Last month David Mills offered a two-prong suggestion to Ethika Politika’s (primarily Catholic) readers, arguing that most people don’t know as much as they think they do: (1) Study and submit to the Catholic tradition, particularly the magisterium, in an open and non-selective manner; and (2) Read more texts that challenge, perhaps even unsettle, previously held convictions, particularly political.
What is to be done with works that challenge faith and morals? While there are some souls equipped by nature and circumstance to examine, digest, and ultimately refute such texts, a good many persons are not. The health of a just society depends in no small part on this distinction—a distinction which, admittedly, upsets many commonplace liberal assumptions.
Starting at the social level first, let it be recalled that the practice of prohibiting harmful literature for the sake of the common good is neither an innovation nor a relic from the distant past. In an appendix to his seminal Theologia Moralis, St. Alphonus Liguori recalled that even the ancient pagans burned books that threatened the social order with the Romans going so far as to enshrine the practice into law. Just over a century ago, in his 1897 Apostolic Constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, Pope Leo XIII wrote the following on the censorship of books:
Most perilous of all is the uncurbed freedom of writing and publishing noxious literature. Nothing can be conceived more pernicious, more apt to defile souls, through its contempt of religion, and its manifold allurements to sin. ... The decline and ruin of states common owes its origin and its progress to bad books. ... Worst of all of all, the civil laws not only connive at this serious evil, but allow it the widest license.
Considering the gravity of the matter it comes as some surprise that that the Catholic Church, by an imprudent act of Pope Paul VI, abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum—the Church’s official registry of banned books—in 1966. Although it is doubtful that any state paid the Index much mind by the time the final edition was published in 1948, its moral force remained intact. Simply because Catholics had grown accustomed to imbibing the false tenets of liberalism by that point in history does not mean they were, or even still are, exempt from Divine Law when it comes to filling their minds with malignant ideas and salacious stories which place their immortal souls at risk.
The adverse social effects of literary license—which includes film, television, and digital media as well—are manifold. Books that directly challenge the Christian Faith, and yet rest on thin scholarly credibility, are routinely published for a quick buck, leading curious souls astray while remaining unanswerable to any higher authority. It is simply not possible for the Church, acting in concert with her erudite faithful, to refute every false proposition that makes its way into the congested “marketplace of ideas.” Granted, rank idiocy has always been in greater supply than learned disputation, but never before in history have so many people had such unbridled access to the former.
A culture of contempt
What emerges from this unfortunate state of affairs is a culture of contempt for both the Church and traditional morality. It is now widely assumed rather than proven that the Scriptures are comprised of pious legends; natural law and teleology are untenable in the light of modern science; and that capitalism, liberalism, and democracy are the highest civilizational achievements in the history of mankind. What for ages had been, for the good of society and souls, prohibited is now permitted, and all under the guise of “enlightenment.”
Not every individual is capable of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to disagreeable works, particularly when such works demand a great deal of intellectual sophistication. A well-meaning soul cognizant of the social principles set forth in magisterial statements such as Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, but with no formal training in economics, can be led astray by propagandist works from a certain marginalized school of free-market thought, particularly when those works are hybridized with ostensibly Christian thinking. In fact, there is an entire institute dedicated to that project.
None of this is to say that there is no room for reasonable disagreement among faithful Catholics concerning not only socio-economic matters, but headier theological affairs as well. For over half-a-century Thomists and thinkers associated with the nouvelle théologie have engaged in a vigorous (albeit at times unedifying) debate over the doctrine of natura pura (“pure nature”) in Aquinas and his Scholastic interpreters. And with respect to the Church’s social magisterium, there is ample room for discussion on how its principles ought to be operationalized.
When it comes to Catholics—or faithful Christians in general—engaging works produced by secular thinkers, greater caution is required. Only an individual who, following the first part of Mills’s aforementioned advice, is truly steeped in the Catholic tradition and the Church’s magisterium should venture into foreign lands in pursuit of alien wisdom, and then only sparingly. The ultimate goal of any critical engagement with non-Catholic thought should be to uncover a common grammar which can be used to explain, defend, and promote the Catholic Faith. And if that non-Catholic thought is aimed directly at undermining faith and morals, then every reasonable effort should be made to limit its exposure.
Such suggestions are no doubt anathema to contemporary liberal ideology, but so be it. Protecting souls, and by extension society, from error has nothing to do with “close-mindedness,” “intolerance,” or “ignorance.” As the old, but not forgotten, saying goes, “Error has no rights.” While it would be wonderful if academics, authors, and journalists were humbly open to charitable correction from Holy Mother Church when their works fell victim to the usual weaknesses of the will or understanding, we are a long ways away from that reality returning.
Meanwhile, Catholics must be vigilant to protect themselves and those whose care they are charged with from the rivers of falsity which flow daily from every media outlet under the sun. Before cracking open a book or downloading an article written outside of, and likely against, the Catholic tradition, faithful sons and daughters of the Church need to know their limits and perhaps, in humility, set aside anything and everything that risks what is most important in this life, namely their Salvation.
Gabriel S. Sanchez taught at DePaul University College of Law from 2007 to 2012 and now works as an attorney and independent researcher, publishing primarily in the area of trade and economic regulation. His latest scholarly work, a treatise on aviation law, is published by Cambridge University Press. He writes the Opus Publicum weblog.
For further reading:
St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Treatise on the Just Prohibition and Destruction of Dangerous Books
Pope Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos (paragraphs 14 to 16)
Pope Leo XIII’s Officiorum ac Munerum
David Mills’ Speaking Truth