July 2019 Print

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

by John Rao, PhD

Our world is all too profoundly shaped by the anti-theological, anti-logical, and ultimately therefore totally willful philosophical school of Nominalism that was one of the chief pillars of Martin Luther’s religious revolution. Operating with this truly arbitrary and erratic intellectual vision, modern men find it very hard to accept clear rational judgments regarding all of the consequences that must necessarily flow from Luther’s radical assault on both the Mystical Body of Christ as well as the natural order that she works to cleanse and perfect. This unwillingness is not very surprising, because such consequences are so horrendous for social order in general that Protestants quickly hunted for expedients to flee from them, with Luther himself at the head of the pack historically.

But want it or not, there is no possible escape from the physical and psychological conflagration to which one of its elements, Luther’s doctrine of the “freedom of the Christian man,” exposes not just the Mystical Body but each and every visible, substantive, authoritative social “body” as well, including the most fundamental “corporation” of them all: the family, the domestic Church. This deadly understanding of “freedom,” which first stoked its fires under the always vulnerable earthly frame of Holy Mother Church, sets the family and every other social corporation ablaze in exactly the same way that it torches the mystical model serving all of them as their common, supreme guide. It does so in three ways, one of them straightforward in its violence, the other two indirect in character but even more effective in the long run. Let us examine each of these three weapons of familial and general social annihilation in turn.

A Positive Understanding of Liberty

Orthodox Catholicism has a positive understanding of liberty that defines the free man as one who knows and carries out the demands of the truth about his very being in all of its fullness. This truth mandates the carrying out of substantive personal and communal duties requiring the assistance of a rich network of authoritative natural social institutions, all of them guided by the teaching and grace of the Church. Truth’s duty-filled demands are seen to be a “yoke” at first glance only, since they actually liberate the human person by clarifying, activating, and giving practical effect to all of his otherwise incompletely understood and clumsily or improperly used talents. It is a “yoke” that allows him honestly to “fulfill his potential” in a way that modernity boasts of achieving while actually achieving the opposite result: crippling him in time and for eternity.

Luther’s philosophically Nominalist vision of liberty, is, in contrast, ultimately empty of positive meaning. Chained firmly to his fixation upon the total depravity of mankind after Original Sin, it “frees” the human person only in the negative sense of cutting him loose from all responsibilities. These are reduced to pointlessness by stripping the individual’s carrying out of duties to himself and to his fellow creatures of any and all realization of “the good,” personal or communal, possessing significance for the Christian ascent of Mount Carmel and eternal transformation in Christ. In the Lutheran universe, totally depraved men and women stand on one side of an Iron Curtain, with goodness, holiness, and their eternal destiny on the other. They are “free” to engage as individual agents in nothing other than a war of all against all in what amounts to a wicked, savage, jungle environment. Their only salvation lies in the hope that, regardless of their inability to please Him by actions that will always be evil no matter how “good” they superficially may seem to be, an angry God will choose to allow them to enter a heaven where their eternally enduring depravity will arbitrarily be ignored.

In a thorough-going Protestant world, neither the familial “domestic Church,” nor any other natural authoritative corporation guided by a Body of Christ condemned as a fraudulent usurper of the rights of God, can aid the human person to liberate himself in a truly Christian sense, How could they? Man’s totally depraved nature prevents this from taking place. Far from being helped by the family and other corporate entities to achieve the impossible goal of pleasing the Creator God, the hopeless sinner’s natural awe of their venerable history and authorities can only delay his decision to hand himself over, through faith, entirely into the hands of the arbitrary Deity. His “freedom” demands that the firestorm devouring Holy Church mercilessly whirl through their depraved edifices as well.

An Unanticipated Destruction

Logically-minded radicals understood the need for this all-encompassing firestorm immediately, but a shocked Martin Luther, actually quite conservative in his instincts, had not anticipated the full destructive import of his depravity-based doctrine of “freedom.” He could not tolerate the idea that the elimination of the visible Church be allowed to drag along with it the annihilation of the whole of the authoritative social order. After all, one could see from Scriptures that the all-powerful Deity had willed the existence of societies and the authorities—like the family and parents—ruling over them, and God’s will was law. Men had to be forced to understand that while their submission to the law of God did not put them on the path to salvation and could never make them “good,” His law must nevertheless still fully be obeyed, schizophrenic as such a separation of daily behavior and final eternal outcome might seem. Other Protestants, frightened by the endless divisions and infighting that the literal application of their vision of Christian liberty had engendered, along with the disruption of social peace and the discredit to the value of the Faith as a whole brought in their train, came to share Luther’s conservative concerns…although not his particular answer to the problem.

Hence, the development of two different tools for maintaining social order and authority, for “keeping the home fires burning” in a positive way, halting or reversing the conflagration unleashed by the more logical radicals. But given the fact that both of these strategies stubbornly still refused to abandon the underlying Nominalist willfulness and the Protestant doctrine of depravity-based liberty, all that they could really do was to guarantee the barbequing of the entire social order in a disguised manner: more “conservatively,” more slowly, and—because seemingly more friendly and therefore less openly perceived—more effectively. A glance at both these approaches is now necessary to complete our work.

No Solution at All

Luther’s solution to the radical consequences of his vision of freedom was to hand over all responsibility for the enforcement of God’s law in the savage jungle order of nature to the State. But what would guarantee that the State interpreted that law correctly and punished those breaking it justly, if no powerful Church authorities rooting their decisions in theological and philosophical sources that were as clear as Nominalist and Lutheran inspired ones were arbitrary and murky no longer existed? Would not depraved State authorities see themselves as the true determinants of God’s will? Certainly, Jean Calvin thought as much, although the new ecclesiastical regimen that he erected to perform the task of secular guidance and enforcement merely passed the ultimate interpreter of God’s will into the hands of potentially wicked “democratic” congregations and the charismatic preachers telling their membership what they thought. What becomes of the structure, authority, and rights of the family—clear and eternal in the Catholic vision of things—under these circumstances? Whatever it is that a monarchical, aristocratic, democratic, success driven State indicates that they are. Is this just? But, once again, what does justice have to do with a jungle environment anyway, since its rulers are inevitably evil, and assuring or ignoring what is just will not impact upon the eternal destiny of those responsible for it in the slightest?

Unfortunately, destruction of the family in a manner that ultimately turns out to be just as tyrannical slowly results from the second expedient appealed to historically as well—that promoted by Protestants in the countries most badly disturbed by the disunity and infighting emerging from the negative concept of freedom. These included Great Britain, whose decision to deal with such problems by encouraging an ever more general religious liberty denigrating doctrinal and liturgical battling as conducive only to the undesirable advance of a scathingly critical atheism, then also passed into the standard operating procedure of the newly established United States of America. Supposedly, a peace-loving God wanted believers to avoid quarreling with one another over non-essential doctrines, and unite, instead, in their commitment to the obvious, unchanging, common sense filled Christian moral code that no one in his right mind could contest and which alone could fight off the atheists.

Accompanied as this anti-doctrinal expedient necessarily was by a failure to attack the Protestant teaching regarding liberty head on, it could not prove to be anything other than a self-contradictory and perilously dangerous dream, pregnant with a myriad of woes plaguing and dissolving the social order. Aside from the strange resurrection by a religion rooted in the idea of total depravity of the theme of pleasing God through moral action, the fact remained that the principle of freedom continued to divide and destroy. “Free” men and women were indeed choosing to change morality, but given that this had been proclaimed impossible, and that judging whether it was or was not happening would inevitably bring back “divisive” doctrinal squabbling displeasing to God, that reality could not be discussed. Some Protestants from the so-called Pietist camp developed the slippery argument that whatever “worked” successfully for State authorities or for individuals actually proved God’s approval of their interpretation of His moral law. Others, turning the negative principle of total depravity after Original Sin into a positive building block of social order, claimed that freedom for individuals inevitably seeking their self-serving goals somehow conspired together to work for the authoritative common good. Hence, the unchangeable was transfigured into the changeable and the sociably authoritative into the individually free, with the consequence that the arbitrary demands of the strongest wills conquered all corporate entities: the inevitable result of a vision inspired by a Nominalism that could not stand the idea of definite theological and philosophical guidelines for anything, and the mental illness guaranteed by a doctrine of total depravity schizophrenically disconnecting daily action from a human person’s final end.

Under the influence of this supposedly anti-atheist, anti-divisive, religion and morality friendly strategy, the “Christian” family becomes the helpless tool of whatever the strongest forces “freely” manipulating it from the inside arbitrarily will that it should be: whether these be the passing passions of libertine parents or adolescent children, or gay, lesbian, transvestite, transgender, transhumanist, or posthumanist fantasies regarding the domestic Church’s acceptable nature. Even when remaining respectably normal, a “Christian” family resorting to this expedient to survive does so with reference not to its unchangeable God-given character and supernatural end, but, rather, once again, to the personal choice of the family members concerned. It retains its ties to tradition without any foundation in what is truly real, and continues exposed not just to further internal redefinition, but also to outside, more organized, and stronger ideological, consumerist, or statist controls.

Whatever the delusions of its often well-meaning promoters, the logic of Protestant “freedom,” whether direct or indirect in its action, cannot help but “keep the home fires burning” in a negative sense that turns against the individual along with society, against both God and nature. It must destroy what the Catholic vision cherishes. We can never hope to tame it or redirect it to our advantage and must urge one another on to do with this false freedom what Voltaire urged his supporters to use the principle of religious liberty to do with us: “Écrasez l’infâme.”