Dr. Wills comes unhinged

“Why isn’t there a ‘progressive’ candidate?” was, to some, one of the mysteries of this past April’s conclave. The fact that John Paul II had named so many of the electors was suggested as the explanation. But that didn’t work, as a quick riffle through the Vatican yearbook easily revealed the names of at least thirty cardinals whom no one would ever label “conservative” — and every one of them had been named by John Paul II.

At the time, I suggested that there was no “progressive” candidate because the campaign to compel the Catholic Church to deconstruct its doctrine and bend its moral teaching to a thin notion of freedom-as-autonomy was exhausted. Confirmation of that thesis now comes from a bizarre essay in the October 6 issue of the New York Review of Books. Under the rubric “Fringe Government,” Garry Wills proposes that Father Richard John Neuhaus, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., Michael Novak, and your scribe are “situated at the contact points between the similar ruling systems of the Vatican and the White House,” from which perch we are busily — doing what? Well, according to Garry Wills, destroying American democracy and turning the ecclesiastical clock back to the days of Pius IX, or maybe even Pius V.

I take it as an iron law of controversy that people turn to conspiracy theories and personal nastiness when they’ve run out of ideas. Dr. Wills is, evidently, out of ideas, or at least arguments. In the course of his New York Review essay, he doesn’t engage a single idea that Neuhaus, Novak, or I have proposed over the past twenty-five years. As our students will readily attest, my friends and I relish real debate; but how does one respond to cartoons masquerading as arguments?

Garry Willis is a very intelligent man who has made important contributions to our understanding of American history — which makes it all the more discouraging when his commentary on things Catholic comes unhinged. So, for the record, here are what I take to be some of the key ideas three of his Great Conspirators have been propounding:

1. The Founders and Framers did not intend the United States to be built around a “naked public square” in which religiously informed moral argument is deemed out-of-bounds in public life. The Supreme Court should recognize that the First Amendment was intended to create the legal and cultural conditions for the free exercise of religion — “no establishment” being one means to the end of free exercise.

2. The abortion license defined by Roe v. Wade is a grave injustice because it legalizes the willful taking of innocent human life. Similar threats to first principles of justice are entailed in euthanasia and in embryo-destructive stem cell research. These issues can be adjudicated on genuinely “public” moral-philosophical grounds, without appeals to ecclesiastical authority or “sectarian” doctrine.

3. The free economy is superior to state-based economies because it creates wealth more efficiently, distributes it more equitably, and reflects the economic creativity built into us as rational and moral beings. If you believe the poor are people with potential and your goal is to empower the poor to unleash the creativity that is theirs, you work to incorporate the poor into those networks of productivity and exchange that we call the “free economy;” you don’t keep poor people trapped on the welfare plantation.

4. The just war tradition, a tradition of statecraft, remains the normative Catholic method of moral reasoning about world politics and provides a public moral grammar by which free societies can debate their responsibilities in a dangerously conflicted world.

5. The pontificate of John Paul II was not a pontificate against modernity, but a pontificate advancing a distinctively modern appraisal of modernity, one that included both affirmation and critique.

6. The Catholic Church has a “form” given it by Christ. All genuinely Catholic reform is by reference to that “form.”

In the event that he pulls himself out of the slough of progressive Catholic despond, it would be instructive to learn Dr. Wills’s objections to these six points.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash