Remarkable and Lesser Known Insights by CS Lewis on the Loss of Faith in the West

One of the lesser known and lesser read works of CS Lewis is his correspondence with Rev. Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria. Few indeed have read them since they were written in Latin. And though an English translation was published in 1998, I know few who have ever heard of these letters. The full collection of these letter is here: The Latin Letters of CS Lewis

In these letters, there are some very important insights that CS Lewis offers for the loss in faith in Europe that was already well underway in the 1950s when the letters were exchanged. Indeed I would call his insights stunning in many ways. Lewis argues, in effect that Europe was in a far worse state than paganism. Would that she were even pagan, for the pagans accepted natural law. But Europe, having cast off the faith, is in a state far worse than even before she ever heard of Christ.

In the quotes that follow CS Lewis makes this case quite well an then proffers a solution that we may wish to consider in these times that are even darker for Europe and the whole of the West. Allow me to present just a few excerpts. The Latin text is italicized. The English translation (by Martin Moynihan) is just below the Latin in black bold and italic type face. My comments are in red.

Let us begin with Lewis assessment as to how and by what stages Europe lost the faith:

Neque tamen sine peccatis nostris evenit: nos enim justiam illam, curam illam pauperum quas (mendacissime) communistae praeferunt debueramus jam ante multa saecula revera effecisse. Sed longe hoc aberat: nos occidentales Christum ore praedicavimus, factis Mammoni servitium tulimus. Magis culpabiles nos quam infideles: scientibus enim voluntatem Dei et non facientibus major poena. Nunc unicum refugium in contritione et oratione. Diu erravimus. In legendo Europae historiam, seriem exitiabilem  bellorum, avaritiae, fratricidarum Christianorum a Christianis persecutionum, luxuriae, gulae, superbiae, quis discerneret rarissima Sancti Spiritus vestigia? (Letter 20, Jan 7, 1953)

But (this) did not happen without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon. We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do not do it, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred. In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, or fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit?

He makes a remarkable description here. Quite sobering! In effect there grew an appalling lack of love for God, for the poor and for one another. Greed and sloth also took their toll. The lip service faith meant that even Communism appeared more virtuous to some than the Faith.

The wars of which Lewis speaks encompass not only the 20th Century, wherein as many as 100 million souls perished in two World Wars and the dropping of the Iron Curtain, but war has taken a terrible toll all through the Christian era. Consider this list: European Wars of the Christian Era. The list is unbelievably long. War upon war, and so much of it was Christian killing Christian.

To be sure, 2oth Century was a kind of death blow to Europe. These terrible things happened on the Christian watch. We must be honest about that. Good things, wonderful things happened too: the monasteries, universities, hospitals etc, the great flowering of all that is best in Western culture. And it can be argued that the faith ushered in these things and also prevented things from being far worse. But a gradual internecine lack of love also took its toll and in the aftermath of the bloodiest century the world has ever known, Europe woke up to a largely faithless landscape.

Next Lewis describes how great is our fall:

Quae dicis de praesenti statu hominum vera sunt: immo deterior est quam dicis. Non enim Christi modo legem Naturae Paganis cognitam negligunt. Nunc enim non erubescunt de adulterio, proditione, perjurio, furto, certisque flagitiis quae non dico Christinaos doctores, sed ipsi pagani et barbari reprobaverunt. Falluntur qui dicunt “Mudus iterum Paganus fit” Utiam fieret! Re vera in statum multo pejorem cadimus. Homo post-Christianus non similis  homini pre-Christiano. Tantum distant ut vidua a virgine….(est) magna differentia intra absentiam sponsi venturi, et sponsa amissi! (Letter 23, March 17, 1953)

What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the Law of Christ, but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery perjury, theft and other crimes, which I will not say Christian doctors, but the Pagans and Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say: “The world is turning pagan again.” Would that it were! The truth is, we are falling into a much worse state. Post-Christian man is not the same as pre-Christian man. He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow….there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse sent away.

Powerful analysis indeed. He makes similar remarks elsewhere about paganism but here it is succinctly stated. The modern European (and I would add American) are in a state below paganism. For at least the pagans had some respect for Natural Law and could see what reality plainly taught. Modern Westerners are blinded even to that.

The pagan world was a virgin waiting for her groom. The modern West is an adulterous divorce’ cynical, angry and “so through” with Jesus. It is hard to know how the secular West will come round. Will she die in her sins, or will the miracle of broken, humbled heart emerge? Pray! Fast!

He reiterates and adds a stunning but biblical insight:

Certe sentio gravissima pericula nobis incumbere. Haec eveniunt quia maxima pars Europa apostasiam fecit de fide Christiana. Hinc status pejor quam illum statum quem habuimus ante fidem receptam. Nemo enim ex Christianismo redit in statum quem habuit ante Christianismum, sed in pejorem: tantum distat inter paganum et apostatam quantum innuptam et adulteram.  Ergo plerique homines nostri temporis amiserunt non modo lumen supernaturale, sed etiam lumen illud naturale quod pagani habuerunt. (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953)

I certainly feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the great apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence, a worse state than the one we were in before we received the faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity, but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress….Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light, but also the natural light which the pagans possessed.

A powerful and stunning reminder that leaving the faith does not simply put them back to the status quo ante. You can never go home. The West is now in a worse state than paganism for the reasons Lewis states.

Jesus made the same warning: When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-25) Yes, having found the house bereft of the Holy Spirit, quite empty of true faith, Satan returns now with seven more demons and that last state is worse than the first.

St. Peter makes the same point: For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first (2 Peter 2:20).

But, calling for Hope, CS Lewis considers a way back:

Sed Deus qui Deus misericordiarum est etiam nunc non omnio demisit genus humanum….Non desperandum. Et haud spernendus numerus (apud nos) iam redeunt in fidem….Equidem credo laborandum esse non modo in evangelizando (hoc certe) sed etiam in quadam praeparatione evangelica. Necesse est multos ad legem naturalem revocare antequam de Deo loquamur. Christus enim promittit remissionem peccatorum: sed quid hoc ad eos qui, quum legem naturalem ignorent, nesciunt se peccavisse. Quis medicamentum accipiet nisi se morbo teneri sciat? Relativismus moralis hostis est quem debemus vincere antequam Atheismum aggrediamur. Fere auserim dicere “Primo faciamus juniores bonos Paganos et postea faciamus Christianos. (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953)

But God who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. We must not despair. And among us are not an inconsiderable number now returning to the faith. For my part, I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also to a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of a disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism. I would almost dare to say, “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.”

To some extent, recent Popes have said the same, we have to begin all over again. But Lewis’ point goes even further since the apostles found a Europe where, at least people were in touch with reality and accepted reality’s testimony as a reliable guide.

Further, the Europe, the West that the apostles encountered had false religion, but at least it accepted that there was a spiritual realm that must be respected as real.

We in the post Cartesian West have retreated out of reality and into our minds. Reality, Natural Law is not a datum, is not a common ground on which to meet. There is no accepted reality, just thought, opinion, views. There is nothing outside ourselves to which we all owe allegiance and  which demands our assent. No, we live, not in reality, but in a world of thoughts and abstractions.

Think I’m exaggerating? Try telling a homosexual that the body isn’t designed for homosexual acts and watch how quickly you get a blank stare or indignant response: “What’ my body got to do with it? Its what I feel that matters.” Yes, apparently our bodies have nothing to say to us and neither does anything else in the real world which we dismiss with our ideologies.

Our task in reintroducing the West to reality, to Natural Law, will not be easy, but CS Lewis thinks we’re going to have start there.

Pretty powerful insights, thought provoking, frank and insightful. I am interested in your thoughts.

44 Replies to “Remarkable and Lesser Known Insights by CS Lewis on the Loss of Faith in the West”

  1. This is interesting and tragic considering ti’s gotten even darker since this brilliant man’s day. I often pray for “Christendom” -meaning the old areas of the Church but after seeing the list of wars am wondering it ever really existed anywhere in this world.

  2. Well, I guess I pass for at least a pagan was my first thought. My second had to do with the loss of the experience of the transcendent. Passing for at least a pagan, I suppose I’d be much happier to at least be living in a superstitious society.

    I look forward to giving these ideas about the great apostasy and natural law much more thought, it’s a lot to chew on and another truly great paradigm shift.

  3. Nowhere is the disconnect from Natural Law more evident than the realm of modern science. In total thrall to logical positivism, most modern scientists stridently reject the idea that there is any higher moral law evidenced in nature. They are preaching this view in universities, in laboratories all across the world, and increasingly, in popular literature aimed at the general public. According to modern scientists, our lives are ultimately purposeless — they are merely a highly improbable cosmic accident. In light of that view, the “moral code” advanced by atheistic scientists could be described as hedonism subject to some restraints (such as, do not commit obvious violence against others in pursuit of your own pleasure because violence obviously disrupts the social order).

    In my debates with scientific atheist family members and colleagues, I have managed to isolate several significant walls they have erected against faith in general, but especially against Catholic faith:

    #1 Things which are not empirically testable may not be treated as though they are universally true. Non-empirical “knowledge” must be treated as personal opinion, limited by each person’s experience of the world. If anyone tries to teach such “opinions” as though they are universal truths, it is done out of a desire to repress and control other people. All such “doctrine” should be labeled “oppressive” and actively resisted.

    #2 The human person is not properly regarded as a spiritual and physical creature. Since we may not empirically test whether a person has a non-material soul, a person cannot be said to have a soul. Humans are simply a highly evolved, highly intelligent, rational ape whose reason evolved slowly over time just like any other trait.

    #3 Since we may not logically prove the existence of a loving God, a loving God cannot be said to definitively exist. If any God exists, this God is merely the “first mover” or “causer” of physical existence, and nothing more. If that God exists, He is not personally knowable or provable through purely rational exercise, so it is not worthwhile to pursue knowledge of that God.

    #4 The God revealed in Scriptures represents a human flight of fancy. This God is no different from other gods in different cultures throughout history — He is a human cultural construct, not a real Divine Being.

    #5 Miracles are not real. The miraculous works ascribed to God were recorded by humans who did not have understanding of the physical world. Their ignorance led them to imagine the hand of an Almighty being who influenced physical phenomena. There is a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation for everything that was observed and recorded in the Scriptures.

    #6 There is no such thing as free will. All human “choices” represent the confluence of genes, environment, and stochasticism (“fate” or “chance”). So, there can be no such thing as culpability for actions; “sin” is not a real concept. Therefore, moral codes which focus on avoidance of sin and personal culpability for actions do not reflect reality. These moral codes are oppressive to man and must be rejected as an outdated concept.

    Reading many Catholic blogs these days, I see several people who are speculating that persecutions are coming soon. I can’t help but wonder where these people have been all this time. Persecution is already here for faithful Catholics who work in scientific fields, and it has been here for awhile. Before, it was mostly confined to arguments carried on in ivory towers. These arguments influenced the culture in insidious ways, such as redefining what it means to “know” that something is “true” and teaching those ideas to students in universities. After a few decades of that, now we have atheist prophets like Richard Dawkins who have taken these ideas down from the towers and declared war in the culture at large. It seems like many Catholics are *only now* starting to realize that a war is going on, as they survey the wreckage in Europe and increasingly, in America as well. It’s well past time for all of us to wake up and heed the call to arms.

    1. Miracles are not real. The miraculous works ascribed to God were recorded by humans who did not have understanding of the physical world. Their ignorance led them to imagine the hand of an Almighty being who influenced physical phenomena. There is a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation for everything that was observed and recorded in the Scriptures.

      I have heard this from many different people. Even if there is some “naturalistic” explanation of it, I always point out the rather supernatural timing. It’s one thing to say someone can walk on water by ice blocks forming; it’s a completely different thing to say someone can call them up at will.

  4. That is precisely the problem today. We did not achieve a good secular society conforming to the natural law, but lawlessness. A magnificent barbarism.

    Even the current problem with Obamacare – The Bishops mostly supported Obamacare, although it is unconstitutional (except under a fuzzy living document view where Religious Liberty – like the Right to Life in Roe and Casey can be dissolved in nonsensical rhetoric), itself violates natural law forcing everyone to buy a commodity from a cartel as a condition of citizenship – though they call Natural Law to the witness stand to combat the HHS mandate, and breaks Subsidiarity, so any social teaching is confused. Lewis above notes we failed to provide christian charity, the Bishops today seem to want to fix this by having the Federal (or national) government nanny state take care of the corporal works of mercy at taxpayer expense. Then they get upset when Nanny turns out to be “Mommy Dearest”.

    I have noticed that the Occupy (Wall Street) at least has the embers of Natural Law still glowing although they are misguided. They know it is wrong (objectively) to steal (in creating the mortgage mess), then be bailed out (socialism for the wealthy), then pay themselves bonuses on top of it. I cannot think of a single Catholic organization that said it was wrong not to take these banks into receivership or at least fire the top management, boards of directors (think Chrysler or GM), and say no bonuses until every dime is paid back with punitive interest. I’ve read Catholics saying the bailouts were a righteous act. No one is going to them to evangelize – to merely say using their “significant other” for lust and recsex is not different than the bankers using people for greed and wealth. Or at least introducing the social teaching. Catholic doctrine is neither liberal nor conservative – it is both-and.

    Natural Law also contains the just war doctrine, but it took the Vatican to point out our conduct of the wars did not meet the test. The Bishops were quiet here too.

    Fixing the translation, having orthodox Bishops and priests is all good, but faith builds upon reason, and the natural law is reason. And until the HHS mandate I cannot think of ever hearing about either Contraception or Natural Law from any pulpit (at least not at something like an NFP conference, or discussion on the Catechism when the relevant section came up).

    But the Bishops are merely quoting about Natural Law – if they understood it they would have come out against Obamacare in almost any proposed form instead of being the Frog to the Scorpion, having gotten promises that the law would take care of the problem with the sick and he would not violate their consciences.

    In the Abolition of Man, CS Lewis noted he would rather play cards with an unbeliever raised to think cheating was ungentlemanly over someone who intellectually thought cheating was wrong but raised among card sharps.

    1. “I’ve read Catholics saying the bailouts were a righteous act.”-tz

      Really? That hasn’t been my experience.

      “I cannot think of a single Catholic organization that said it was wrong not to take these banks into receivership or at least fire the top management, boards of directors (think Chrysler or GM), and say no bonuses until every dime is paid back with punitive interest.”

      I cannot think of a single Catholic organization whose Catholicity gives them a special competence to direct banks. The financial scandals of the Vatican banks come to mind…

      Oh, and neither GM nor Chrysler are banks.

      As for your wish for “punitive interest”, recall please that two wrongs (the first being the government bailout) don’t make a right.

  5. This was a great article, and I had never heard of C.S. Lewis’ Latin Letters. Reading this brings many thoughts. My husband and I have also had similar experiences when speaking with those of a more secular mindset. Forget about talking to them of God; they don’t even accept that there exists such a thing as Natural Law. Do you have any ideas for trying to bring the culture back to understanding Natural Law? We can explain it in every way we want, but, in my experience, people just refuse to accept it. How does one persuade others that Natural Law actually exists?

  6. Yes!
    Let’s recall men not just to the law of nature, but to a detailed, comprehensive understanding of Human Nature! . . .
    Spread the word about my scholastic/Aristotelian philosophy textbook project:

  7. Just thought I’d mention, since it wasn’t mentioned in the post, that Don Giovanni Calabria is actually SAINT Giovanni Calabria! He was canonized in 1999 by Blessed John Paul II. Just thought it was another cool fact about these little known letters–they were correspondences with a Saint!

  8. Unfortunately, Catholics of all stripes have contributed much to our current state of affairs. As noted above, the U.S. Bishops were right on board with Obamacare. Catholics who go on about what they want to do for “the poor” in this country, are quick to get in bed with socialists, demanding the the government provide more welfare, more food stamps, more socialism, etc. Now we have a populace who are completely dependent on the government and, surprise, reject God.

  9. My Evangelical daughter gave me a small paperback of the Latin letters she found in a used book store in Liverpool.

    I then bought the hard bound version you linked above, Father. They are sad commentaries on the state of affairs then and now. Another oldie but goodie is The End of the Modern World, Romano Guardini.

    Valuable commentary on your part as well.

  10. It’s gotten much worse than trying to tell a homosexual the body isn’t made for homosexual acts, try telling parents that their son who says he is a girl is, in fact, a boy. When people can’t look at their own bodies and see their sex, we’ve passed into pure insanity.

  11. I never understood “Politics”.

    Why does not anyone say

    “In the name of God we need to pay taxes, so we can look after the poor”

    “In the name of God we need to pay taxes, so we can look after the sick”
    “In the name of God we need to pay taxes, so we can look after the orphan”
    “In the name of God we need to pay taxes, so we can look after the widow”

    Why does not anyone state this? I have never understood.

    Thus the leftwing, Godless as they are, more often than not do these things, but in the name of Carl Marx.

    While the rightwing, Godfearing as they pretend to be, do none of these things and are opposed to taking care of anyone, either out of sheer greed or because the leftwing is for them.

    Thus there is only one alternative:
    To Hell with the entire constitutions of the world.

    The Church must take over everything.

    Theocracy Now!

    1. In point of fact it is the right wing, i.e. conservatives, that by far contribute more personally, both in time by volunteering, and in personal financial contributions to the poor and needy, than leftists. That this is true was verified by a leftist who set out to write a book in an attempt to prove the reverse but was shocked and surprised when his research indicated that the right was far more generous.

      1. Just a bit more information, and if anyone could help me remember the actual name of the book I would be thankful.

        Americans give far more than anyone else in the world, including any and all european countries. Both overall, and as a percentage of income. They also volunteer more of their time than anyone else.
        In America believers contribute far more than unbelievers. Republicans far more than Democrats (even the Democrat author of the book was surprised and disappointed when he discovered this). Conservatives give more than liberals, and also volunteer more.

        Christ will ask “When did you feed me, or give me something to drink?” and not “When did you vote to raise your neighbors taxes so that government could keep growing ever larger in order to create a huge inefficient impersonal bureaucratic agency to give me food, while at the same time using other of that tax revenue to terminate the lives of millions of unborn children every year?”

        As a side note, I often find that many, but not all, who advocate for more taxation almost always mean someone else’s taxes under some guise of “tax-fairness”. But that much maligned “1%” pay about 40% of all personal income taxes, the top 5% actually pay about 60% of all personal income taxes, and top 10% pay just about 70% of all personal income taxes.

        As for your idea of “Theocracy now. ” I would caution that the Church rather has it’s hand full just trying to straighten out many of the messes she has made for herself. I can’t possibly see how putting more on her plate right now would in any way improve things.

        1. You may be thinking of Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide—Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks. An interview with the author is available here and a John Stossel ABC 20/20 video, “Cheap in America – Who Gives and Who Doesn’t?”, that includes a few remarks by Professor Brooks here.

    2. “Why does not anyone say…”

      Why, because Jesus Christ does not say to render the poor unto Caesar.

      1. OK, so you take care of them. How do we get there is the question. It’s easy to pull the govt plug if you’re not poor. What is your plan for greater subsidiarity. How do we get there?

    3. Gabriel, just a note from one of your Lutheran neighbors. No where in the Gospels or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter, does Jesus say to us, “Vote for politicians who will tax (take from) your neighbors to support the poor.” Rather, each and every one of his direct quotes is directed at YOU, personally, in the singular, admonishing you to help the poor. No matter how wealthy or poor you may be, there is always someone worse off than yourself. Remember the example of the widow’s mite. Rather than criticize others for not wanting to be taxed for inefficient government and poor allocation of resources, go out and help the poor.

  12. The most intriguing line to me was the last: “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.” Paganism has made a comeback of sorts in the past 10 years or so, and I have found those that self-consciously refer to themselves as pagans to be generally reasonable people, with a prejudice against Christianity which is not intransigent nor insurmountable. Catholics have a lot of common ground with pagans, and I would argue that sincere Protestants, most of which are in the evangelical camp, do not share most of that common ground [good Anglicans like C.S. Lewis of course do also share that ground].

    Once again by his comments C.S. Lewis proves himself to me to have been a man of great foresight and wisdom. I think we would do well to follow his advice and consider how we may make pagans into good pagans, as a preparation for completing their paganism with Christ and His Catholic church. I suppose stressing our commonalities in relation to the natural law and showing how our Faith completes the natural law and perfects it, and living our lives in a way that takes the natural law seriously, are some things we should be mindful to do.

  13. Very prescient. Lewis was a remarkable man, undoubtedly touched by God. And I agree, that the Church in the last 50 years has greatly, enormously, hugely contributed to the sorry state of cultural affairs.
    And now we have a Socialist Emperor who wants not only to remain as president but to be king of the world!

    We need to seriously pray and fast! It will take a miracle.

    1. Alice,

      It’s LORD of the world. Go read Robert Hugh Benson’s novel by that title (1907).

  14. Msgr.,

    First, thank you for raising our awareness of these letters. Second, in the discussions of the virtues that can be found in paganism, I think it is important to refer back to GK Chesterton’s discussion of paganism in The Everlasting Man. He makes the point that the very best form of paganism, as represented by Rome, vanquished the most diabolical form of paganism, which was found in Carthage (and prominently featured child sacrifice). I would argue that the world is returning to a Carthaginian form of paganism where humans, particularly children, are sacrificed before the false idols of the modern era.

    1. The worshippers of Baal were sacrificing to a demon, but at least they know they were dealing with a person. Modern secularists think that they are the only persons, they and their friends, who are free to disregard anyone who they choose not to think of as a person.

  15. I am reminded of a statement by a fellow prisoner of Solzhenitsyn’s in the Gulag: “men have forgotten God, that is why this is happening”. It will be our turn soon enough.

  16. Many of the comments above are as frightening as C.S. Lewis’s observations. The history of mankind is of biblical proportion and God will prevail over the onslaught of humanity. I once questioned your use of the old testament over the new but unless God chooses to bring the end of times, I sense we’re in store for a repeat of more epic natural and civil upheavals which will strike down the pride and predjudice of relativism. It will be deja vu all over again. Apocalyptic events will separte the wheat from the chaff. Through it all the Church teachings will save those who will listen and hold fast to faith in it’s teachings and the successors of the apostles during the weeping and gnashing of teeth. God save us from ourselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen!

  17. I hold with Gabriel’s view. I think this is the only way left to restore sanity to a world long gone mad. The living of our lives under God’s (legislated) law. God’s law as expressed and interpreted by the institution set up by Christ Himself – The Catholic Church.

  18. I agree with Sara from Washington’s very helpful list (above at around 11:30 am).

    I find it very strange how much hostility there is to the idea that people have free will. Just yesterday I was reading an article challenging the idea that brain research had demonstrated that we lack free will – that in fact looking at a functional MRI was not sufficient proof that we have no soul. The comments to the post were unbelievable. People passionately arguing that all of human experience can be accounted for by chemical and physical mechanisms, and denouncing and insulting the author of the article for suggesting otherwise.

    How could chemical and physical reactions account for such passion? Why would mere bags of chemicals walking around care so much about whether someone believes they have free will? I honestly cannot fathom how such people go about living their lives with such views.

  19. Msgr. Pope,

    You use the phrase “Cartesian West” in this article, and I’ve seen you use variations of that phrase in the past. I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean by that. Could you explain that to me?

    1. Rene Descartes was a Philosopher who lived in the first half of the 17th Century and so influenced the thinking in the Western world that we can, broadly distinguish the pre-Cartesian world from the post-Cartesian one (Cartesian a word derived from his name, Descartes). In effect he articulated a doubt so radical that he could be “certain” of the existence of nothing outside his mind. This need for absolute certainty is, in fact better called skepticism. Skepticism refers to an attitude that clings to doubt in the face of reasonable evidence for something. That the world outside and around my mind exists is a claim wherein there is ample evidence. To insist I cannot actually know or be reasonably sure of this is skepticism. TO his credit, Descartes tried to find a way out of his self-enclosed world, but his attempts were largely unhelpful. Philosophers who came after him continued the trend of his thinking which has had the effect of turning man in on himself. In the modern “Cartesian” age we have large retreated from the real world into our minds. Most moderns conclude that the world and the reality around us has little to say to us in any objective sense. All that seems to matter to most moderns is what we think. And this is an echo of Descartes classic phrase “I think, therefore I am.” Thus there are often things said such as “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Or “That’s true fro you but not for me.” If there is objective reality to which we owe allegiance, then statements like that are silly. But most people deny today that there is an objective truth to be found and obeyed. Everything is just opinion, and relative opinion at that. And this is what it means to be living in the “Cartesian West.” To be fair other modern philosophers have also had their largely negative impact on the modern world (eg Lock, Hume, Hegel et al.) but Descartes is a real dividing line.

      1. Monsignor, how do you explain liberals who insist on scientific truths? How do you explain atheists who plead for human dignity?

        1. Not sure I understand your question, but given your history of comments on this blog and I think I am on good ground in concluding it is more rhetorical than a real question. Hence I will answer rhetorically by observing that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Also I might refer you to an article that I wrote sometime back on Cartesian Anxiety as an explanation for the divinizing of the physical sciences by “liberals” or as I prefer to say, secularists:
          See especially point 4 in that article

  20. I agree that the new evangelization will require catechists to start from scratch before broaching the subject of Christian doctrine.

    Lewis made this point fifty years ago, but even now I’ve noticed signs that it may not be too late. My generation x and y peers have become increasingly vocal about the economic and social crises so prevalent in contemporary society. They often complain about poverty, rampant crime, and the general lack of civility. Most of them seem dimly aware that something is deeply wrong but can’t or won’t grasp the root cause.

    In such conversations I often try to illustrate how moral relativism has destroyed the fundamental understandings upon which society used to be based, thus rendering it dysfunctional. Most of my friends readily follow this line of reasoning to a point, but they balk at the prospect of having to give up cohabitation, contraception, or various deeply-ingrained heretical political philosophies.

    Dr. Peter Kreeft has urged believers to remember that the true enemies are satan and sin. Lewis’ call for repentance clearly shows that he understood this fact. Study after study shows that most moderns are miserably unhappy with their lives. They are ready for a better way but fear to part with the heresies of modernism.

    Pray and fast. Learn your own Catholic tradition; then educate others. The Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church are readily available and myriad free teaching tools are available online (see New Advent and the Vatican web site). I’ve had great catechetical success starting with classical metaphysics by the likes of Aristotle and Aquinas, then gradually building to Catholic teaching. Our contemporary sub-pagans can be salvaged, but it takes a lot of time, effort, and patience.

  21. How do we evangelize? I have been speaking the truth with the innocence of a child and the reaction from some most people has been horrible. Almost like there is a deflection of the truth with all the persons might. But I think it has an effect of allowing the person to find his sins his failings which have been covered up and protected by that wall Augustine teaches us about. You have to really know and then proclaim the truth. And be martyred along the way again and again. At lease that is what is happening around me. What do you think father?

  22. Hi again Father,

    I see you talk about natural law quite a bit, but it seems to me you mostly simply assert that it exists, as if anything could be less obvious. Again, it’s not obvious to me for several reasons:

    i. In the first place is Hume’s fork. I’m sure you know it, but can you explain how it is that we’re supposed to move from the fact that something ‘is’ to the normative imperative that something ‘ought’ to be.

    You might reply with the work of someone like Alisdair MacIntyre that if we recover the lost ancient and Scholastic notion of final causation, that we can make sense of the move from is to ought. Fair enough. But try proving to the scientifically minded that final causation is a thing. It might be pretty obvious that the main purpose of a knife is to cut things, but it also makes a decent toothpick. And, while we might be able to ascribe teleology to artifacts, it is certainly not obvious that nature herself has any inherent purpose to her. What is the end of an asteroid in the Oort cloud? Do we need anything other than rudimentary physical ‘laws’ (which it seems don’t even hold everywhere and always, so calling them laws is probably unclear) to explain its movements? It doesn’t seem so.

    ii. In the second place is a preoccupation I see around homosexual acts and orientation. I know that some of the religiously bent are loathe to accept it (they were loathe to accept Darwin too), but homosexuality has sound basis in biology. It has been empirically verified in numerous, repeated, ways. So it seems rather cruel of our omnipotent loving Creator to design people with a particular attraction, and then forbid them to consummate it. Maybe it’s like creating man with foreskin and commanding him to cut it off? Or like unconditional love, with conditions? Or creating people for damnation? Too much of a Mystery for me. This is obviously not authoritative, but it links the relevant studies if you’re interested:

    iii. Natural Law rejects the diversity and pluralism we find everywhere in nature. In fact, there have been over 1500 observed species engaging in homosexual behavior. If I were a natural law theorist, I would conclude from this that homosexuality is perfectly natural. But I’m not. And so I can conclude that conscious beings do and use things in myriad different ways and creative purposes.

    1. As to 1: Final causality is not the essential focus of Natural Law. Rather formal, efficient and instrumental causality are more its focus. While some degree of final causality may be had in a causative natural chain, there will, as you point out be aspects of the final causality that point outside the system, and this shows the limits of all natural science.

      As to 2: The preoccupation with homosexuality is of the world. Frankly the topic is tedious and most unpleasant and it is the insistence of homosexual activists that the matter be constantly and incessantly discussed for they insist on approval and demand public changes. That said, St. Paul in the letter to the Romans (1:17ff) does point to the acceptance of homosexuality among the Greeks as clear sign that they are not in touch with reality. He calls homosexual activity “paraphysin” (contrary to nature) and indicates that they only way the Greeks can conclude as they do that it is fine is because they have suppressed the truth and therefore their senseless minds have been darkened. There is no biological basis for homosexuality. Any quick look at the human body will show it is incorrect. Simply put, the plumbing doesn’t fit. God does not design anyone this way. That some are born this way (as some theories say) is not different that if someone is born missing an arm. It is an anomaly rooted in a fractured world, imperfect since Adam and Eve rejected paradise. Bad things happen in this word, saying that God designs bad or anomalous things does not regard the fuller explanation, namely that God permits does not equate with him designing this way. Your reference to circucision is gratuitous and not require of a Christian. Go ask a Jew or Muslim that one.

      As to 3: It does not, but even among the diversity you praise there are distinctions. A two headed pig (as sometimes happens) is not diversity, it is an anomaly. Diversity can be recognized but not in such a way as the nature of a thing is cast aside. In your description “nature” really disappears altogether, and we just live in our minds.

      1. Regarding the physical anomalies, such as acephalic child, and other physical evils, can we not somewhat fit the devil in this, as an actor in creation?

      2. i. Okay, I concede the point. I still don’t know how this is going to persuade someone who only believes in efficient and or material causation? The argument needs to take place prior to these concerns I suppose.

        ii. That’s an interesting suggestion that homosexuality is akin to a deformity/handicap/disability, and a result of the Fall. I will consider that (though I don’t think that will win you many homosexual friends!). I don’t think you can dismiss the circumcision thing so easily though? You don’t doubt that God actually did command the removal of foreskin as a sign of Covenant?

        iii. hm. I’m also quick to blame Descartes for creating numerous traditions of error, but I’m not sure he’s really relevant here, or that it makes sense to say that we have simply retreated to mental subjectivity in our investigations of nature? We have come to know quite a bit about nature, the fact that this comment box exists proves it, without any reference to formal or final causation, or natural law. The positive claim I made about diversity is stupid. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Mea Culpa.

        But nature doesn’t disappear altogether. I understand very well that I can’t fly, and why! I agree that for the agnostic/atheist it is very difficult to say what a (meta)physical fact actually is, or how that would work, but people like Parfit and Quine have presented some pretty decent accounts, I think. We probably can’t draw out any ‘oughts’ (though Parfit thinks a secular ethics/morality is possible, you and I, I’m sure, think this is utterly absurd), but we can do a great deal in saying what nature is. This is hardly a Cartesian retreat to subjectivity?

        You also didn’t say anything about the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Not that you owe me anything, but it would be nice.

  23. Catholic authors could write children’s literature delivering lessons of natural law in secular terms.

    Why has the church turned scientific ethics over to moral realitivists in the Universities and hospitals? Caring for the poor is much deeper than feeding and housing them. It is loving them, educating them, and making them independent so they can help bring along others. Catholics must not turn to socialism for this duty to care for the poor. It if was not clear before, it is more clear now with the first struggles with our government’s take over of health care. It will erase natural law and Christianity from the care of the sick and dying in America.

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