Give Me My Error or Give Me Death
Obstacles to the cure of an addiction are legion, but the most basic is the refusal of the addict to admit that he has a problem. Such a denial allows the addiction to fester, untreated, thereby often engendering further and perhaps even more dangerous allied dependencies. Although we are well aware of this fundamental impediment to liberation on the part of those denying their physical bondage to such external stimulants as alcohol and drugs, we are generally much less conscious of its existence and significance in the lives of all-too-many other people refusing to admit and to treat a dependency of a different kind: an internal spiritual and intellectual addiction to what one might label a personal pet error, whose erroneous character is either totally inconceivable to the individual cultivating it, or angrily denied by him should a critic point out that it logically contradicts everything else the addict seems to hold dear. Unacknowledged and untreated, dependency on such a contradictory error wreaks havoc with the fundamental truths to which the addict openly, but illogically, may still wish to cling, bringing not just fatal spiritual and intellectual damage, but also susceptibility to the more familiar physically destructive types of bondage noted above.
An Addiction to Error
An unacknowledged, addictive commitment to a pet error can, of course, be explained as simply one of the many tragic consequences of an individual’s possession of a fallen human nature. Nevertheless, that personal sinful dependency is much more difficult to bring out into the open and cure when external “traffickers” with a history of subtle and highly- effective strategies for maintaining a blindfold firmly fixed over the eyes of their victims are involved in “pushing” such errors. Still, gaining someone’s admission of his dangerously erroneous dependency becomes most arduous when the peddlers of falsehood succeed in stripping believers of the natural, rational weapon forged by Socratic philosophy and deployed by the Church in subordination to and in union with the Faith, to help them think their way out of their delusion.
All of us readily admit that Catholic believers are just as subject as everyone else to the consequences of Original Sin, and, sadly, there are many historical examples of their addictive commitment to a myriad of pet errors blatantly contradicting the teachings of the Faith. But students of Church History know that professional traffickers in error have initiated and exacerbated such addictions, tightening the dependency by organizing and “pushing” commitment to falsehoods presented as Catholic truths, generally stimulated by political motivations in doing so.
Warping Catholic Teaching
I have described in past articles the efforts of politically ambitious counselors of emperors, kings, and even lesser social authorities to peddle the belief that the Catholic Faith requires the bending of Church teaching, administration, and pastoral strategies to the demands of their secular masters. Admittedly, in times of ecclesiastical chaos, such lay guidance has sometimes proven to be beneficial, as, for example, in the work of the Holy Roman Emperors of the 10th and 11th centuries. Nevertheless, traffickers in error from the time of Constantine onwards have turned this accidental benefit into a theologically-unjustified dogma that has been used to justify political protection for a wide variety of heresies, immoral practices, corrupt ecclesiastical administrative practices, and a pastoral hamstringing of the Mystical Body of Christ. Peddlers of such “royal rights” presented as an article of Faith, have often managed to addict populations to their message for centuries at a time. At times, this pseudo-dogma became so “customary” that true Catholic reformers seeking to liberate believers from their erroneous dependency upon it found their efforts treated as heretical novelties rather than the unvarnished Gospel Truth.
Once again, however, getting someone to admit and treat his addiction to an error is most difficult when the traffickers in falsehood manage to trick away from him his crucial rational tools for thinking, and doing so in union with the fullness of his Faith. It is this most blinding form of commitment to pet delusions which protects the two errors most common to contemporary believing Catholics, at least in the United States: unquestioning faith in papal dogmatic omnipotence and the value of American liberty. Although these two falsehoods, especially under the current pontificate, might seem to be mutually exclusive, they are historically cemented together in their trafficking of the drug of an arbitrary, individual willfulness, and in their removal of an escape route from the self-destruction that it wreaks.
The Attack on Reason
An attack on Reason through mockery of the “losers” experiencing the difficulties and failures inevitable in the arduous task of seeking the truth has been one of the most powerful tools in the hands of Sophists and their myriad of heirs from the time of Socrates down to the present. Such mockery was packaged in a pseudo-Christian wrapping through the medieval school of philosophy called Nominalism. Nominalists claimed that the Christian Socratic and scholastic effort jointly to use Reason and the information handed down by the Faith through the fullness of Tradition to elaborate systematic teachings giving solid guidance to daily life, was a blasphemous pretention on the part of fallen men; a usurpation of the rights of God. All that arrogant philosophers and scholastic theologians actually could accomplish was to give a “name” (a nomen, and, hence, Nominalism) to the topics they approached. But the supposedly substantive “meaning” that they gave to exalted subjects such as the nature of justice were just words, easily rendered pointless if God “willed” them to signify something different, which, in His omnipotence, He was always capable of doing. Human Reason, in the Nominalist system, was something that could only know disconnected, individual bits of data. An unexamined Faith alone could address great issues of meaning and morality, conclusions regarding which were rooted in the ultimately incomprehensible and arbitrary “will” of God.
In dismissing the effort to use Reason systematically to discuss the content and consequences of the Faith, the Nominalists actually left the final decision regarding what God’s “will,” expressed in Faith, supposedly was in the hands of whomever most successfully claimed that he was the obvious channel for proclaiming it. Several radical Nominalists tied the “will of God” to the “will of emperors,” with their more moderate colleagues of the 15th and early 16th century translating it into the “will of the popes,” who, they claimed, could, at least in theory, abolish Tradition itself. Such nonsense was fought off vigorously by the Spanish neo-scholastics at the Council of Trent, but the Nominalist spirit behind the assertion never fully disappeared. Rather, it gained new energy through the trafficking of a false interpretation of the meaning of the decree on papal infallibility of First Vatican Council, the exaggerated confidence in the Papacy engendered by a long line of solid 19th and 20th century successors of St. Peter, and then the willful designs of the dominant forces in the Church since the 1960’s seeking practically to abolish Tradition and recreate Catholic Truth from scratch with Roman help.
Traffickers in Falsehood
Traffickers in falsehood from a different Nominalist gang with an intellectual “blood relation” to their philosophical colleagues encouraging papal willfulness were responsible for brewing blind addiction to the error enshrined in the American vision of liberty. Luther was the first of two middlemen shipping this second form of addictive, erroneous, and highly-willful arguments from the Late Middle Ages down to those peddling it to contemporary victims. Luther’s rejection of the Church for her failure to accept his doctrine of the total depravity of man and nature after Original Sin, reduced Christianity to an anti-social collection of individual believers, each of whom could claim to express God’s will, and none of whom was hindered in doing so by any rational scruples already dismissed by the Nominalist founder of Protestantism as blasphemous. A potential “war of all against all” for the prize of usurpation of the “will of God” was thereby unleashed, with the victory in the conflict inevitably going to the strongest. Sometimes this Triumph of the Will was blatant, with Protestant political supporters openly demanding and obtaining a share in unifying “God’s will” with their own material self-interest and foisting this upon the believing population in a tyrannical fashion. But it also manifested itself subtly and indirectly by playing on and developing the individualism of the Protestant argument and its insistence that it had “freed the Christian man.”
Here, the second middleman-trafficker mounts the stage: John Locke (1632-1704), the founder of Liberalism. Claiming to be a defender of “God’s will” and Christian “freedom” in its Protestant form, Locke’s political philosophy proceeds to make individuals the sole autonomous and knowable building blocks of existence. He does so with a Nominalist fury, allowing for no supernatural or natural Revelation or Reason to shape knowledge of the human person, but, rather, only guidance from the distinct, non-intellectual, data bytes of physical experience that stimulate individuals from birth onwards. In other words, his defense of the order and freedom “willed by God” gives each and every one of us the right to create his own personality and do what he “wills,” based upon whatever he physically “feels” has formed him. Fears of illegitimate, sinful physical influences on the individual disappear. His only limitation on what “God” would “will” the individual to be “free” to do is what the society we live in contractually agrees is safely within bounds; “God’s will” becomes a “conventional” agreement backed up by a “conventional morality”—not one written into the very nature of things; and a “conventional morality” not even determined by all individuals democratically but only those who “historically” really can be trusted to know what “the people” truly “will”; i.e., the liberals who share the trafficker-middleman Locke’s own vision.
The United States is a John Locke Liberal Foundation. It claims that its Founding Fathers are liberty friendly. More moderately liberal conservatives and more logically liberal followers of Locke may debate what the “will” of the Founders and the democratic “will” of the individual voters who agree with the “will” of the Founders as they understand it might mean, how God-fearing or how secular it should be, but they all beat the same fundamental willful Nominalist drum. None of them can logically escape from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s conclusion regarding where this all leads: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Liberalism can justify anything—from capitalist economic injustice to Communism, from American exceptionalism to sexual and transgender exceptionalism, from abortion to euthanasia to destruction of the entire non-Lockean world—and it is for this reason that Liberalism indeed is a sin. Alas, despite the dislike of many conservatives of the specific acts of willfulness of the current pontiff and his justification of them, his mode of papal government is more in union with the spirit of American liberty than ever before in the history of the Church. If his will is the only thing that counts, then it, too, can justify anything as Catholic dogma.
That many believing American Catholics are addicted to the errors of papolatry and American liberty, convinced that they somehow reflect the actual will of God, is a tragic fact of life that I ask everyone reading these pages to test on his own by questioning their friends and relatives. Reduced by their addiction to a pseudo-Tradition equated with the “will” of the pope, and a pseudo-liberty whose extent and limitations are based on whatever group of individuals is capable of foisting its interpretation of the “will” of the Founding Fathers upon people deprived of the fullness of their real Tradition and their Reason informed by Faith, they cannot even imagine that they have a problem dependency, much less escape it. Like the Roman judge, faced with Christians thinking totally out of his narrow box, who stopped up his ears and said that he could not even bring himself to contemplate a critique of the existing system (Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity), those who suffer from such an addiction cannot conceive what in the world I am lamenting here. “Give me my error or give me death!” That is their unfortunate motto. But there is really no need for them to choose. In the not too distant future they will soon have both.
John Locke FRS (29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of the Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.”