The One Thing Needful: Is European Cultural Reform Pointless?

R.J. Snell looks at our ominous future through the eyes of Father Julián Carrón, who sees cultural reform as pointless except in encounter with the risen Lord. 

The literary critic George Steiner describes our civilizational ennui as entailing “manifold processes of frustration, of cumulative désoeuvrement,” the lack of anything worthwhile to do. It’s an odd description for our busy era, full of technical advances, an anxious drive to improve our lot, and a sense of unceasing and ever more rapid change. Still, what’s the point? Where is it all going?

He continues by noting “energies eroded to routine as entropy increases . . . the drowsy nausea . . . exasperated, vague waiting – but for what?” With an air of sadness, he claims that “the old vocabulary is exhausted, that the forms of classic culture cannot be rebuilt on any general scale.”

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger made a similar observation in Without Roots: “Is European culture perhaps nothing more than the technology and trade civilization that has marched triumphantly across the planet…? At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life . . . infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.”

It’s pale consolation knowing that I am hardly alone in sensing an end point, a tired staleness. The old vocabulary is exhausted while the great convictions of the Enlightenment wind down, enervated, spent, having consumed themselves in excess, contradiction, and failed attempts to pursue life while ignoring the Author of life.

But shared judgments bring small comfort; I find much more hopefulness in the new book, Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom, by Julián Carrón, president of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation.

According to Carrón, the dearest values of Europe have largely reversed themselves, contributing not to the promised flourishing, but risking “the utter annihilation of man.” The ideology of freedom becomes a dogmatism fundamentally hostile to genuine liberty as reason narrows and deforms itself into sclerotic rationalism or nihilistic will to power. The authentic freedom of living in the truth is almost indiscernible in the corridors of the academy, the halls of power, and the public square.

And, sometimes, the Church seems tired, too. For instance, as I write, the homepage of L’Osservatore Romano shares vital news of the new logos for Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar, we are reminded that “dialogue is the key word,” and informed that the missionary mandate to bring others into the Church is “in need of a fresh theological justification” since the World Council of Churches suggests we do not offend or violate the “religious sensibilities” of others.

Fr. Julián Carrón

While somewhat random, these headlines read like a laying down of arms, a surrender. We rush to accommodate, to assimilate, to be on the right side of history at the very moment that the West increasingly acknowledges a failure of identity and crisis of meaning. Just as liberal post-modernity pleads for help, the Church seems hell-bent to open her doors and windows to its stale, fetid breeze. Many voices announce The Strange Death of Europe, or The End of Europe, or The Retreat of Western Liberalism while the Church . . . well, the Church seems to slumber.

What are we doing?

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Snell’s column . . .

R.J. Snell

R.J. Snell

R.J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. His most book is The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode and Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.

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