By Daniel J. Mahoney
This essay is part of a symposium on the thought of French political thinker Chantal Delsol in light of her latest book, La fin de la Chrétienté or The End of the Christian World.
With La Fin de la Chrétienté: L’inversion normative et la nouvel âge (perhaps best translated as The End of the Christian World: The Normative Inversion and The New Age), the French political philosopher Chantal Delsol has written a book to provoke. For her friends and admirers, and I count myself unequivocally among them, the book also comes as something of a surprise. For the past three decades or more, Delsol has been among the most incisive critics of what she calls “late modernity.” This radicalized form of modernity, ascendant in the West since the 1960s but with deep roots in currents of thought long predating it, has emphasized human autonomy in contrast to freedom informed by moral conscience and responsibility. As importantly, it has taken aim at the dialectical interpenetration of truth and liberty which defines free and dignified human lives and free political communities worthy of the name.
Delsol’s previous works—books like Icarus Fallen come to mind, have been ‘postmodern’ in the best sense of the term, refusing nostalgia for allegedly harmonious and spiritually elevated societies in the past, while demonstrating with grace and precision how the totalitarian negation of the human person in the twentieth century revealed the self-enslavement that is coextensive with the identification of freedom with willful self-assertion, and inhuman efforts at self-deification. Unusually sensitive to the hard-earned wisdom generated by the totalitarian projects that brutalized the peoples of east-central Europe, Delsol has carefully crafted a humanizing middle path between reactionary nostalgia, and the progressivist project to sever liberty from authority and moral responsibility. To attempt to remake everything anew is to war on human dignity and to undermine what is enduring in the human condition. To her great credit, Delsol is an anti-totalitarian thinker of the first order.
With The End of the Christian World, Delsol has embarked on a new and more problematic path. In this brief but lively work, she identifies a now moribund Christendom with Catholicism as a “holistic religion,” hopelessly tied to ideas of authority and hierarchy incompatible with “Individualism and individual freedom.” Delsol readily acknowledges that Christianity, and Catholic Christianity as its oldest and most authoritative expression, has made continual efforts to come to terms with the most noble—and most restrained—currents of modernity. But in this work, she identifies the public witness of Catholicism rather unilaterally with the reactionary anti-modernism of the nineteenth century Spanish reactionary Juan Donoso Cortés, or with the emphatic anti-modernism of Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), with its single-minded identification of liberalism with naturalism (atheism), socialism, and then communism, that is, with the most consistent, perverse, and unalloyed expressions of the modernist rejection of God. In important respects, she has stacked the decks by associating Christian political reflection with its most imprudent expressions or its silliest ones (an uncritical genuflection before influential currents of modern ecology that are hard to distinguish from the worship of Mother Earth).
In Delsol’s book, there is thus much talk of the Syllabus, and of corporatist/fascist, Christian, and authoritarian regimes and movements of the 1930s that revolted against the ‘moral anarchy’ of liberal individualism and totalitarian collectivism. But surprisingly, Delsol has little or nothing to say about those constructive currents of renewed or modernized classical and Christian wisdom (including her own not too long ago) that attempted to moderate liberal modernity by reminding its denizens of old truths that endure even under conditions of modernity. Because she is too quick to identify Catholic Christianity with a closed, “holistic,’ and coercive approach to human life, she exaggerates its incompatibility with a social and political order that values individual freedom and moral choice. As a result, Delsol is visibly impatient with Catholics, among others, who resist the endless self-radicalization of modernity, rather than accommodating it, while privately or discreetly demonstrating the possibility of a different way of exercising human freedom and responsibility. She comes close to suggesting that to adamantly reject abortion or same-sex marriage, to insist on a normative Christian understanding of human freedom and virtue in the public realm, is to perversely insist on mores and restraints that are now completely foreign to modern democratic societies. Resignation, not moral resistance, is the path of Christian wisdom in light of the moral inversion that constitutes the contemporary world. But is Delsol right that what Pierre Manent calls “the Christian mark” of Europe is completely devoid of life today? Does she not understate its real if somewhat subterranean presence in a Europe that has largely lost sense of its purpose? One wonders if this is the right time for the Christian proposition to lose both its voice and its public presence.
Delsol is not a partisan of this reversion or normative inversion, as she calls it. But she is, in my estimation, excessively sanguine about its long-term effects on society and the soul. For her, the end of the morality and civilization associated with Christendom (which has been in decline since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, as she points out) is by no means the end of morality and civilization. That is true but not determinative. Delsol understates the element of negation and repudiation that accompanies the new morality, its punitive response toward any assertion of a Good Life that is worthy of man as man. Her phenomenological description of the great reversal, though, is sketched with unerring accuracy and with something of a painter’s touch: “moral hierarchies have been literally reversed” as “abortion, previously criminalized, is being legitimized and recognized”, divorce now encounters “no obstacles,” and suicide is tolerated as a somewhat regrettable but legitimate moral choice. Homosexuality, once viewed as a diminishing moral transgression, “is not only legitimized but praised.” Colonialism, or any ‘othering of the Other,’ is the gravest of social sins and fills the void left by the evacuation of the old gods. The postmodern West is certain of one thing: its irredeemable moral culpability. It veers back and forth between smug self-satisfaction and pathological self-loathing.
Delsol sees this “normative inversion” as more or less a reversion to pre-Christian paganism and wisdom traditions, some-part pre-Christian classicism, with elements of pantheism and “cosmotheism” coming from the East, Nietzsche’s “new Buddhism” and religion of suffering mixed with residues of the old Christian dispensation. The Romans, Delsol points out, permitted abortion and euthanasia and tolerated divorce. So do we in our postmodern complacency. But what of “the truth about man” as great Christian minds and witnesses such as Blaise Pascal and Charles Péguy put it (in the same vein Pope Paul VI told the United Nations in 1965 that the Christian Church was an “expert in humanity”)? In one of the earliest extant Christian documents outside of canonical Scripture, the decidedly non-heretical Didache or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (written circa 70-90 A.D.), the early Christian Church forbade Christian burial for those who procured or practiced abortion or who committed sodomy, especially with children. Does such “traditional morality” better cohere with the nature and needs of human beings, with deference to the moral law, or is ‘our’ self-satisfied mix of antinomianism and contempt for the moral law a movement in the direction of moral progress and human happiness? All of Delsol’s talk of fated historical dispensations does not begin to answer this unavoidable question.
When contemporary Christians turn to ‘right reason’ and natural law to address such matters of public import in our secular and pluralistic societies, Delsol scoffs at these belated efforts: “Our societies do not care about natural law, and tend to believe that this sort of thing does not exist, that we are inventors of nature.” Delsol is not wrong to suggest that everywhere the “old principles are retreating” and that “countries that resist total liberalization are singled out by others” (think of the endless opprobrium directed towards Poland and Hungary for defending a modest place for Christian morality and the natural law in their conceptions of the moral foundations of democratic life). But Delsol’s implicit appeals to sociological realities will not do. The question of truth is even more fundamental than the question of the loudest voices, and the dominant attitudes, in late modern societies. And do we not have an obligation to shape souls by exercising the arts of persuasion?
Delsol is right when she suggests that pantheism and various forms of occult ‘wisdom’ persisted half underground in “Western societies shaped by monotheism.” Ours was never a truly “holistic” or closed society. Why shouldn’t the truth of monotheism persist in societies that have given way to some dehumanizing mix of pantheism, moral negation, willful self-assertion, and a “polytheism,” as Max Weber called it, that refuses to bow before authoritative truth? Why is Delsol so confident that the new paganism, the new morality, has nothing to do with atheism, nihilism, or negation more broadly? Like many commentators today, she fails to appreciate, at least in this book, that the moralistic fanaticism or frenzy all about us is less proof of the persistence of moral judgment than of our loss of confidence in the ability of practical reason or judgment to discern what Aristotle called “the advantageous and the just.” Moral nihilism and fanatical moralism are two sides of the same (debilitating) coin, not polar opposites. Nihilism takes many varied and complementary forms.
None of this is meant to suggest that Chantal Delsol is in any way a cheerleader for our new moral/political dispensation. When writing about the reduction of morality, Christian or otherwise, to a soft and bloodless humanitarianism, Delsol makes eminently clear the moral and civic impoverishment that comes with identifying evil with “capitalism, nationalism, and individualism” and confusing the good with “pacifism, collectivism, socialism, and internationalism.” Delsol’s book contains illuminating passages defending authentic humanism against its descent into flaccid and flabby humanitarianism, where an inchoate sense of the requirements of global humanity takes the place of the arduous demands of true moral and political judgment. She affirms a recognizable version of the natural law (tied to circumscribed moral judgement rooted in particular choices and particular circumstances), while suggesting, wrongly in my view, that Thomas Aquinas grounded natural law and practical judgment in dogma, or at least excessively so. At times (and this is a fault of her book), Delsol is ungenerous to the advocates of Christian wisdom and the old morality, making them more dogmatic, coercive, and authoritarian than they really were and are.
Delsol thoughtfully draws on Tocqueville and Nietzsche to describe the tyranny of the soft, tepid, and facile pantheism that threatens the moral integrity of the late modern age. But she is content to largely leave things at the level of description. This, too, she suggests, is a moral order, a tolerable if by no means an ideal one. But compare that qualified fatalism with the virile spirit of Tocqueville who in volume two of Democracy in America called on all true friends of liberty and human greatness to “join forces and struggle against” a pantheistic spirit that risked abolishing the metaphysical and moral distinctions on which human dignity ultimately rests.
My friend Chantal Delsol is undoubtedly right that our new situation calls for a carefully calibrated prudence in addressing the seeming hegemony of a post-Christian ethos that levels everything before it. This is not the time to succumb to integralist or reactionary fantasies à la Donoso Cortés, if there ever was a time to do so. But it is also a mistake to confuse such demanding prudence with quiescence, fatalism, or passivity. Too much is at stake to follow a path that can be readily confused with defeatism or acquiescence to that which diminishes the human spirit. But knowing Chantal Delsol as I do, she is anything but defeatist and acquiescent.
Daniel J. Mahoney is professor emeritus at Assumption University, Senior Writer at Law and Liberty, and Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He has written extensively on French political and philosophical thought, religion and politics, conservatism and liberalism, and the art and political thought of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His latest book is The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, which has recently been published by Encounter Books.
A version of this essay was originally presented at a conference on the themes of Chantal Delsol’s latest book hosted by the Abigail Adams Institute, First Things, and the Zephyr Institute.
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