Mary Eberstadt recently gave me a copy of her Adam and Eve: After the Pill, Revisited, a follow up to her first book on the topic. The foreword was written by Cardinal George Pell, who passed away on January 10. His unexpected death has left his friends and flock reeling, particularly so closely upon the heals of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's death December 31. Mary mentioned that Cardinal Pell's foreword is perhaps the last words to be published by the white-martyred prelate. Among his final words of wisdom, I found this paragraph particularly heartening:
As both of Eberstadt's Adam and Eve books affirm, secular modernity causes multiple forms of suffering that we can often ameliorate when we understand their true origins. We also need to remember that Christ was a healer of the blind the disabled, the sick, and the possessed. We need to bring his healing to others. Eberstadt is quite explicit that this truth has gone unsaid for too long. Secularism is an inferior culture, small of heart, which defines suffering down, so that victims are not acknowledged as victims but as justified collateral damage. Compare this to the heart of the Lord we see in the Gospels, in his response to the victims of sin and suffering. This is the heart that we must have.
Indeed, Your Excellency, this is the heart we must have. Mary's book offers keen insights to helping to form our hearts and minds around this goal.
We have been given permission to publish a short excerpt from the book to whet your appetite. Bon Appetite! -Carrie
Christianity or Chaos
By Mary Eberstadt
An insight by novelist extraordinaire Evelyn Waugh illuminates across the passage of nearly a century. It appeared in a disarmingly casual account that he gave to a newspaper in 1930, about the reasons for his conversion to the Catholic Church. Waugh summarized that decision in twenty-eight neat words. He said, “In the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos.”
Christianity, or Chaos. In a sense, the choice between the two has been perpetual since the Resurrection. But to shrug that it was ever thus, and to throw up one’s hands before the world, is a dodge—especially for Catholics, especially now, in a moment when many are tempted for more reasons than one to do just that. Believers are called to read the signs of the times, not to whine about them. Today’s Catholics cannot begin to live as Christians without first staring this thing in the face and seeing the distinctive characteristics of Chaos in this moment.
What broad shapes appear?
First is that we continue to live in the age spied by Matthew Arnold, Henri de Lubac, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and other religious clairvoyants of the past two centuries: the modern age, whose drama consists of successive waves of secularization, encroaching ever more insistently on territories previously thought to be God’s, and God’s alone.
The second certainty, equally conspicuous, is that the forms of Chaos characteristic of the first quarter of the twenty-first century are distinct from those that have gone before. Compare this era, for example, with Waugh’s own. In 1930, the year he entered the Church, one world war was already behind mankind, even as another impended. In the lifetime of people like him, spanning roughly the first half of the twentieth century, Chaos had a different signature. It resided in war, dislocation, and stupendous carnage.
Despite that carnage, social pillars still stood firm in Europe and America and other heirs to Western civilization. Individual families were ravaged by the wars, but the institution of the family was not. Demonic Nazi anthropology had its day, as Communist anthropology would, too, but outside those malignant precincts, a Christian understanding of creation and redemption and meaning still prevailed across the Anglosphere, Western Europe, the Captive Nations of the East, and elsewhere.
The Catholic Church was steadfast as well. In 1930, Pius XI was pope. He would go on to found Vatican Radio the very next year, “to proclaim the Gospel in the world”, as he said with jubilance. Though Chaos was starting to insinuate itself in novel forms into some Protestant churches, the Barque of Peter appeared exempt—as Evelyn Waugh pointed out when he cited the “coherent and consistent” nature of Catholic teaching as the predominant reason for his conversion.
As even that short summary shows, although we are only ninety-some years removed from 1930, it feels more like ninety-some light-years. Consider a quick checklist of the scene today.
First, there is compounding family Chaos, brought on by a radical social experiment now six-plus decades in the making. Elemental human bonds have been frayed and cut, and the institution of the family has been weakened, on a scale never seen before.
Second, and symbiotic, there is also compounding psychic Chaos of all kinds. For decades, the rise in mental illness has been documented beyond dispute. Anxiety, depression, and other afflictions resulting from disconnection and loneliness have become endemic, especially among the youngest and most frail. Irrationalism has come unbound.
Third, there is political Chaos. Though its causes are many, the dissolution of clan and community leave their marks here too. To put it rhetorically: How could the unattached and dispossessed people of the early twentieth century produce anything but a disordered public language?
Fourth, there is anthropological Chaos of a wholly new order. The Western world is gripped by an identity crisis. In its latest form, magical thinking about gender has escaped from the academy and now transforms society and law — magical thinking so preposterous that little children could call it out. In a shocking descent unlike any in recorded history, many people today no longer even know what little children know — namely, who they are. Once more, irrationalism is unbound.
Fifth, there is intellectual Chaos. Outside a few faithful institutions, American education, especially elite education, has been hiding in a postmodern cuckoo’s nest for decades. People who do not believe in truth now run institutions charged with discerning it. An atheist has lately been elected chief chaplain at Harvard. Why not? If there is no truth, there are no contradictions. Across the humanities, irrationalism is not only unbound. It rules.
Sixth, and most consequential, there is Chaos of a new order and significance among Catholics across the Western world. It arises from people who want to transform Church teaching—and from their animus against other people who hold to the truth of that teaching. This same animus assumes a pious mien in public, as leaders proudly brandishing the Catholic label just as proudly defy the Catechism and soft-pedel or ignore key points of canon law, day in and day out. Magical thinking drives this kind of Chaos too. The label "pro-abortion Catholic" makes as much logical sense as "atheist chaplain" or "former man". All participate in the same signature irrationalism. All demand that Aristotle and his law of noncontradiction be cancelled-- that both "A" and "Not-A" must be believed at one.
What can be discerned by staring into this void, which has become the inescapable companion that makes some American Catholics more anxious than ever before? What reveals itself should stiffen our spines. In every case, Chaos has been whipped into catastrophic strength by secularization itself. In the time to come, however long the reckoning, this spells trouble for the legacy of secularism and inadvertently endorses the Church.