One of the constants of Christian morality over the centuries has been its relationship to greater goods beyond human experience. In the Act of Contrition which I learned almost 70 years ago, I prayed that I was heartly sorry because of the “pains of punishment” [imperfect contrition] and my having offended the God who is “all good and deserving of all my love.” [perfect contrition]. In other words, human behavior was connected to divine meaning—we were created by God to live and function in an optimum way that we may enjoy eternal reward in God’s presence. After the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant teachings on salvation differed in detail but all Christians maintained the relationship of human life and behavior to Baptism and our ultimate destiny beyond the grave.
If we look at present day culture with an honest eye, it becomes painfully evident that generally people do not align their behavior today with major concern about divine or external consequences either now or beyond the grave. The closest we have to some sort of mystical consequence is “karma” and from where I sit the rules of karma in popular American culture are not nearly as potent as the Hindu or Buddhist understanding of the term. So, the question becomes—when did Western folks make the break to individual judgments about morals, and quit worrying about “bigger picture” norms proclaimed in the churches?
The split between human conduct and divine destiny—when the science of morality switched from outside sources, such as Scripture or religious revelation to subjective human decision making—can be traced back to a particularly devastating point in European history, the Wars of Religion. This is a series of armed conflicts that ravaged Western Europe shortly after the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 and extending for well over a century till the “Peace of Westphalia” in 1648. These wars were diverse and involved separate nations and regions at different times. In Luther’s back yard, a German revolt called the Peasants’ War [1524-25] touched off a series of increasingly destructive campaigns that would last well into the next century. In France, Catholics and Huguenots [French Reformed Calvinists] battled within the country between 1562 and 1598. The defeat and destruction of the Catholic Spain’s Armada in its efforts to seize Protestant England in 1588 is a featured date in history. The bloodiest prolonged conflict of this period was The Thirty Years War [1618-1648]. Fought primarily in the territory of modern Germany, historians estimate that about eight million people were killed in this struggle alone. All told, about 50 million were killed in this series of wars fought under the banner of religion. While religious beliefs served as an identifying flag, like all wars this prolonged series of conflicts was juiced by territorial and economic considerations as well as the fervor of jihad.
Westphalia put a temporary end to the era of religious wars. By this time the continent was exhausted in every sense of the word. The idea of fighting for religious supremacy had lost its appeal. However, something more was lost, and we live with that loss today. Some of the greatest minds in Europe were beginning to despair of the idea that organized religion could organize itself and stand in the way of great evils. Put another way, the learned classes throughout Europe began to abandon the doctrinal and moral premises of organized religion in favor of a new way of philosophizing, in which man stood at the center of the universe. Truth would be sought not in the churches but by scientific inquiry. A similar pulse of discouragement about religion took place after the twentieth century world wars and was a major factor in the decision to call the Catholic Council Vatican II in 1962.
Two figures stand out in this period of change. Sir Francis Bacon [1561-1626] was a devout English Anglican who is remembered today as the father of the scientific method. For any philosophers in the house, Stanford University provides a very thorough on-line examination of his life’s body of work. Bacon held that the human brain is structured to receive observable sense impressions and to formulate them into logical thought. This is the “inductive measure of thinking,” i.e., from small observations to general hypotheses and eventually permanent principles. Philosophy, which had long been structured around eternal general principles—metaphysics—would be turned over on its head as modern man turned to what could be proven from experience as the basis of truth. The dogma of religion as well as the ideas of philosophers like Plato fell into disregard.
The greater name in this intellectual revolution is Rene Descartes [1596-1650]. He is most remembered for his maxim, Cogito, Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” On its face, this pithy saying is a philosophical revolution, for it is a declaration of the center of reality as man’s thoughtful being. He developed a philosophy of human existence around the intellectual awareness of man. Descartes is one of the most colorful men of any age; his entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica is well worth reading if you have the time. He was a man with his fingers in a lot of pies. Among other things, Descartes believed in a mechanical approach to man; if the proper parts of the human machine could be replaced or healed, Descartes and his followers believed—hypothetically at least—that man might live indefinitely. Descartes expected to live till 100, at least. He made it as far as age 53. Ironically, his patron demanded he write a sonnet on the occasion of the Treaty of Westphalia, and the overwork caused him to acquire a bronchial infection which killed him.
Neither Descartes nor Bacon were atheists. Both believed in God, but they eschewed the complicated metaphysical belief system that accompanied Roman Catholicism and other Christian churches. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, most of the intellectuals who formulated the founding documents of the United States were “Deists;” Webster defines Deism as: a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century, denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe. In short, “The Enlightenment,” as this period of history is called, created a split between the intellectual credibility of man and religious ideals which, to the scientist, could not be empirically proven.
A good example of this separation can be found in Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of Thomas Jefferson’s famous estate at Monticello. Jefferson is a splendid example of the “enlightened mind.” His political thought on the freedom of man to manage his destiny in a collective form of government is the backbone of American government. He did not believe that kings or churchmen had the natural right to restrict the will of the people. Curiously, Jefferson did not see a contradiction here in his own conduct, as he owned slaves and in fact fathered children by at least one of them.
It was Jefferson’s intention to bequeath land and his library toward the establishment of a state university at Charlottesville, now the University of Virginia. Curiously, Virginia already had a university in its state, William and Mary. But Jefferson did not trust the school, in part because it required its students to study a catechism of basic Protestant beliefs. He endowed the University of Virginia on the condition that it would never open a department or school of theology. He championed his school as an international model of free thought, and later in life he requested that history books record the establishment of this school as his chief accomplishment, ahead of his presidency of the United States and his purchase of the Louisiana Territory!
It is good to bear this history in mind as we endure what has come to be called “the culture wars,” though in truth one could call this same national stress a “morality war.” For much of what divides America is the ultimate source of moral authority. Many believe that morals are revealed directly from God through the medium of direct revelation, scripture or another inspired text, or the churches and its ministers. Others draw moral conclusions from experience, public debate, science, or personal confidence in what one knows. A lifetime of experience suggests to me that Catholics walk a fine line here.
In the next morality post, Kaminouchi describes what many Christian moralists are doing in the twenty-first century to reframe moral theology—returning to the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thirteenth century synthesis of reality and grace remains one of the greatest theological achievements of all time.