In the series of interviews that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI conducted with Peter Seewald that I discussed earlier here, our Pope Emeritus (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) pointed out to Seewald that Christian culture had been through periods of disruption and decline before, but was restored by a small remnant of faithful people who were unknown at the time, but would later be remembered for the foundations they laid which enabled the ‘mustard seed’ of the Church to sprout forth new branches again. He characterised such people (Saint Benedict of Nursia being a good example) as those who attempt new forms of life in response to cultural change, and compared them to those today who might also seek to revitalise the Faith.
Pope Benedict also described people in our age that may be laying the groundwork for the future as those who ‘drop out of this strange consensus of modern existence’ (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (1997), p.128, Ignatius Press). Seewald then asked him to elaborate on what this ‘strange consensus’ is, and in his answer Pope Benedict provides one of the best descriptions I have read of our contemporary cultural situation, and the roots of its ills. Here he captures in just a few sentences the very essence of modernity – godlessness, indifference to truth coupled with selective and highly judgemental moralising according to arbitrary goals and principles, the cooling of charity for one’s neighbour, a decrease in motivation to attend to problem’s outside of one’s personal milieu, and an ordering of priorities according to self-oriented ends.
When laid out like this, it certainly is a ‘strange consensus’ indeed, and all the more strange that it is so seldom that our godlessness and rejection of authority are connected to the societal breakdown we see around us in the West. Our secular culture seems to have developed very few tools for self-awareness, let alone self-criticism, and thus it is all the more important that we have voices like that of our Pope Emeritus to bring these things to our attention:
‘It consists in what I was just alluding to: God doesn’t count in man’s ethos. Even if he exists, he doesn’t have anything to do with us. That is virtually the universal maxim. He doesn’t concern himself with us; we don’t concern ourselves with him. Consequently, the question of eternal life doesn’t count either. Responsibility before God and his judgement is replaced with responsibility before history, before humanity. This gives rise to criteria that are definitely moral and that can be set forth even with considerable fanaticism, for example, the struggle against overpopulation, which is coupled with the general battle to conserve the biological equilibrium. But at the same time this means that everything is allowed that doesn’t compete with these. Because there is no authority to answer to apart from public opinion and its tribunals (which can be cruel), the motivational power of these ideals in individual lives is often negligible. The thrust of these ideals tends to benefit those who are far away rather than those who are nearby. Near at hand, it is frequently egotism that tends to thrive.’