Quaint Theories of Modernity

In his humorous but informative documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” Ben Stein refers to Darwinism as a “quaint nineteenth-century theory.” This is what is known as “damning by faint praise,” and it is a commonly employed rhetorical device. Oftentimes, it is nothing more than a cheap shot, being far heavier on rhetorical effect than on justice or logical rigor. In this case, however, I think Mr. Stein hit his target.

There were many quaint nineteenth-century theories in other areas of learning as well, including Biblical scholarship. The arbitrary canons of a certain literary-critical method, for instance, dictated that the various inspired authors could not possibly have written the books attributed to them, for a clever variety of reasons. My favorite are the dreaded hapax legomena. No, it’s not a disease. Hapax legomena are words that occur only once within an author’s entire corpus. The term is extended to include words or verbal constructions used very infrequently, even though it literally means “said only once” in Greek. By the frequency of hapax legomena in I Timothy, modernist scholars concluded that Saint Paul did not write it, even though the entire weight of tradition was against them.

Father Ferdinand Prat attributes this view on I Timothy to Friedrich Schleiermacher, that evil genius of liberal Protestantism, who infused Kantian epistemology into Protestant theology.1 He published his theory in 1807. Soon thereafter, in a fit of philological mania, liberal Biblical scholars denied the authenticity of the rest of the Pastorals. Father Prat competently deconstructed all this quaint imbecility in a few blistering pages of The Theology of Saint Paul.

There is something pathetic about the scholar who spends an enormous proportion of his time on earth, during which he ought to be working out his salvation, devoted to proving something that so flies in the face of common sense. Brother Francis often told an anecdote about a certain philosopher who spoke to a large gathering of students in a university lecture hall. His subject was solipsism, and he was a devoted solipsist. At one point, the philosopher declared, with a tinge of frustration, “Solipsism makes so much sense. I don’t understand why more people don’t accept it!”

If you do not understand why the assertion is hilariously self-defeating, just read how Father Hardon defines solipsism: “As a form of extreme subjectivism, the philosophy that holds that only the ego really exists. Everyone and everything else are said to be images of myself. Solipsism is the logical effect of idealism, which teaches that the individual ego produces the existence of thought. In practice solipsism is the attitude of people who care only for themselves. (Etym. Latin solus, alone + ipse, self + ism.)”

Get it?

Many more “quaint theories” have been concocted and tenaciously advanced by moderns in the centuries following the nineteenth. Here I would like to catalogue some of my least favorite that occur both inside and outside the Church.

It does not matter what religion you belong to. In Catholic circles, this is known as indifferentism, and it is a condemned heresy. Common sense tells us that if there is a true religion, it would be advantageous to embrace it, and, therefore, that it very much matters whether one accepts it or not. Of course, if religion is bunk plain and simple, then it would be better to throw them all away rather than make a pretense at piety.

The true Church exists as a series of concentric circles. The bullseye is the Catholic Church (so the theory goes), but various other Churches, ecclesial communions, and non-Christian bodies of belief form larger circles around the bullseye. The entire dart board is the true Church, which may — depending on one’s generosity — be extended to include all of humanity, except perhaps Adolf Hitler, whom no liberal seems to want around, saving Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is far nicer than most. The four marks of the Church are rendered meaningless by this proposition.

Nobody goes to Hell, or at least we can “hope” so. And speaking of Hans Urs von Balthasar his idea that Hell is empty — or that we may hope it to be so — is gaining respectability even in so-called “orthodox” and “conservative” Catholic circles, which shows just how dysfunctional theology is today. Whatever one might care to imagine, there is a Hell and it makes perfect sense. And it is populated, or the words of our Savior, together with the force of tradition, are meaningless. Universal salvation is heresy full stop. Rhetorically, one may “hope against hope,” but theologically, one may never hope against Faith

The development of doctrine always works in a line from “traditional” to “liberal” or “progressive.” There is a true theological notion of doctrinal development, but the unstated presupposition of your average contemporary theologian is that development is a one-way street and the liberals are at the advanced terminus of that street. As an example of this, I offer the theory of the salvation of unbaptized infants as explained by the International Theological Commission. In a lengthy study, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” that eminent body of thinkers document very carefully how Catholic tradition and the magisterium have ruled out the salvation of the unbaptized who die in infancy. Then, in the last few pages, they favorably mention modern theories which give us a hope to the contrary of everything they showed in the rest of the work. This is not a theological development, but a heterogeneous evolution, very Darwinian, by which Limbo has evolved into Heaven. The same rule applies to universal salvation. Since the time of Augustine, Hell has evolved out of existence, as far as the self-professed Catholic universalist is concerned. In moral theology, the game is no different. The “development” is always from rigorous to lax, whether we are discussing contraception, abortion, divorce, or any number of hot-button moral issues. Coincidentally, the development also gravitates toward the thinking of secular liberals outside the Church (just as the Modernists took their cues from liberal Protestants). To be just, I must mention that there are notable exceptions in the area of economics and just war theory. Here, it is the so-called “conservatives” (neocons, really) who want to rid themselves of the traditional limits set by Catholic morals. However, in so doing, they are actually being liberal.

Darwinism, or macroevolution. This is the theory within the empirical sciences, whose fundamental presuppositions are unproven and whose mechanisms are as yet unobserved. It is indeed a pathological science and has been responsible for many people losing the faith, or not coming to it.

Homosexuality is morally, physiologically, and psychologically the equivalent of normal marital relationships between men and women. This theory defies nature itself, and has needlessly advanced the psychological and physical suffering of those who have embraced it. But it also enjoys the status of a politically protected neo-orthodoxy that people like the inquisitors at GLAAD will enforce with all the stridency they can muster. They are not always successful, but they have made great strides in recruiting the young to their perverse views. Barring some extraordinary developments, American society will soon fall in line with this one.

Fathers are not the head of the family, and husbands are not the head of their wives. That neither they nor their spouses see them in those Biblical roles may go far in explaining the misery of modern marriage and the widespread breakdown of the family

Faith and reason (or faith and science) are opposed. Only when reason and science are debased and turned against themselves will they oppose the true religion. Catholicism has nothing to fear from either, and has contributed much to both.

In a democracy, “we the people” are in charge. No, it’s generally the oligarchs who are in charge.

Feminism has been good for society, especially women. Even the lesbian feminist Camille Paglia would not accept this one wholeheartedly.

These are a few of my least favorite things. More to the point, they are among the most harmful errors of the day affecting both Church and State. Let us beg the good God, through the Blessed Virgin, to free us from these chains, and the many others I did not mention. Among the least of the evils consequent upon the continuation of this sad status quo: In a hundred years time, some scholar will say I didn’t write this, because I did not use the words hapax legomena anywhere else in my writing.

Wouldn’t that be terribly quaint?

  1. Schleiermacher was an inspiration to Catholic Modernists, who looked to their liberal Protestant friends, rather than to tradition and the magisterium, for their ideas.