The West and the rest

In his book, Without Roots, Pope Benedict XVI deplored the addiction to historical self-deprecation rampant at the higher altitudes of European cultural and intellectual life: a tendency to see in the history of the West only “the despicable and the destructive.” The same problem exists on this side of the Atlantic; in our universities and among our cultural taste-makers, the healthy western habit of moral, cultural, and political self-critique can dissipate into forms of self-loathing. Perhaps a civilization can afford to think of its past as pathology when it has no competitors. That is manifestly not the case today, when the West is being challenged by radical Islamist jihadism and by the new and market-improved authoritarianism of China.

So, a question: What’s right about the West, about this unique civilizational enterprise formed by the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — biblical religion, rationality, and the idea of a law-governed polity?

1) Openness. Thanks to its belief in the power of reason, and its commitment to a search for truth unconstrained by political power, taboo, or the whims of false gods, the West has evolved the most open civilization in human history. As British philosopher Roger Scruton neatly put it, life in the West is an open book; it’s too often a closed ledger elsewhere.

2) Freedom. Over many centuries, the West thought its way through to the idea of the inalienable dignity and worth of every human life. That commitment to the dignity of the individual gave birth, in turn, to western ideas of freedom — freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom’s defense as the primary function of government. The world now swears allegiance to the idea of “human rights;” that idea was born in the West. So was the idea that slavery — an ancient human institution — is an abomination. So was the idea that women enjoy full political and legal equality with men.

3) Knowledge: The Bible gave the West the idea of a God who imprinted his reason onto his creation; the Greeks gave the West the idea of the unflinching quest for truth. Put the two together and you get other great western inventions: universities, libraries, research institutes, and schools open to all. The West’s thirst for knowledge, coupled with its commitment to openness and freedom of discussion, produced the scientific method and the scientific revolution; thus virtually every major invention of the past half-millennium has come from the West. If we live longer, healthier, less painful lives today than human beings did a thousand years ago, we can thank the West’s scientific and technological creativity, which is a function of western culture.

4) Generosity. In addition to ending the slave trade, abolishing slavery, and enfranchising women, the West has produced virtually every major humanitarian initiative in modern history, from the Red Cross to Doctors Without Borders, from the green revolution to the eradication of river blindness, from care for the mentally and physically handicapped to the abrogation of forced marriage. The modern human rights movement has taken root in many cultures, but it is motored primarily by the West — which is also the source of the overwhelming proportion of development aid for the world’s poor.

5) Beauty. Many cultures produce beautiful things; only the West has produced Mozart, Bach, Michelangelo, Dante, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare. Absent a humanistic culture, you’re just not going to find the intensity of human grandeur and human weakness found, for example, in a Caravaggio painting or a Bernini sculpture.

6) Humor. The West is singularly capable of making fun of itself — sometimes, to be sure, in vulgar ways. Still, that impulse to mock pretension and false piety, to cut the mighty down to size with a joke, is a sound one. Humor keeps things open, keeps things human, and nurtures in the West a capacity for healthy self-criticism.

That the world’s migration patterns tend to work in one direction — from the rest to the West — is not an accident. Six reasons why have been noted here; more could be added. So — have you said something nice about your civilization today?

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash