I really want to talk about the community. Communities are more than the sum of their parts. So this is not a post about people who were involved (save for one), but the way that people interacted with one another in a certain context. So if a WOG-er, LOG-er, or MOG-er is reading this – and I think that is likely to happen – please don’t feel personally judged. You are not the community. And you are free to disagree with my assessment… I think that such freedom is important, don’t you?

The three acronyms in the title stand for Word of God, Mother of God, and Lamb of God. The first is the covenant community which was (until 1990) immediately operated by Sword of the Spirit, the Ann Arbor-based ecumenical super-community. The second is a D.C./Gaithersburg group which was radically reorganized in the late-90’s by Cdl. Hickey and still operates today. (You might be familiar with the publication that came out of the group, called “The Word Among Us.”) The last group was begun in the Greater Baltimore area in the late 70’s and ran into the mid-90’s when it was effectively dissolved by Cdl. Keeler.

I won’t go into all the problems of these groups (especially WOG, which I don’t know much about). I will provide links to caches of documents on MOG (here) and LOG (here) and make a few observations about commonalities among covenant communities, those two in particular. Then I will talk a bit more about LOG, and I will talk about its new incarnation.

First observation: the so-called Charismatic Renewal is a common theme. It seems that where there is a covenant community, there is the Charismatic Renewal. (See this article on the downfall of the Steubenville covenant community, Servants of Christ the King, for another example. Steubenville is, of course, an epicenter of the Renewal.) There is something that tends to unhinge “members” of the Renewal from normal ecclesial life. Perhaps it is because they often see themselves as “members” of a renewal – that is, special, set apart, even “chosen.” (Not all, but many… most… enough.) This is then combined with an inordinate expectation of God’s use of emotions and experiences in prayer and community to drive one toward or away from some action or idea. There is no need to dive into these problems here… I think the point is clear enough: if one feels spiritually powerful because of a direct and “personal” relationship with the Holy Spirit, confirmed by others in the same elite group, the importance of the Church as such diminishes. Interested readers might check out this online book on covenant communities by a Notre Dame professor (who was dismissed from the People of Praise in South Bend, IN) which explores this topic and loads more.

Second observation: the word “obedience” is a red flag. If the covenant one signs says anything about obeying the leadership, one can expect trouble… And if you don’t see the trouble, you are probably part of the problem. This is due in no small part to the fact that leadership will seldom if ever rotate unless a leader dies. An opaque chain of command will almost inevitably be established which monitors and controls lower-level members (psychologically, socially, financially, etc.). It will be done in the name of “pastoral care,” or for the sake of “integrity,” or some such thing. Of course, it is simply manipulation which frequently ends in grave harm to psyches, friendships, and even marriages. Real confidentiality among members, under a covenant with an “obedience clause,” will not exist. It will get so bad that even to breathe a word of gentle criticism against the leadership or the community’s direction will be “corrected.” See an example of a covenant document, from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, GA, here, and do scroll through the comments from former members.

Third observation: Language in general will also slowly become special or equivocal within the group, as the insular nature of the community can only lead to. Taking this together with the previous reality of monitoring members, the word Orwellian comes to mind.

When members start talking about “repentance” or “fellowship” or “spirit” or “discernment” in ways that seem a bit off to an outsider, it is probably a function of spending too much time around each other in an overly intense context of ordered socialization run by people who don’t know theology.

Fourth observation: The sense of being an alternative Church, or a Church within the Church. Covenant communities are the ultimate “safe space” – and how dreadful it would be to get cast into the outer darkness! “They are screwed up out there, unlike us. They’ll get you… they’ll get your kids… they’ll use you to infiltrate the community and try to tear it down…” This creates tons of fear which keeps people in line. The threat of spiritual danger can be just as effective, or even more effective, than the threat of physical danger. And the thing is, depending on how one interprets “out there,” it is true. Western society, and even many pockets within the Church, are incredibly dangerous. Ironically, covenant communities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Training people to mistrust the Church, or even to avoid the sacraments, is deadly rather than life-giving. It is an idol.

Fifth observation: A lot of people get hurt, and a lot of people would be hurt if they allowed themselves to feel and think naturally. This should be obvious. The number of damaged minds, broken marriages, and even apostasies that come from covenant communities should be enough evidence to show that something is gravely wrong with the model.

Sixth observation: A driving force is religious novelty. A “new community.” An “emerging leadership.” Prayer “in the Spirit.” A “different way of life.” Leaders with “prophecies.” These sorts of fascinations are hallmarks of beginners in the spiritual life, not mature leaders. Religious novelty is one of the major themes of the Old Testament: God is spiritual, we are not, and so we will tend to go after lesser things to make God more tangible like ourselves. We want experiences, things we can see and feel and hear, things we feel immediately controlled by and can immediately control. The most superficial study of the Carmelite doctors will convince one of how stupid – and dangerous – this kind of thinking is. St. Teresa frequently saw Christ in plain human form… To her it was rather secondary, almost trivial. She would tell her confessor about what happened, and then she would forget about it. She certainly would not follow commands from such visions without permission from her director… After all, what if it was actually the Devil? A thorough study of the lives of the saints will reveal that this is a pattern: holy men and women do not trust their own spiritual experiences to guide them. They ask someone disinterested to show them the right path.

As I noted above, I have some tangential experience with a covenant community, Lamb of God. The echoes of the community, some 20 years later, are quite loud – there are still damaged relationships and suspicions around Catonsville, there are still some attempts at a common life among former members and their friends, there is still a school, and the old leader of the group is still around. He has, however, moved on to a “new project.”

I have also had some limited active experience with this project, called ChristLife. Just as I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community” or a “covenant community,” I cannot really describe what this entity is, only what it does. There is an evangelization series which it sponsors in parishes (which is basically sound and useful, if not a bit elementary), there is a young adult group (in which I have several friends), and there is a company which somehow also involves itself in broader international mission work. There seem to be many more interior checks and balances on ChristLife than on LOG, and there is certainly more diocesan oversight. However, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. It concerns me greatly that the leader of what essentially turned into a cult (good intentions notwithstanding) immediately became the director (and after some 20 years, has been the only director) of an evangelization program within the exact same local church. Someone will have to explain to me how that is prudent… How might people be being manipulated? What attitudes and mindsets have been carried over from LOG into ChristLife, by the leader and by former members who involve themselves? Who else might be pulling strings that aren’t publicly known to be involved? Etc.

I don’t doubt the good intentions. I do doubt the means.

In the final installment, I will propose a different vision for how a “covenant community” might work. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe…



Main image: Maryland flag

Covenant Communities, PART I: The Beguinage Option

Eamonn Clark

Your husband has just left with his buddies… Not for the bar, not for the bowling alley, but for the Crusade. He will probably never return – the territory is unfamiliar and the enemy fierce. The organization of the ranks is questionable, too. You are left alone in your little Belgian village. A few years pass, and some wearied soldiers come back into town after the failed campaign. The Mr. is not one of them: you are off to the local Beguinage.

There, the organization of the ranks is questionable as well – just as most of the crusaders were not professional soldiers, the superior is likely ill-equipped: she is not a professional ecclesiastic (viz. a priest) or even a proper religious. The other women are only half-invested, since they can own their own property and leave at any time to get married. The local bishop is aware of the institution, but he has other, more pressing affairs to attend to. Many of the women bring tons of money with them after the sale of their land, so the community is overflowing with wealth.

What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. The Beguines (and Beghards, the male version) were suppressed by the little-known Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. These semi-monastic communities, mostly centered in the Low Country, had amassed enormous wealth and slipped into very bizarre spiritual doctrines. (Basically, their errors amounted to the thought that one was able to attain, in this life, their twisted vision of spiritual perfection. For the condemned propositions, see Denzinger 471-8, older numbering.) It is also difficult to imagine there were no “power issues,” given the nature of the structure of the communities and the strange ideas that eventually pervaded them. (The “no kissing rule” was especially weird… Yes, go on click that Denzinger link. You know you want to see what infallible statement the Church has made on kissing.) If you think you are perfect, and your inferiors think you are perfect, when you are definitely not, how would that not occasion terrible abuses? Even though the Beguines did not share property (unlike the Beghards) or take vows, there was still a superior of the community, and how could a perfect superior not wield undue control? (Coincidentally – or not – Vienne also dissolved the Knights Templar, who had begun a similar downfall into wealth, power abuse, lax membership requirements, and heresy. One is reminded of the Church in present-day Germany.)

The Beguinages did attract pious women who did plenty of good work for each other and their towns, but in the end they didn’t work in many important ways, namely in cultivating a mature spirituality among the members. (There are, however, still a few active Beguinages around… The suppression on the Beguines – not the Beghards – was lifted 9 years after the Council, but eventually, the need disappeared and so membership declined.) When wealth, power, and gross spiritual imperfection are mixed in an ill-defined religious community with limited ecclesiastical oversight, one should expect mayhem to ensue. This is the lesson which Church history teaches us, and I fear it is a lesson not being well-learned today. That means the error will be repeated… Let us turn now to the so-called “Benedict Option.”

Some critics might have M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” lurking in their memory.

A million articles have now been written in response to Rod Dreher’s book on the need to duck out of postmodern society and form intentional Christian enclaves – which, he opines, is sort of the point of Christianity anyway (made obvious in part by the comical slew of “original” variations on the theme – the “Marian Option,” the “Augustine Option,” etc.). The idea is basically that Western society is so bad that it should just be left to destroy itself while we preserve our faith and morals amongst our own rather than risk more bleeding by living out “in the wild,” and we can draw people into the Church by leading attractive lives and with some occasional missionary activity overflowing from the enclave.

While most critics of this idea are concerned with the abandonment of wandering souls to the Zeitgeist, which is a legitimate (although in my opinion overblown) concern, my critique is focused on the interior life of an “intentional Christian community” rather than its exterior missionary activity. We don’t always need to preach to Gehenna (Jesus didn’t bother!), but we do always need to know who is in charge, where the money goes, how the hierarchical Church is involved, and in general how the community lives its life together.

There is a chasm between the domestic church and the hierarchical church. It is easy to fall into it.

I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community,” though this is now the primary buzzword, closely followed by “covenant community,” although these are distinct (albeit not mutually exclusive) realities. An “intentional Christian community” is just that – people who intentionally associate with one another to aid their discipleship. A “covenant community” involves signing a contract that pledges certain things for the good of the group… Like “obedience to the leadership.”

Let’s ask some questions.

First, is this or that community even specifically Catholic? If not, how will the Catholic Church be presented by non-Catholic members and leaders? Will there be requirements or “suggested opportunities” for members that don’t square with Catholic doctrine and morals? Is there a non-denominational-ish church which the community is obliged or semi-obliged to support, financially or otherwise? What is being preached and taught there? What about a school? Same questions. What kind of spirituality will the community develop and encourage that is not founded in or ordered to the Mass and the confessional? How exactly does one’s local parish pastor involve himself in the lives of Catholics in such a community? How do members relate to their parish in general? Is the leadership tempted to use the group’s ecumenical nature as a means of dodging episcopal oversight? How can a Catholic member in good conscience follow a non-Catholic spiritual leader, precisely insofar as he or she is a spiritual leader? These are serious questions, some of which don’t have easy answers. It can sometimes happen that, as far as the Church is concerned, what happens in such groups is more communism than ecumenism.

There are many other questions to be answered by any community, especially the ones that require signing a contract or “covenant” to join… Will the community be at the service of the parish and hierarchical church, or vice versa? How will a poorer family support both the community and the parish? What are the details of the “covenant” (viz. what is actually required, and why)? How does one opt out of the community, if it is possible at all? If it is not possible, why? How is personal information treated within the community? How are relationships between men and women monitored? Where does the money go, and how is transparency guaranteed? Are there inordinate pressures to take or leave certain jobs? Is there any restriction of relationship with people inside or outside the community for arbitrary reasons? What is required to become a member of the community? How does the community relate with the diocese and bishop? In whose name does the community exercise its ministries and evangelization projects – their own, the diocese’s, the parish’s, the individuals’? If priests or deacons are members, how does their membership and activity relate to their official ecclesiastical role wherever their bishop or superior has actually assigned them? Exactly what role does the leadership of the community play in the life of the group? What is required to become a leader in the community? Does all of the leadership rotate periodically? If no, why not? What is the understanding of the “grace of state” among the leaders?

This last one is huge. Grace of state is a gift that comes with occupying a certain office. In some cases, it can, in a sense, involve an infallible discernment of the will of God, which would imply obedience to that person’s demand under pain of sin. A few examples will suffice… The president of a country signs legislation that people must drive on the left side of the road. The local bishop chooses not to allow a tabernacle to be put in a certain rectory. The parents of a child tell him that he will go to the parish school. Who would argue that obedience in these examples is not a matter of moral precept? However, this does not mean the decisions were necessarily made for the right reasons… Perhaps the president is hoping that his new law will cause catastrophe for tourists. Maybe the bishop is jealous of the piety of the priest who lives in that rectory. It could be that the parents would actually do better to homeschool their child, but they are just lazy. It doesn’t matter: it is still the will of God precisely because these people have the right to demand these things of those under them in virtue of their offices – offices which ultimately derive from God, either through nature (like the government or the family) or through grace (like the hierarchical church).

In covenant communities, there is often an ambiguous commitment to “obey” the leadership. One could be shamed and thought of as impious or disobedient (or even Satanic) for not falling in line with whatever the leaders require. After all, don’t they have the grace of state to determine God’s will for the community?

No. There is no office of nature or of grace which authentically interprets the will of God for such a community which comes from within the community itself. That is the job of the pastor and/or bishop, or a duly appointed delegate. Even then, the scope of obedience only goes so far – the bishop, for instance, does not have the right to tell parents they must enroll their child in the parish school. The pastor does not have the right to demand a certain amount of tithing from his parishioners. Etc. These things can frequently be items of “discernment” in covenant communities which then become “suggestions” or “opportunities.” Pity the member who does not go along with the will of their leaders! In fact, it seems that all that a duly appointed ecclesiastical representative could really authentically interpret is how to relate the community to various real authorities, such as the pastor, the bishop, the government, families, and so on, according to those authorities’ proper roles. What one finds instead is often one or several people at the top, who were self-appointed, who never rotate, and who claim to be authentic prophetic voices for the community which is centered around their wills; in other words, cult leaders.

Signing a contract is an important action, and it should not be done lightly. However, we must realize that humans are not angels – they do not perfectly understand all the implications of their actions – and therefore, vows can (and sometimes must) be broken for the good of the individual or commonwealth. Unlike marriage, association with a community is certainly something “intrinsically dissoluble” – that is, either party can choose to step away once it becomes clear that it is best for either of them, so long as any inordinate injury is avoided… It does not require an intervention of a third-party, like the Pauline or Petrine privileges in the dissolution of non-sacramental marriages. A vow to a merely human society is not a vow to God, and so it is far less serious, though it is still a matter of justice insofar as the reckless abandonment of the promise can bring damage to either party… One does owe something to the person or persons to whom a vow is made simply by the nature of the vow itself.

But let’s examine the nature of private vows made to God. (See the relevant canons here.) Vows to God are much more serious (as a matter proper to the virtue of religion), such that the complete release from them requires a dispensation or commutation from the Church (or the time elapsing). And yet even here, one who undertakes a vow to God with insufficient understanding of what he is committing himself to by that vow can’t be morally bound to it. (Think of a pious 5th grader who, in a fit of religious fervor, promises to God after Mass one day that he will never marry. He is unquestionably not bound by this vow! Of course, determining what is “sufficient” is a difficult matter.) What’s more, a vow made to God must actually be possible (obviously) and for the sake of a better state or action than what one would otherwise be in or do without the vow, or else the vow does not bind. (A person who promises to God that he will not go to Mass except on Sundays is not bound by this vow unless he would really be doing harm to himself or others by going to Mass during the week. A person who promises to God that he will tie his left shoe before his right shoe is also not bound by the vow because it is not better to do this. Vows like this are vain and sinful, in fact, and rash or hasty vows can be sinful as well.) It must also be the case that the “better state or action” must really continue to be better for the one who made the vow in order for it to remain binding. (If a husband vows to spend several hours each week in private prayer, this would cease to bind if his wife became very sick and needed his constant attention.) In general, when more fundamental obligations become more serious, the obligations based on vows begin to decrease in gravity.

Given all this, it should be easy to see that the “covenant” part of covenant communities involves a serious but not that serious kind of promise. The public vows made when entering proper religious communities, or private vows made directly to God, are much more serious – and yet there are many qualifications and ways out. I wonder how well the nature of vows is understood by leaders in various covenant communities – and how well they explain that nature to aspiring members. Once it becomes clear that a community is bad for one’s children, isn’t it incumbent upon the parents to remove themselves from that community? If it is becoming harmful to one’s psychological, emotional, spiritual – or financial – welfare, isn’t it a duty to leave? As a person slowly realizes that he got himself into something he didn’t really understand the details of, doesn’t his obligation to stay begin to diminish? Of course. And all the while, the leaders of these communities will still not be authentically interpreting the will of God, because they are only appointed or elected for the good of a merely man-made and non-fundamental collective to which people can freely come and from which people can freely go, usually without sin. This is unlike the government, this is unlike the Church, and it is unlike the family.

The “Beguinage Option” is not the right way – but clearly, the desire for intense communal discipleship is good. How can it be fulfilled in the lives of lay people who can’t enter or don’t want to enter religious life?

In the next post of this 3 part series, I will look at a few specific examples of covenant communities as case studies (including one with which I have some personal connection), and then finally I will propose a model or two of my own.



Main image: The Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium. By Navy8300 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Sancti Obscuri – St. Crispin and St. Crispinian (October 25)

Jacob Gruber

In Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, King Henry overhears a soldier lamenting how few men have come from England to fight in a battle against the French at the Battle of Agincourt, leaving their odds of carrying home a win rather low. He responds with a bold appeal to all the courage left in the hearts of that “band of brothers” who did show up for battle and unites the hope of their victory with the celebration for all time of St. Crispin and Crispianus (Crispinian). It’s worth the watch:

Fictional though this speech may be, the king’s prediction seems to have unfortunately come true: “and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered!” In this article, it is my hope that on the feast of Crispin and Crispinian this year (October 25), Crispin and Crispinian themselves will be remembered for once!

These two saints lived the in middle of the third century in the Roman empire. Allegedly, they were brothers from a noble Roman family. The story from the Bollandists (from which the Catholic Encyclopedia draws their information in the case of these men) tells us that they went to Soissons in Gaul together to preach the faith. While there, they supported themselves financially primarily by making shoes. Their missionary work there was so effective, however, that it caught the attention of the high Roman authorities. A short historical detour is necessary at this point.

Crispin and Crispinian lived in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Any Christian familiar with some Roman history should be feeling the shiver run down their spine – this man was ruthless. He was Roman emperor from 284 to 305 AD, and in his rule he initiated one of the biggest, cruelest persecutions in early Church history (which is no small statement when the bloodbaths of Emperors Nero and Decius are taken into account). So bad was Diocletian’s persecution that, before Anno Domini (AD) came into fashion for marking years, the Christians (especially of the Alexandrian Church) used Anno Martyrum (AM), or the Era of the Martyrs, to mark their years. The Anno Martyrum system began year 1 in 284 AD – the beginning point of Diocletian’s reign and persecution.

With this in mind, consider that Crispin and Crispinian were preaching the Christian faith rather effectively at this time in Gaul, an important territory of the Roman empire. It did not take long at all for some action to happen. In the year 285 AD (or the year 2 in the Anno Martyrum), Maximianus Herculius, who had been made a sort of co-emperor with Diocletian, called the two men before him. After his efforts to persuade them to give up the faith, they responded,

“Thy threats do not terrify us, for Christ is our life, and death is our gain. Thy rank and possessions are nought to us, for we have long before this sacrificed the like for the sake of Christ and rejoice in what we have done. If thou shouldst acknowledge and love Christ thou wouldst give not only all the treasures of this life, but even the glory of thy crown itself in order through the exercise of compassion to win eternal life.”

Maximianus handed them over to Rictiovarus, the Gallic governor, who had them tortured terribly – stretched on a rack and flesh torn, among other horrible inflictions. After all of this, he had millstones fastened to their necks and had them thrown into the Aisne River. Miraculously, they managed to swim to safety. The Roman Martyrology succinctly finishes the story: “after [these] horrible torments, they were put to the sword, and thus obtained the crown of martyrdom.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia questions some of the credibility of this story, since its sources may be somewhat unreliable. However, we must examine a certain important principle in the matter of saintly stories, since credibility will always loom as an issue in the stories of the obscure saints. I simply quote a section from St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God in which he defends the practice of believing holy stories:

“Charity willingly believeth all things; that is, it is not so quick to believe that any one is lying, and if there are no apparent marks of falsehood in things which are told, it makes no difficulty about believing them; but above all when they are things which exalt and magnify the love of God towards men, or the love of men towards God … in matter of religion, good souls have more sweetness in believing things in which there is more difficulty and admiration.” (Chapter XII)

By means of this argumentation, St. Francis de Sales was insisting that a certain miraculous story told in a homily by St. Bernard could be believed, even though he simply had no evidence whatsoever to prove it. We are in a similar situation. We’ve been handed a story of the miracles and martyrdoms of Crispin and Crispinian with only the written testimony of writers centuries later to show for it. But the good souls have more sweetness to believe stories such as these. Our charity willingly believes all of these things.

Thus,  I would suppose that we can accept the story handed onto us from the works of the Bollandists – but I’ll leave that up to the reader.

So, what if Crispin and Crispinian hadn’t fallen into obscurity? They are already known as patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers, and tanners. But their legacy is more than cobbling. While the modern imagination tends towards Shakespeare’s reference in “Henry V,” it turns out that this reference is not so far from the original spirit of these men. The Battle of Agincourt was a battle in which England triumphed against great odds over France in 1415 AD. But Saints Crispin and Crispinian in their own way triumphed against great odds in France (Gaul at their time), albeit in a spiritual battle for souls.

So let us hail them today as victors all the same! May St. Crispin and St. Crispinian pray for us!

Sancti Obscuri – St. Porphyrius (September 15)

Jacob Gruber

​If you were asked off the top of your head to name five saints of the Catholic Church, who would come to mind? St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, or St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps St. John Paul II or Mother Teresa? But what about St. Euphemia or St Paphnutius? Surely St. Iphigenia made it somewhere on the list?

​If these latter names don’t ring any Church bells for you, this new column may be right for you. It’s no secret that we have “saint celebrities.” If you’ve lost an item, you think to pray to St. Anthony, not St. Abundantius. If you want help in discernment, you probably prefer St. Therese’s roses to St. Rosalia’s. But what about these other saints? Don’t they have something to teach us, to inspire us with, to remind us?

​This new column, “Sancti Obscuri,” will look at different saints who, for one reason or another, have become obscure to the modern Catholic imagination. The posts won’t be exhaustive, considering how historical obscurity tends to coincide with a paucity of source material. But if these forgotten men and women have received the crown of sainthood, then they have a story worth hearing. (They know something of Thomas Jefferson’s exasperation in this old “Simpsons” episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”)

Our first “sanctus obscurus,” St. Porphyrius, shares a feast day with Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. In his life, however, he would not have known what to do with a celebration of a “Lady of Sorrows.” By profession, he was a comedian, a mimic, a famous jester. He was a prevailing voice of the remnant of paganism in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, offering to those who hadn’t accepted Christianity a sufficient mockery of its tenets. People expected comedy and corruption from him, certainly not conversion. Yet, as we will see, he was a man who, within a day, went from mimicry to martyrdom, profanation to profession. Before we tell his story, some background is in line.

His story begins best with the story of Julian the Apostate, who, given the spoiler alert in his name, didn’t care for Christianity very much. In the years following the death of Constantine the Great in 337AD, a barrage of complicated politics had plagued the leadership of the vast Roman Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades, and in 361AD one “Flavius Claudius Julianus,” a nephew of Constantine, arose as sole emperor. His reign was to be short (only 20 months), but not without activity.

Although Christianity for almost 50 years had enjoyed political freedom and support from the emperor, the rule of Julian loomed as a serious threat. Though he was a Christian for the first 20 years of his life, he came to reject the Lord and choose instead the “way of Helios” (see his Letter 47). Julian the Apostate envisioned a return to the Roman paganism of old, a religious atmosphere marked by highly syncretistic polytheism, unified, as it were, under the banner of being ‘not Christian.’

When Julian heard of the fame of Porphyrius the Mimic whose specialty was mocking Christians, he had him brought in to entertain the royal court. Everything was set up for a successful show. The audience was eager to be entertained at Christianity’s expense, and Porphyrius had put together a special play; he was going to mock the Mystery of Baptism.

The show was a riot, eliciting raucous laughter to be sure. Things seemed to be lining up perfectly. The climax of the action involved a mock-baptism scene with fake clergy dressed in liturgical garb immersing the “catechumen,” Porphyrius, into some water.

He ceremoniously pronounced that he would now be a follower of Jesus Christ, “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” before being immersed. But something happened when Porphyrius entered the water. Submerged in that moment, Porphyrius felt the summons of actual grace, a call to serious conversion. Coming out of the water, he announced his decision to all present that he wished to be a Christian and would no longer mock the Living God. But, while he had his metanoia, the emperor was simply annoyed. The Roman Martyrology sums up best what happened next:

“Forthwith, by order of the emperor, he was struck with an axe, and thus crowned with martyrdom.”

​Struck with the extraordinary work of divine grace, he managed to get struck also by the work of human anger. Having given over his heart to Jesus, he gave his head to the emperor. Thus is the story of the great Martyr Porphyrius. Once a jester before secular courts, he was to become a martyr in the heavenly courts.

​As for Julian the Apostate, his hopes for a revival of Roman paganism would not find widespread success. In 363AD, following Julian’s military death, Emperor Jovian took the emperor’s throne and restored the faith of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

​Suppose St. Porphyrius hadn’t slipped into obscurity in modern spirituality. Comedians and performers would have a ready patron, and the whole Church would have a better sense of God’s poetic justice. As it is, let us at least take the lesson to have sincere reverence for the truth and all holy things even when it puts us in rather difficult situations. Don’t forget to invoke his intercession every September 15!

May St. Porphyrius pray for us, and teach us true reverence for the Lord!

The New Albigensianism, PART III: An Existentialism Crisis


Having examined the first part of the “postmodern manifesto,” which is scientistic, we now turn to the second part, which is existentialist. Here it is again:

Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.

The imposition of a spirit onto its flesh and the world is our object of investigation today.

After the Kantian revolution proposed a deontological moralism as a replacement for metaphysics, Schopenhauer took up the reins and ran with the theme: the will reigns supreme over the intellect. This doctrine recalls those first rumblings present in Ockham, Abelard, Scotus, and even St. Bonaventure. (Who could forget Dante’s depiction of Bonaventure and Thomas circling around each other in Heaven debating the primacy of the intellect and will?) Then came Soren Kierkegaard’s deep anxiety over life together with a suspicion of some kind of opposition between faith and reason. Heidegger, of course, was riddled with anxiety as well, over being and nothingness, and he had an obsession with freedom and authenticity: all characteristic of what was to come. There was no more dramatic precursor to the French existentialists than Nietzsche, who sought to free the world of its nihilism and empower it with the liberation of the will: the ubermensch, or “super man,” would embody a new kind of magnanimity with no regard for the welfare of others or some abstract Aristotelian “flourishing.” Nietzsche apparently couldn’t do it himself and went insane, finally cracking after seeing a horse being mercilessly beaten in a street in Turin. (Here we might pause and recall Durkheim’s observation about happiness and the subjection of the will to a pre-defined role in society… Those who have a life already set up for them tend to kill themselves less often.) The penultimate step to mature existentialism came with Michel Foucault, the forbearer of the “rainbow flag” and a staunch opponent of confining the mentally insane. After all, maybe they are just “different,” you know?

Finally, we come to the main event: a Parisian socialite, his lover, and a journalist-turned-philosopher raised on the soccer fields of French Algeria.

The core of the teaching of Jean-Paul Sartre can be summed up in three words: existence precedes essence. In other words, there really is no human nature, only a human condition which must be figured out and made into something of one’s own. He cites Descartes’ cogito in support of this theory, being an “anti-materialist,” and he claims that this is the only dignified vision of man, as this doctrine alone is capable of acknowledging his true power and freedom – which are apparently the characteristics of dignity. Man must go beyond himself to create himself, quite in contrast to the Comtean humanist religion, where humanity is good “just because.” For Sartre, man is nothing without making something of himself. (This would later become the basic teaching of Ayn Rand as well.) Freedom is to choose and conquer resistance present in one’s situation, and one must exercise this freedom according to his authentic self. But what is the “self” without a human nature? It is unclear.

Sartre’s intermittent lover, Simone De Beauvoir, with whom he would frequently seduce unwitting female students for sexual exploitation, held similar ideas and became the first “feminist.” It is from De Beauvoir that we get the now infamous gender-sex distinction: “One is not born but becomes a woman.” The woman is defined socially – and in classical A-T anthropology – in relation to man and therefore does not have her own identity. This is an existential problem for the woman, who must go out and create herself. To postmodern ears, however, it would sound insane to contradict the sense of De Beauvoir’s complaint; and yet we have St. Paul teaching that some kind of superiority of men is rooted in nature and of necessity must flow into ecclesial life (1 Cor. 11: 3-16, Eph. 5: 21-33, Col. 3: 18-19). The Christian must not be a feminist of the De Beauvoir variety. Our friends the Cathars had women clergy; they anticipated the existentialists in their justification for this choice. We will return to that in a future post.

Then we have our Algerian friend. Albert Camus’ most famous contribution to Western thought was the that the only serious question a person has to ask himself is whether to end his own life. After all, life is absurd, and if one can find no meaning for himself, then it is better that it end on one’s own terms, rather than in something meaningless like a car crash (which, ironically, was exactly how Camus was killed). Despite explicitly denying the existentialist label and preferring to be an “absurdist” instead, Camus is nonetheless the crystallization of the movement – his interpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, claiming that man must accept his existence as an absurdity in order to find peace, or the anguish of the main character of “The Stranger” over the meaningless of his life and what has happened to bring about his execution, for example, provides a fitting capstone to the existentialist project because it shows its end: senselessness. When human nature is removed, purpose is removed. And the frantic search for a self-assigned basic purpose can only end badly, even if it doesn’t feel that way to a “successful existentialist.”

Certainly, more can and should be said about the French existentialists. But this brief and rude treatment suffices to bring to light the critical themes of our own day which were present in the movement, namely: a rejection of human nature as such; a perceived need to define one’s own role to make up for such an absence; and an obsession with “gender” equality.

We have already noted in PART I of this series the shocking fact that the existentialist doctrine on human nature as such has been enshrined in U.S. law by the Supreme Court. That should be enough to show there is a deep-seated existentialist current plaguing the West, but when coupled with the wide diffusion of the watered down scientistic-positivism we explored in the last post, disdain for classical Aristotelico-Thomistic anthropology has become its own unspoken rule. It is not unspoken in the way one doesn’t talk about Fight Club, it is unspoken in the way one doesn’t talk about red being a color… it’s just a given.

Our culture is schizophrenic and self-destructive too. But does it give us novelty soap bars?

If there is any admittance of a “human nature” it is a passing nod to the truth that what we call human beings usually have certain kinds of physical characteristics which normally produce certain kinds of effects. The classical meaning of “nature,” however, is alien to this vague and platitudinous physicalism, as there can be no teleology (in-built purpose) for what is merely a random collection of stuff onto which we slap a name. This, I suggest, is the final fruit of Ockham’s Nominalism which we have discussed previously.

Of course, most postmodernists dimly realize their godless worldview poses the “existential problem,” viz., a lack of inherent meaning and purpose in their life, and they seek to solve it through the recommended process of “self-definition.” We are not here critiquing a healthy ambition to “do what one can” or to avoid idleness; rather, the issue is the desperate and necessarily futile attempt to provide altogether one’s own meaning for existing in the first place. There are also many people, who are not quite full-blown postmodernists, who seek to correct this same inner anxiety with DIY spirituality (moralistic therapeutic deism, usually); this is particularly dangerous as it nominally acknowledges something greater than oneself as a grounds for directing one’s life, but it is really the imposition of one’s own ideas onto a divine mouthpiece.

The existentialist paradigm helps make sense of the postmodern millennial’s take on the issues: the life issues, the gender issues, and the sex issues. Since a person’s meaning is basically self-derivative, and that meaning is predicated upon desires and the ability to fulfill them, then the unborn and the elderly are without their own meaning. Having a certain kind of body which has certain powers does not force one to accept that embodied reality as a given identity and direction either within a social framework or even within a physical framework, provided there is a surgeon available. Much less does this God-given engendered bodily existence, constitutive of unique powers with lasting social consequences and everlasting spiritual consequences, provide an individual with rules for how to engage in the use of the organs which are the seat of that power. You must choose to become something. Alternatively, you may disappear into oblivion – either irrelevance, or death. Before it was the American Dream™ it was the French philosophical anthropology.

The current of this thought has bored a hole so deep into the subconscious of postmodern America (and many parts of Europe) that it has become impolite, if not outright illegal, to tell a person that he is a he, she is a she, that “No, I will not serve cake at your wedding,” or anything that might emotionally hurt that person, so long as that self-given identity or meaning does not result in “harmful” behavior. Harmful behavior, remember, is reduced to emotional, physical, or financial pain or loss – for those who can already “will to power” and aren’t entirely reliant on help from other people for existence, that is.

The video above, while admittedly a bit cherry-picked, demonstrates nonetheless the existentialist current of millennial postmodernity with breathtaking frankness. No doubt such an experiment could be replicated across the global West with some success, at least in supposedly “elite” institutions of higher education. Note again the criterion of “harm” as constituting the core of the normative ethics for postmodern millennials – as if a person with a wildly erroneous self-perception is doing no real harm. You can tell that these kids become more and more uncomfortable as they are forced by their own premises and sense of political correctness to the affirmation that what is obviously “real” truth is being denied by this person, but that since “it’s not ‘harming’ anyone,” it must be okay and therefore good to support. It is the lack of an awareness that such a departure from the truth of one’s natural constitution as “man,” “white,” etc., does indeed cause harm to that person and therefore also to society at least inasmuch as that person’s self-perception is related to his or her function in society, is probably why it doesn’t “bother” the people interviewed. There used to be a word for the self-deception which is being coddled as healthy and normal: mental illness. Now it requires university sponsored trigger warnings and safe spaces, international awareness campaigns, and even protective laws. All of this finally ends in a kind of laissez-faire utilitarian relativism, which we might call the postmodernist ethics. “The more a behavior harms the people or things that I like, the more immoral the behavior is, and the more a behavior does good to the people or things that I like, the better the behavior is.” In this normative ethics, I can never do anything wrong, except inasmuch as I might unthinkingly do something harmful to my own cause. Another person is irrelevant insofar as he doesn’t harm my own mostly arbitrary and narrow values. This must also be understood as occurring within the materialistic framework – both harm and good are all temporal and experiential. (Unless, that is, a little DIY spirituality comes into play… Then all bets are off.) Without a firm understanding of unchanging human nature, and the belief in its authority and power to provide a normative ethics, we are left to define our own values based on whatever we would like to do or become as individuals or collectively as a society.

“Existence precedes essence.” Human beings are now human doings.

Yet clearly, “Some are more equal than others.” Why are some people or things valued over others? The connection to the expression of self and fulfillment predicated upon it are the foci around which postmodern value is measured: money, physical pleasure, convenience, emotional pleasure, diversity, equality, progress. Each goal is vaguer – and more dangerous – than the last. If you  are not contributing one of these goods to society, how can you be valuable? Maybe you are a “good person,” but you are no longer useful and are therefore of no account. In other words, we may kill you if we would like to… and one day we might realize that we ought to kill you: because you are not capable of doing the kind of things we value, your own existence offers you “no benefit.” It is now charitable to destroy a life that can’t “create itself.” Beyond the obvious cases of killing the unborn and physically sick, Camus’ dilemma is being answered for the mentally ill and elderly in Europe in “assisted suicides” which are a little too assisted.

It has become popular these days to remark on “the science” behind why transgenderism or same-sex marriage or whatever is “bad.” While taking note of the psychological and physical processes and results of these experiments is not irrelevant to forming a right opinion on their goodness (like studying the average harm done to children by “gay parenting”), there is no need, and in fact no possibility, for “science” to provide the answer to the foundational moral questions whose answers are found in a study of the soul and body’s basic purposes which are widely known to all, as St. Paul reminds the Romans (Rm. 1:18-32). You really don’t need an expert biologist to give kids “the talk.” You do need something other than mere biology to infer that deviating from the natural order is wrong, and the obsession with the minutest details of the “is” to justify the “ought” belies at least a touch of the intellectual illness diagnosed in Part II of this series, namely, a weak form of positivism called scientism.

Given that existentialism is historically opposed to the materialistic worldview which positivism relies on, how can the postmodern manifesto combine both elements? For example, how can a person support transgender surgery as an effective means of “expressing the real self” while claiming that there is no such thing as a soul because it’s not an object of scientific observation? We might say it is a simple lack of reflection which allows this cognitive dissonance, and this is indeed true. The deeper problem, however, is that ideology is serving passion, rather than the other way around. This is part of what makes millennials so difficult to reason with: they will shift from one part of the manifesto to the other for the sake of whatever person or group or behavior they feel good about, not realizing that each pole is at least a mild affront to the other. What they tend to sense is that their scientism forces one to create his own meaning since there is no predefined role by a true authority (God, revealed religion, a family or government invested with God-given authority), and that the quest to create meaning for oneself is determined only by what is able to be perceived by oneself, the greatest authority. The poles point back toward each other in this way, even though real positivists would reject the idea that a person can “mean something” at all, and real existentialists are not even attached to the doctrine that there is a real material world in the first place. The details of theory are lost in the practice of the unfortunate and unwitting inheritors of these worldviews.

Whether the French existentialists would be on board with the hashtag gender activists of today is not entirely clear. Sartre would perhaps call transgenderism “bad faith,” that is, a fake expression of oneself wherein one “tries too hard” to be something he or she really is not. This is not “authentic” to Sartre. (How there could be such a thing as the “self” independent of one’s sincere desires begins to strike the central nerve of the existentialist project, however; if one can act in bad faith, then there must be something more to one’s identity than his desires which those desires can be in line with… which sounds an awful lot like an essence preceding existence, so to speak.) Camus might call such people to account as failing to accept that life just does not make sense, and that the only way to be happy is to accept this: providing a physical answer to a spiritual problem is vain, but there is no spiritual answer either, so one must simply be content with madness.

Existentialism is likely to remind the attentive reader of Sacred Scripture of Ecclesiastes. Was Qoheleth the first existentialist? The first absurdist? He does claim that the acceptance of life as vain and meaningless in itself is a condition for peace, like Camus. (Truly, Qoheleth is right – there is nothing new under the sun!) But Qoheleth, despite all of his despair, believes that everyone’s life means something to God, and that there are objective measures of morality by which that God will somehow judge us. That his idea of final judgment is fuzzy can seem odd given this, but in his intellectual humility he did not grasp for what he had not already been given. He knew we would die and that God would somehow render justice, but he will not say more.

Postmodernists avoid the topic of death because it would force them out of their watered down existentialism – protected by a million distractions – into the disquieting bluntness of Camus, which few can stomach: your life really is fundamentally meaningless, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so just get comfortable with that fact like a happy Sisyphus. The suicidal dilemma is also “too harsh” for sensitive millennial minds – let that question be left to poor Hamlet and Hannah Baker.

Next time, we will directly investigate the relationship between the trends of our current culture and the doctrine and praxis of the Cathars, finally making good on the title of this series.


Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Simone De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Che Guevara; Cuba, 1960

The New Albigensianism, PART II: Comte and the Combox

For Part I, click here.

Just as the woman with the hemorrhage reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ tunic, so do post-modern secular Westerners reach out to touch the hem of scientists’ lab coats. Despite the plain fact that any given scientist or doctor or other “expert” will be tend to be specialized in only some tiny sliver of his or her field, hopeless intellectual wanderers will gather at the feet of these people to learn all the mysteries of the universe… which is dumb. How did this happen?

Let’s take a step back.

The manifesto of the post-modern Westerner par excellence is this: “Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.”

Herein we see two strands of thought colliding, one about the mind and one about the will: positivism and existentialism. Historically, they are not friends. How they have become fused together in post-modernity is a strange tale.

Today we will break open the first clause – real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, the positivist element.

From the outset, we must make a distinction between “positivism,” which is an epistemic and social theory, and “logical positivism,” which is something more metaphysically aimed. My goal here is to show the roots of the broader idea of positivism, how it found its academic zenith in logical positivism, then how the aftermath of its fall has affected Western philosophy and science at large as well as in the minds of millennials.

A brief sketch of the positivist genealogy will suffice. We recall Descartes to point out his obsession with certitude, just as we note the empiricist thrust of Bacon, Locke, and Hume. We must mention Kant, both as the originator of the analytic-synthetic distinction (which will become enormously important) and as an influence to Hegel, who is notable for his approach to philosophy as something integral with history. Condorcet and Diderot should be pointed out as influential, being the greatest embodiments of the French Enlightenment, wherein reason and revealed religion are opposing forces. Marx, though he would reject positivism as a social ideology, helped inspire it along the same lines as Hegel had. The penultimate step was Henri de Saint-Simon, whose utopian socialism was all the rage during the French Revolution which was attempting to put his political theory into political practice.

Of course, these men were not positivists. It is Henri de Saint-Simon’s pupil, Auguste Comte, who brings us this unwanted gift of an empiricism so strong it entirely and unabashedly rejects any and all metaphysical knowledge outright. This led Comte to build a reducible hierarchy of the sciences based on their certainty or “positivity,” and he claimed (rightly) that the trend of empirical studies was heading toward a “social science.” This conception of a reducible scientific hierarchy – one where, for instance, biology can be put in terms of chemistry, and chemistry in terms of physics, etc. – was a rather new way of thinking… Previously, it had been more or less taken for granted that each science has its own irreducible terms and methods, even admitting some kind of hierarchy (such as with the classical progression of the liberal arts).

Not only was Comte the first real philosopher of science, he was also the first sociologist. According to Comte, humanity was passing from its first two stages, the theological and the metaphysical, into the third and final “positivist stage” where only empirical data would ground truth-claims about the world. Having evolved to a higher clarity about what the world is, and having built up enough of the more basic physical sciences to explore how that world works, sociology could finally occur. Mathematical evaluation of social behavior, rather than qualitative analysis, would serve as the proper method of the “queen of the sciences” in this new age.

Comte outright jettisoned religion qua supernatural and revelatory, but his intensely Catholic upbringing had driven into him such a habit of ritual that he could not altogether shake the need for some kind of piety. What was a French Revolution atheist to do? Well, start a “religion of humanity,” of course. (The “positivist religion” never became a major force, especially since Freemasonry already filled the “secular religion gap,” but it did catch on in some areas. Take a closer look at the Brazilian flag and its meaning, for example…) We should also note, for the record, that Comte was only intermittently sane.

The epistemic side of positivism almost ended up just as much of a flop as the pseudo-religion side of it. Unfortunately for the West, Durkheim and Littré became interested, and they, being altogether sane, effectively diffused Comte’s ideas and their own additions through the West at the start of the 20th century. Eventually, a group of like-minded academes started habitually gathering at a swanky café in Austria to discuss how filthy and naïve metaphysics was compared to the glories of the pure use of the senses and simple mathematical reason – the Vienna Circle was born.

Together with some Berliners, these characters formulated what came to be known logical positivism. When the shadow of Nazism was cast over Germany, some of these men journeyed westward to England and America, where their ideas were diffused.

The champions of logical positivism were Hans Hahn, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. While Russell is no doubt familiar to some readers (think “tea pot”), the others fly lower under the radar. It is Ayer’s formulation of the logical positivist doctrine which we will use, however, for our analysis.

“We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.” (Language, Truth, and Logic, 35)

Got that? What this means, in the context of the whole book, is that in addition to statements which are “analytic” (“all bachelors are unmarried”) being true necessarily, only statements which we can actually use our 5 senses to verify the truth of can be meaningful – that is, able to be true at all. These are “synthetic” statements. If I say that Pluto is made of bacon grease, I am making a meaningful statement, even though I cannot actually verify it; it suffices that it is hypothetically possible to verify it. If I say that the intellect is a power of the soul, this is not meaningful, since it cannot be verified with the senses. For the details, see Ayer’s book, which is rather short.

Needless to say, it is rare that a school of thought truly dies in academia. A thorough search of university philosophy departments in the Western world would yield a few die-hard fans of Plotinus, Al-Gazali, Maimonides, and maybe even Heraclitus. Perhaps the best or even only example of ideological death was logical positivism. W.V. Quine’s landmark paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” was such a blow to the doctrine that eventually Ayer actually admitted himself to be in massive error and repudiated his own work.

What was so blindingly erroneous about logical positivism?

First, the analytic-synthetic distinction, as formulated by the logical positivists, is groundless. Analytic statements supposedly don’t need real referents in order to be true, but they are instead simply about the meanings of words. For some kinds of statements which employ basic affirmation and negation, this might work, as it is simply just a dressing up of the principle of non-contradiction. Fine. But if one wants to start using synonyms to take the place of some of the parts of these statements, the distinction begins to disappear… What the relationship is between the synonym’s object and the original word’s object cannot be explained without a reference to real things (synthetic!), or without an ultimately circular appeal to the analyticity of the new statement through a claim of the universal extension of the synonym based on modal adverbial qualifications (like the word “necessarily,” which points to an essential characteristic which must either be made up or actually encountered in reality and appropriated by a synthesis). In other words, it is analytic “just because.” (Thus, the title of Quine’s paper: Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Read more here.)

Beyond that, logical positivism is a self-refuting on theory its face… If meaningful statements can only be about physically verifiable things, then that statement itself is meaningless because it is not analytic (or is arbitrary if it is, and we go back to the first problem) and cannot be verified with the senses so is not synthetic… How does one verify “meaningfulness” with the senses? Logical positivism is a metaphysical theory that metaphysics is meaningless. Once again, this can only be asserted, not discovered. Except with this dogma, it evidently claims itself to be meaningless.

But the cat was out of the bag: “Metaphysics has completely died at last.” Logical positivism had already made its way from the salons of Austria to the parlors of America and lecture halls of Great Britain. The fuel was poured on the fire that had started in England by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore after they had decided to reject the British Idealism that dominated the scene by creating an “analytic” philosophy that didn’t deal with all those Hegelian vanities that couldn’t be touched with a stick or put in a beaker. Russell’s star pupil, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would also come to be a seminal force in strengthening the analytic ethos, after having already inspired much of the discussion in the Vienna Circle. Though Quine did indeed destroy the metaphysical doctrine that metaphysics is meaningless, the force of positivism continued nonetheless within this “analytic” framework – and it is with us to this day en masse in university philosophy departments, which has led several generations of students to miss out on a solid education in classical metaphysics and philosophical anthropology.

In sociology there arose the “antipositivism” of Max Weber, which insisted on the need for value-based sociology – after all, how can a society really be understood apart from its own values, and how can a society be demarcated at all without reference to those values, etc.? A liquid does not assign a value to turning into a gas, which it then acts upon, but a group does assign a value to capitalism, or marriage, or birth status which it then acts upon.

In the broader realm of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn’s postpositivism came to the fore. Science in general cannot be best explained without regard for some kind of value, but that the possibility of and/or actualization of the falsification or failure of a scientific theory is the characteristic feature of the sciences – in contrast to the optimism of the positivists that we can “just do science,” and that that will be useful enough.

In “science” itself, an air of independence was diffused. Scientists do “science,” other people do other things, and that’s that; never mind that we have no idea how to define “science” as we understand it today, and never mind that values are always brought to bear in scientific evaluation, and never mind what might actually be done with what potentially dangerous knowledge is gained or tool developed. A far cry from the polymaths, such as St. Albert the Great or Aristotle, who never would have considered such independence.

Then there are the “pop scientists” who try to do philosophy. A few examples of many will have to suffice to show that there exist three traits among pop scientists who are the go-to sources on religion and philosophy for countless curious millennials and Gen-Xers alike.

The first is an epistemic myopia, which derives immediately from positivism: if you can’t poke it or put it in a beaker, it’s not real. (Yes, it is a little more complicated than that, but you’ve read the section above describing positivism, right? Empirical verification is the only criterion and process for knowledge… Etc.) This is often manifested by a lack of awareness that “continental philosophy” (as opposed to analytic philosophy) often works in totally immaterial terms, like act, or mind, or cause, or God. This immediately creates equivocation – a pop scientist says “act” and thinks “doing something,” for example.

The second is an ignorance of basic philosophical principles and methods, which follows from the first characteristic. If you don’t know how to boil water, don’t go on “Hell’s Kitchen” – everyone will laugh at you and wonder what you are doing there in the first place. We might do well to have a philosophical version of Gordon Ramsay roaming about.

The third is the arrogance to pontificate on philosophy and theology nonetheless, and this of course follows from the second characteristic. They don’t know what they don’t know, but they got a book deal, so they will act like they are experts.

Everyone knows Dr. Stephen Hawking. (They made a movie!) But did you know that the average 6-year-old could debunk the central claim of his most recent book? It is now an infamous passage:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” (From The Grand Design)

I can hear the 1st graders calling out now: “But gravity’s not nothing!” And they would be right. The myopia of Dr. Hawking (and Dr. Mlodinow, his co-author) is evident in the inability to grasp that, as Gerald Schroeder pointed out, an immaterial law outside of time that can create the universe sounds a lot like, well, God. The ignorance of basic philosophical principles, in this case, the most basic, is clear from realizing that “gravity” can’t be both SOMETHING AND NOTHING. Then, the arrogance to go on pontificating anyway is self-evident by the fact of the existence of the book, and then a TV series which aired shortly afterward wherein we find philosophical reflection which is similarly wanting.

If you really want to do a heavy penance, watch this “discussion” between Hawking, Mlodinow, Deepak Chopra, and poor Fr. Spitzer – I had the displeasure of watching it live several years ago:

Then there are folks like Dr. Michio Kaku. He regularly shows up on those Discovery Channel specials on string theory, quantum mechanics, future technology, yadda yadda. All well and good. But here’s an… interesting quotation for our consideration:

“Aquinas began the cosmological proof by postulating that God was the First Mover and First Maker. He artfully dodged the question of ‘who made God’ by simply asserting that the question made no sense. God had no maker because he was the First. Period. The cosmological proof states that everything that moves must have had something push it, which in turn must have had something push it, and so on. But what started the first push? . . . The flaw in the cosmological proof, for example, is that the conservation of mass and energy is sufficient to explain motion without appealing to a First Mover. For example, gas molecules may bounce against the walls of a container without requiring anyone or anything to get them moving. In principle, these molecules can move forever, requiring no beginning or end. Thus there is no necessity for a First or a Last Mover as long as mass and energy are conserved.” (Hyperspace, 193-195)

The misunderstandings here are as comical as they are numerous… The conflation, found explicitly in the full text, of the first 3 Ways as “the cosmological proof,” which obscures the issue, the belief that “motion” is a term about something necessarily physical, the thought that only recently did we discover that matter and energy don’t just appear and disappear, and then the most obvious blunder – Thomas does NOT start any of the 5 Ways by saying anything like “God is the First Mover, therefore…” There is no such ungrounded assertion which “dodges the question,” as Kaku puts it. One must wonder if he even bothered to read the original text – which is readily available. Kaku has even weaker arguments (unbelievably) against both the “moral proof” (which is a characterization I have never heard of the 4th Way until Kaku’s book, which troubles me from the start) and the teleological proof on top of this disastrous critique, but I won’t bore you. (Basically: “Because change and evolution.” Read it for yourself.)

Once again, we see three qualities: epistemic myopia (as evidenced, for example, by the error about “motion”), ignorance of the most basic philosophical principles (albeit these are a little more complicated than the one Hawking whiffed on), and the arrogance to pontificate about God and the act of creation nonetheless.

Next you have a man like Richard Dawkins, one of the nastiest examples of publicly evangelical atheism the world has to offer at present. Here’s one particularly embarrassing quotation from his seminal anti-theistic work, The God Delusion:

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” (p. 138)


Can you see the three characteristics? Material beings only (or at least “things” with “parts”), no idea what metaphysical simplicity is and how it relates to God in Western philosophy, and yet here we have one book of many which address this theme.

It is not that these folks don’t believe in classical metaphysics – it’s that they don’t understand them in the least. They play a game of solitaire and claim to be winning a game of poker.

We won’t even get into discussing Bill Nye the Eugenics Guy… for now.

Okay, yes, quote-mining is easy. But this is the cream of the crop from a very large and fertile field. I am not sure I recall ever reading an important and sensible argument about religion or metaphysics from a world-renowned scientist who lived in the past 50 or so years. Someone prove me wrong in the comments.

All this leads us to the average “scientism” which one finds in the comboxes of Youtube videos about religion, threads on various websites, and debates on social media. Yes, there are plenty of religious people in those arenas, but the skeptics who try to make wild claims like “science disproves religion” or “evolution means God does not exist” or even just dismiss the idea of revealed religion outright with some kind of mockery ought to be seen as the children of positivism. It is the most probable explanation – the sources of their myopia, ignorance, and arrogance can usually be traced back through intermediate steps to a talking head like Dawkins who ultimately owes his own irrational ramblings to Auguste Comte.

Why is post-modern positivism so naïve? At the combox level, it is because these people, as all others, have an instinctive drive to trust in someone beyond themselves. For many it is due to circumstance and perhaps a certain kind of emotional insecurity and intellectual laziness that they latch on to the confident scientistic loudmouths to formulate their worldview – and it becomes a pseudo-religious dogmatic cult of its own, a little like Comte’s “religion of humanity.” At the pop-science level, it is just plain laziness and/or intellectual dishonesty combined with arrogance, as we have investigated. At the lecture hall level – and I mainly speak of the general closed-mindedness towards classical metaphysics found in analytic circles – it is a deeper kind of blindness which is the result of the academic culture created by the aforementioned ideological lineage. Each level has its own share of responsibility which it is shirking.

The truth is that matter is known by something immaterial – a mind or person – and this reveals to us a certain kind of hierarchy and order, seeing as matter itself does not know us. Man is indeed over all matter and ought to control it and master it, and all without the consent of matter; but this does not mean that there can’t be knowledge of things nobler and/or simpler than man, like substance or causation or God. Not looking at matter as the product of non-matter, and as being ordered to the immaterial in a certain way, is part and parcel of the New Albigensianism.

So there we have the first part of the manifesto explained. Irreducible facts (the ones devoid of metaphysics and value judgments) about the material world constitute the only real knowledge. The less reducible, the less it is really known. Even though the West is full of supposed “relativists,” it would be difficult to find a person who would truly let go of the objectivity of “science.” To say, “Christianity is your truth but not mine” is one thing; it is quite another to say something like, “Geocentrism is your truth but not mine.”

There is yet more to be explored… Next time, we will dive into the second half of the “postmodernist manifesto” with a look at its existentialist roots and how misconceptions about the relationship of the self to one’s bodily life have led to transgender bathroom bills.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Positivist Temple in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Source: Tetraktys – User:Tetraktys, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The New Albigensianism, PART I: From Scotus to S.C.O.T.U.S.

For the most part, religious errors are reducible to four basic ideas.

  1. Jesus is not by nature both fully God and fully human (Arianism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Agnoetism, Mormonism, etc.)
  2. There are not three Persons in One God (Modalism, Unitariansim, Subordinationism, Partialism, etc.)
  3. Sanctifying grace is not a free and universally available gift absolutely necessary for salvation (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Baianism, Jansenism, Calvinism, etc.)
  4. Matter is not essentially harmoniously ordered with spirit (Manichaeism, Buddhism, Albigensianism, etc.)

While the first three ideas are certainly prevalent in our own day, the correct doctrines are only available through the grace of faith. The falsehood of the fourth, however, is evident from a rigorous use of natural reason alone. Therefore, it is more blameworthy to succumb to that error.

We are seeing today the resurgence of the fourth error in four ways: the sexual revolution, radical feminism, the culture of death, and most recently, gender theory.

The three forms mentioned in the first list (Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Albigensianism) more or less say that matter is evil and needs to be done away with. The Manichees thought that matter was created by an evil god, the Buddhists think that matter is only a distraction, and the Albigensians (or “Cathars”) became so enamored with the thought of the spirit escaping its fleshy prison that suicide became a virtue… But we will talk all about the Cathars later, and we will find some striking similarities between this medieval rigorist dualism and some of the most recent value developments in the Western world.

The current manifestations of the fourth error do not quite say “matter is evil,” but they instead say that the determination of human matter (the body) is irrelevant to the good of the spirit, and/or that the spirit is one’s “true self” which can be served by the body according to one’s whims. Some proponents may claim they don’t believe in spirit, that is, immaterial reality (in this case, the “soul,” or formal principle of life), but when they speak of someone being “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or something similar, they betray their real thoughts. Still, even if a person insists on denying the reality of spirit, it remains the spirit within him who denies it. There can be no “self-determination” without a self to determine, and if the body simply is the self, then how can there be real determination? There could then only be physical events without any meaning. This, of course, is contradicted by the very existence of “experience.” It is not merely a body which acts, but a person who experiences.

The error in its current expressions can be traced to Descartes, whose laudable project of attaining perfect certainty about the world was, ultimately, a disastrous failure. After shedding all opinions about which he did not have absolute certainty, he was left only with one meaningful truth: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” No person could both think and not exist.

This was not new, as St. Augustine had come to a similar realization over 1,000 years earlier. The difference was the context and emphasis of the thought; to Augustine, it was an interesting idea coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. To Descartes, it was the foundation of every knowable proposition, and it led to the idea that human beings are essentially thinking (spiritual) beings rather than a body-soul composite… Think “soul trapped in body.”

This came after the ruins of the scholastic project. With the combination of the fixation on choice and freedom in Scotus’ work and Abelard’s troubling take on the problem of universals (how to account for similarities between different things), the stage for Ockham’s Nominalism was set. (See Gilson’s detailed description in his wonderful book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.) It was Ockham who hammered in the last nail of St. Thomas’ coffin and who paved the way for the “cogito” to be intensely meaningful not only to Descartes, but to the entire Western academy. Nominalism’s dissociation of “things” from any real universal natures which would make those things intelligible as members of species was the first step towards overthrowing classical metaphysics. This “suspicion of being” understandably increased exponentially with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, as it cast a serious doubt on the reliability of the senses themselves, doubt that many felt was unable to be overcome, despite a sincere effort to do so on the part of Descartes himself.

Descartes: The Movie

The anxiety finally culminated in Kant’s “nervous breakdown”: a total rejection of metaphysics in the denial of the possibility of knowing “the-thing-in-itself” (noumena). From there, much of the academy generally either desperately tried to do without a robust metaphysics or desperately tried to pick up the pieces, and this theme continues today in the strange and fractured world of contemporary philosophy.

Ideas have consequences. As McIntyre shows so well in his book After Virtue in the case of “emotivism” (the position that ethical statements merely express one’s emotional preference for an action) a powerful idea that spreads like wildfire among the right academic circles can eventually stretch into the average home, even if subconsciously. A very well educated person may never have heard of G. E. Moore, but everyone from the wealthy intellectual to the homeless drunkard has encountered some shade of the emotivism Moore’s work gave rise to. The influence which both Descartes and Kant had on the academic scene in their respective eras was so vast and powerful, that it is not unfair to say that Western philosophy after the 17th century was in response to Descartes, and that Western philosophy today is in response to Kant.

The reaction to Descartes’ rationalism was first empiricism, then idealism. The reactions to Kant’s special fusion of rationalism and empiricism (that started “transcendental idealism”) which here concerns us were logical positivism and French existentialism.

Logical positivism is basically dead in academia, although the average militant atheist has taken a cheapened form of Ayer’s positivism to bash over the head of theists, and the general inertia of positivism remains in force in a vaguer “scientism” which hangs heavy in the air.

Existentialism, on the other hand, has become a powerful force in the formation of civil law. The following lengthy quotation is from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion given in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (my emphases):

“Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

“These considerations begin our analysis of the woman’s interest in terminating her pregnancy, but cannot end it, for this reason: though the abortion decision may originate within the zone of conscience and belief, it is more than a philosophic exercise. Abortion is a unique act. It is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedure; for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted. Though abortion is conduct, it does not follow that the State is entitled to proscribe it in all instances. That is because the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition, and so, unique to the law. The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.

No doubt, a critical reader will observe some tragic oddities in this passage. We will table an in-depth analysis, but I do want to point out the bizarre idea that our beliefs can determine reality. One might be tempted to call this “relativism,” and there is indeed some relativism in the passage (the evaluation of the fact of whether a life or potential life is taken in abortion “depending on one’s beliefs”). Without denying this, I also assert that beyond a casual relativism, which might be more a product of a lack of reflection than a real worldview, Kennedy is a deeply committed existentialist. (Indeed, it seems that existentialism naturally disposes a person to relativism.) The thought that one’s beliefs define one’s personhood comes almost directly from Jean-Paul Sartre. The doctrine is: existence precedes essence. Essence is determined by beliefs and actions, according to the existentialist. Such an affront to traditional metaphysics would have been impossible without the aforementioned ideological lineage – Scotus, Abelard, Ockham, Descartes, Kant… Seeing Justice Kennedy through the existentialist lens also helps to account for the striking absence of respect for a human being who can’t believe or meaningfully act. After all, how can such a thing really be a person?

Today’s common philosophy of the Western liberal elite (and their spoiled millennial offspring) seems to be a chimera of these two diametrically opposed worldviews: positivism and existentialism. These ideologies have been filtered into the average home, and watered down in the process in such a way that they can appear to fit together. In this series of articles, we will thematically wind through a maze of philosophy, science, hashtag activism, and moral theology to understand the present crisis and to propose possible remedies for it.

After now having given a brief sketch of the ideological history, we begin next time with a look at the positivist roots of the so-called “New Atheism” and how an undue reverence for science has contributed to what I have termed the “New Albigensianism.”

Stay tuned…


For Part II, click here.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Carcassonne, France… one of the old Albigensian strongholds.

Main image source: