Rebuilding Catholic Culture. Restoring Catholic Tradition
Profane Logic: Plagues of the Mind
Conferences at various places and conversations with many people over the past few years have persuaded me that there is a torrent of profane (meaning impious and irreverent) “logic.” This is increasingly evident, not only in our institutions, but even in much of our daily life. Our former president, Bill Clinton, once captured its spirit in a talk at Jesuit Georgetown University by suggesting that the only secure foundation for democracy is a vigorous uncertainty about the truth of anything. That Clinton’s formulation was expressed at a university supposedly concerned with the permanent things (as in Ps. 90:2 or Jude 1:25) is an irony which apparently escaped Clinton and not a few others. It is inconvenient, however, for any public person or institution these days to testify to something as downright old fashioned as “truth.”
About thirty-five years ago, Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago told us that “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” What is true for me, after all, may not be true for you—or so goes popular opinion, more entrenched in 2021 than it was in 1987. Many today think of truth as having all the illusion of an M.C. Escher print. Similarly, Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman employs the term “liquid modernity” to explain the rapid change he sees in relationships, convictions, and economies.https://1e897f9c3bab05ab2d9df706e9215ef3.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Hebrews firmly teaches us, however, that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; consequently, we must not be seduced by evanescent and bizarre teachings (13:8-9). The late Dr. Charles Rice of Notre Dame contended, with great regret, that “agnostic secular humanism is now our national religion.” The only real truth, on this view, is that truth, if it exists at all, is unknowable.
Here, then, is the profane logic which has come to be the core of our public philosophy. But more: it is at the heart, also, of many of our businesses, of our entertainment, our sports, our politics, our education, and even, occasionally, our religious convictions. It is a symptom of spiritual illness which Professor Bruce Thornton has described as “plagues of the mind.” The late Allan Bloom had it exactly right, unfortunately, when he said that “the self is the modern substitute for the soul.”
Here is how I would formulate this corrupt, if ubiquitous, “profane logic”:
- Because there is no truth, there is only opinion.
- Because there is only opinion, there can be no real authority.
- Because there is no real authority, I am free to think, to do, and to be whatever I please.
- Because I am free to think, to do, and to be whatever I please, I can and will create my own world of art, learning, and moral standards.
- There is a “sacred word,” as Ayn Rand said, and it is “ego.”
In a 1992 Supreme Court case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “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.” Kennedy, as a Catholic, should have known that there is real liberty only where and when we are able to do what we ought to do. As St. Paul teaches us: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Cor 3:17; and see 10:5).
If we remove the “Spirit of the Lord,” which is truth and the moral sense, we have, not liberty, but spiritual chaos, moral relativism, and cultural chaos. At the heart of moral liberty, then, is not self-indulgence but awareness of and commitment to right reason (see CCC, 1959). Not for nothing did Dante tell us, 700 years ago, that “In His will is our peace.”
Several years ago at an academic convention, one of the main speakers suggested to the audience: “Take a moment to give ourselves a big hug. Let me remind us that the person we’re hugging is the most important person in our lives.” Of course, if anyone truly believes that, he cannot be a husband or a father or much of a son. If anyone truly believes that, she cannot be a mother or a wife or much of a daughter. That kind of rank egoism rules out religious conviction (see Mt. 16:24-25), genuine patriotism, and authentic friendship (Proverbs 18:24, John 15:13).
When we find “truth” only in our own appetites and urges, we make ourselves into a god—a fraudulent god, a fleeting god, a phony god—a false idol (see Wisdom 10:8, 14:27). Truth is more than a concept; truth is a person (see John 14:6)—the person who stood in front of Pilate, who, pathetically or scornfully, wanted to know the meaning of truth (John 18:38). Wisdom, then, lies in our ability, through grace, to discern the Truth and thus to know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, sacred and profane (Wisdom 4:12, Romans 16:19, 1 Thess 5:21-22).
There is, then, a sacred logic:
- Because truth exists, there can be the light of wisdom—the recognition of truth, which is never merely a matter of opinion. (It was Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who said the crowd’s choice of Barabbas [Mt 27:21] was the first public opinion poll!)
- Because wisdom exists, authority which is rooted in it deserves respect.
- Because respectable authority exists, I am genuinely free to the extent that I accept that authority and configure my thoughts, words, and actions to it (Romans 12:2; CCC, 1269).
- Because, guided by proper authority (Psalm 25:10), I seek to become the man or woman I am called to be (Eph 4:1), I discover a world of art, of learning, and of moral standards which provides meaning and direction for all people who see it (Mt 13:16).
- There is a sacred name, but it is St. Paul, not Ayn Rand, who told the Philippians (2:9-11), and us, about it: Jesus.
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Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.