One of the least-examined assumptions of our supposedly enlightened age is the belief that history can be compared with an individual's growth from childhood to maturity. Just as the child leaves behind its imaginary world of toys and Santa Claus, so too does the mature society abandon its comforting notions of God, objective morality and other "superstitions."
The result may be a psychological world of disillusionment and hard knocks, but at least that world is free from myths and the repressive ties of family, neighbourhood, nation and religion.
Or, so the story goes.
Looked at more closely, however, this liberation from the verities of the past turns out to be a new form of slavery. If one's loyalties to faith and community are shattered, they are generally replaced by slavery to the shopping mall, the cult of celebrity and the huge house. The collapse of traditionalism has meant an unimpeded path for the forces of economic growth and unregulated "free enterprise" to increase their dominance.
This has been the failure of political conservatism of the past 25 years. While paying lip service to traditional values, its main work has been to strengthen the hand of the consumerism and general acquisitiveness that lays those values flat.
The secular outlook that preaches our liberation, meanwhile, has a rather distorted view of religious moral thinking. Historian Christopher Lasch wrote, shortly before his death in 1994, that modern secularists see religious ethical teachings "as a body of simple commandments leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt."
Religion, in Lasch's view, tended to stimulate serious moral inquiry, rather than discourage it. Christian reflection, at least, can focus the believer's mind on overcoming his own hypocrisy, making his faith more than perfunctory performance of religious rituals, and examining his own motives. "Far from putting doubts and anxieties to rest, religion often has the effect of intensifying them."
If Lasch is right – and my experience says he is – this sharply undercuts the notion that history represents some form of progress from innocence to maturity. Rather, any particular moment of history is perhaps best characterized by its own unique balance of self-centredness and other-centredness.
The danger to Western society stems less from totalitarianism, terrorism or religious dominance than from the erosion of its spiritual, psychological and moral foundations from within. The contribution of the Church's social teaching to forestalling such danger - as I noted earlier in this series of articles - is "to transform, continuously and from within, the life of the people of the Covenant, so that this life will correspond to God's plan" (Compendium of Church Social Teaching, n. 24).
The Church has a duty to be attentive to the moral quality of society and to help society overcome its indifference to that moral quality. Her goal is to turn water into wine, to take what is good on a natural level and elevate it to the supernatural plane. Societies, for example, have always had some form of marriage. But in the covenant community created by Christ, marriage is a sacrament, an expression of God's living presence in the bond of love between a man and a woman.
As well, "The Church has the right to be a teacher to mankind, a teacher of the truth of faith: the truth not only of dogmas but also of the morals whose source lies in human nature itself and in the Gospel" (n. 70).
Many people and forces of great influence in today's society would like to silence the voice of the Church on moral questions. In their minds, the Church comes from yesterday's world and represents the voice of humanity in its superstitious childhood. But while faith can be child-like, it is not childish. Its moral teachings represent not a security blanket but a challenge. That challenge is for men and women to live life to the fullest and for societies to respect and enhance the full dignity of all people.