Imagine what he might say were he still alive today!
Certainly it is increasingly characteristic of our “postmodern” time that it is not truth or falsity that matters but rather ideological credibility, the capacity to command social acceptance – not necessarily by everyone, but by those committed to a particular ideological tribe. And it is not a proposition’s falsity, but its incapacity to command such social acceptance that nowadays renders it no longer completely credible. We see this now all the time in the way competing claims are pitched to the public – their truth or falsehood being treated as mere social constructions of no ultimate significance. And so society subdivides into increasingly separate, particular ideological sub-cultures, each with its own presuppositions about the world and its supporting arsenal of supposed facts, the truth or falsehood of which is increasingly irrelevant.
This defining feature of (post-rationalist) post-modernity is undermining the strategies hitherto employed back when the problem was just (rationalist) modernity - the fundamentally fragmented character of modern society with its fragile connections between individuals. Modernity has increasingly torn apart all sorts of social bonds, but until recently still presumed some common intellectual and moral framework within which conversation could occur and some social cohesion could be maintained. In 19th-century Europe, as the Church struggled to survive as an institution against an increasingly modern political order, it sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with modernity and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring traditional religious bonds. The way to do this, it was widely thought, was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon its political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state.
The 19th-century United States presented this modern problem of social fragmentation in a way which was simultaneously more acute but also more moderate. As the most famous analyst of early 19th-century American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), observed (somewhat to his own surprise), the moderating factor in America was in fact religion. Disentangled from former political arrangements, religion in America was widespread and contributed to creating a kind of community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their freedom.
At mid-century, the American Catholic convert Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), having found a spiritual and intellectual home in Catholicism and eager to share the truth of the faith with his contemporaries, also envisaged a religious resolution to the crisis created by modernity Hecker’s American alternative envisaged individuals who, recognizing in religious truth the answer to their deepest human aspirations, could combine true religion and democratic social institutions. Thus, at his first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.”
How can religion still aspire to fulfill this role in a society in the process of becoming even more completely unglued, thanks to prevailing post-modern sensibilities? De Tocqueville and Hecker recognized how religion provided the glue a modern, free society required, but neither fully anticipated the present post-rational cultural context – a world where there are now many competing ways of being human, multiple and irreconcilable concepts of human fulfillment, whose credibility no longer depends upon a shared, traditional rationality.
Traditionally, natural law reasoning has been central to the Church’s public moral language, enabling it to speak with plausibility to the wider world and to say something that is relevant to public policy in a religiously pluralistic society. Natural law, however, is about truth. As truth rapidly recedes as a contemporary cultural value, however, even that language loses its plausibility, leaving society with no shared or shareable tools with which to discern an intellectual and moral vision for what is authentically human.