It is common today to hear people talk of secularization. It is particularly frequent in the discourse of people who see it as a problem. However, it is often the case that the term is used rather broadly, without a concomitant understanding of the specific origins of the phenomenon. Yet, such specificity is indeed needed, for the term is too broad in itself to identify the kind of specific content that leads to a real understanding of the underlying social dynamics that brought it about and reinforced it.
Augusto Del Noce1, an Italian philosopher of great perspicacity, has a grasp of exactly what secularization came to mean in the postwar World as well as its intellectual origins. An exploration of these developments is indispensable for Catholicism in our deeply troubled times.2
The decomposition of Marxism
The most significant factor that generated today’s secularism was the decomposition of Marxism that took place in the postwar world.3 This point is uniquely Del Noce’s. The decomposition of Marxism is not a part of Marxist theory nor any other modern ideology. Since it is these schools of thought that have generated most of the political theory in our world, it Is not surprising that the phenomenon would simply be missed.
Del Noce saw it because of his unique way of looking at political philosophy. He saw political philosophy historically as a series of genealogies. Concepts were developed and were passed on through history, but were often sublated in the process. This is to say that they often changed or shifted focus through interaction with other ideas. Now Marxism did not exactly undergo this process, according to Del Noce. Marxism was of such a totalitarian nature that it could not be substantially modified and remain Marxism. Rather, it decomposed under the strain of two contradictory elements that it could not hold together.
On the one hand, Marxism was enormously successful in the West for its ability to convince intellectuals that all hitherto existing political ideas were nothing but effects, caused by the underlying economic dynamics of the society, and particularly their divisions into economically-based social classes. In fact, the whole sense of the term ideology in Marx is imbued with this notion that the accepted ideas and ideals of politics are simply covers for the real (that is, material) interests being promoted. It became the province of the Marxist intellectual to uncover the real beyond the façade. So, capitalist societies claim to revere permanent sources of law and order, but this is just a cover for their protection of the propertied interest. Of course, later, “postmodern” thinkers would come along to expand the conversation to include race and gender, but the underlining proposition that political ideas are simply effects of changing social circumstances was drilled into the intellectual culture by Marxists. This is the true origin of what we have come to call the relativism of political ideas which is so much discussed today.
However, this was not by any means all of Marx’s philosophy, for not everything was to be relativized. The revolution against capitalism functioned as the bastion of objectivity and truth in Marx’s thought. In other words, Marxism had to keep alive the notion of the revolution. It was in that absolute commitment that Del Noce finds the remnant of the older philosophical tradition he intended to leave behind. So, we see that there was a pole of relativism in Marxism accompanied by a pole of absolutism, and ultimately they could not stay together.4
For Del Noce, this is really the key to understanding the origins of the world we came to live in, particularly since the 1960s. Marxism decomposed in a way which left the relativist dimension dominant, and any honest observer of academia today can only concede that Marx’s negations of metaphysics, epistemology, and morality reign in the academy today. They also reign in the elite culture that is the basis of corporate news and the entertainment industry. The proletarian revolution succumbed to it, leaving us with a rather obvious conclusion that nonetheless many still refuse to recognize.
The big winner was the bourgeoisie, who through it all won victories over its two historical rivals: the revolutionary workers and the Catholic Church. Catholicism always stood as a bulwark against moral relativism and transforming everything into a commodity to be bought and sold on the market, especially culture. The bourgeoisie always knew they could not prevail in a world of Catholicism’s moral absolutes, which would always lead to limitations on what could be bought and sold on a market. Marxism had mostly been successful in concealing the fundamental dichotomy between the bourgeois spirit and the Catholic one.5 There have always been some Catholic historians, such as Christopher Dawson, who saw it quite clearly, but these were always at the margins of intellectual life here.6
The problem of Enlightenment thinking today
This momentous transformation left us with the society that has reigned since the 1960s, that is, the high-technological civilization based on expanding markets everywhere. While in and of itself, this part of the argument may seem prosaic and commonplace, when we come to examine the philosophical premises behind this civilization, we find a very novel interpretation of a disturbing reality. Perhaps the worst feature of the technological civilization we live in is that people accept this civilization’s contention that it is the freest and most democratic civilization that has ever existed.
Having put behind it the alleged “medieval” ideal of theocracy on the one hand and Russian Bolshevism on the other, this society only expands opportunity and eliminates oppression. Del Noce has a fundamentally different point of view. For him, once we see correctly the underlying philosophical dynamics of the changes brought about, we see what a radical change really occurred, that we created a civilization that negates transcendence so thoroughly that it renders theology meaningless (at least on its own terms).
What is more, this negation of transcendence is such that this civilization is necessarily (and not just accidentally) radically anti-traditional, anti-religious (in any historically valid sense of religion) and ultimately totalitarian.7 Yet, so successful has this civilization proclaimed itself “neutral’ on most issues of significance that there is little to no chance that Del Noce’s understandings, clear though they are, will be appropriated today. All of this may seem a bit much to grasp all at once, so we will have to do some retracing and further elaboration of the philosophical changes that accompanied the creation of the world we live in.
To pick up the story again, we have already explained how Del Noce sees in the decomposition of Marxism a central dynamic that explains the contemporary world. The second dynamic was how this decomposed Marxism interacted with Enlightenment thought, which was in Del Noce’s view a veritable copenetration that helps to explain contemporary dynamics even better.8 Unfortunately, an entire series of intellectual problems flow from the incorrect understanding of the Enlightenment’s influence today. Let us go back very briefly to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s illustrative discussion of the issue. Briefly, anyone who has read Benedict on this subject knows that he does not hold a simplistically negative view of the Enlightenment as do many self-identified conservatives. For example, Benedict largely agrees with the original Enlightenment belief that politics would indeed be better off it were “purified” by reason, that is, if reason properly understood (in the sense of Aquinas and the classics) were to be the governing principle, and leave out some of the encrustations that ill-advised ecclesiastical interventions had created over the centuries.9 For Benedict, the heart of the problem today is that Enlightenment thinking today bears little resemblance to the understanding of reason that was present at the Enlightenment’s origins. At its best, the Enlightenment’s understanding of reason was the one understood by all.10
Now we get to Del Noce’s key point. When we get to the era of the Marxist decomposition, we are no longer at all talking about reason in the sense reason would have been understood by most people throughout most of human history. Today the remnants of the Enlightenment confront a reason that has been shall we say “put through the blender” of Marxist and now postmodernist assumptions which put the classical understanding of reason mostly out of business. The Marxist and postmodern assumptions have largely evacuated reason of any metaphysical, epistemological or ethical content. The key point is to ask the question, “What, then, is left of Enlightenment reason?” and Del Noce has a definitive answer: science. To put it in philosophical terms, what is left is positivism, the belief that the realm of reason is the empirical only.
The question, then, becomes, which direction does such an understanding of Enlightenment reason take us? Del Noce has a surprise in store for us when he clearly states that a political world governed by decomposed Marxism’ s understanding of reason can only be totalitarian. When science leaves its proper realm and claims to govern in the worlds of ethics and politics, it can only do so by radically reconstructing reason in a manner which evacuates it of any capacity to properly distinguish evil from good. Or better, any claim to know the good is inherently groundless from the positivist point of view, and any attempt to codify the good would itself be “totalitarian.” By negating the only reasonable manner of distinguishing good from evil, the politics of the positivist world can only turn the world over to whoever has the power to implement a vision. Del Noce is of the opinion that economic conglomerates are likely to exercise disproportionate influence, but whatever it is, it will be a power not checked by an ethics based on reason.
We can come at this issue of positivism and totalitarianism in a second way, as Del Noce shows. Positivism tells us that human beings should only believe that which has been demonstrated empirically. However, this fundamental positivist claim is not itself capable of being demonstrated empirically. Science cannot prove or disprove the validity of properly ethical claims that are not empirical in nature. So, on the positivist’s own premise, we should not believe in positivism. Of course, that is not at all what they argue. Positivism in politics holds itself out as the culmination of reason’s development, but at the same time can only concede that its own premise is not at all demonstrable by reason. But this inability would not stop them from imposing positivist premises. The question is, “Who does such things? Who argues in such a blatantly unreasonable way?” Del Noce’s answer is that a totalitarian does.
The deepest root of totalitarianism, for Del Noce, lies in its diminishment of the capacity of reason both in terms of its universality and its extent. It is a totalitarian way of thinking but it is not recognized as such because it is generally more indirect; it operates less by imposition than simply removing the recognized bases for political criticism. Any morally-based argument to anything the state does is by definition invalid because such claims are not based on the positivist understanding of what reason is. Thus, it becomes harder and harder to come up with any arguments at all against contemporary developments. Justice is reduced to whatever comes next.
Modern political thinking, through the impacts of decomposed Marxism and what is left of Enlightenment reason (positivism), cuts us off from the entire realm of the transcendent, from which we traditionally derived our moral norms. As implied at the conclusion of the most recent argument against positivism, healthy democracies are rooted in the contrast between what is happening and what should be happening. When that distinction is clear, we can have a robust discussion about where we really should be going that is coherent because all the parties largely share the understandings of good, or right, or true, or beautiful, upon which such discussions are based. Yet, it is one of the distinctive features of our culture that we can no longer do this. Once the transcendent standards are gone, nothing that can really be called a standard can replace them. Even the vocabulary changes in noticeable ways.
Del Noce already noted six decades ago that the dichotomies of true-false, good-bad, and beautiful-ugly were giving way to a new vocabulary.11 For example, in the academy a work was to be valued if it met the criteria of “significant,” “original, ” “sincere,” or “progressive.” And this is the only way it can be. When the criteria for measuring true vs. false, good vs. bad, and beautiful vs. ugly are eliminated (which is exactly what happens with the negation of transcendence), then everything is on the same level; new criteria have to be invented, which will most assuredly be ephemeral, banal, and superficial when not completely without meaning. We must not underestimate how radical these changes are. Catholic progressives (about whom more will be said later) never seem to get the point, but neither do most of the rest of the people.12
The technological society is the society that measures life by non-transcendent, non-religious criteria, paramount among them is well-being. Technological society is the society of well-being.13 It is worth noting that philosophy in the sense of the term that prevailed prior to the advent of technological civilization cannot really exist in such a society. I am reminded of an old cohort in college, a Philosophy major who had liberated himself from theology, and was fond of saying that “theology was the study of things that did not exist.” This is essentially the fate of philosophy in the society of well-being. Its questions, having nothing to do with what life is all about (material well-being) are essentially meaningless, appealing to concepts that are believed not to exist. Conversations about morality may continue to exist, but are seen as cultural rather than properly philosophical.
This developing ideology, formed from the particular way Marxism decomposed, in conjunction with an Enlightenment thought itself influenced by this same decomposition, had a particularly significant impact on progressivism. Del Noce takes a long , historical look at progressivism, finding its genesis in the decade between 1930 and 1940.14 It became the ideology of those fighting Fascism. Consistent with Del Noce’s belief that it is foundational philosophical assumptions that drive history, he advances the thesis that progressivism was founded on a profound error of judgment concerning contemporary history. Benedetto Croce, the intellectual leader of Italian anti-Fascism, argued that Fascism was the outgrowth of a “morbid romanticism.” The key to the error was that the progressives interpreted this romanticism as something in continuity with tradition. Therefore, the solution was a radical break with tradition altogether, both philosophically and institutionally. This led directly to the embrace of the dimensions of Enlightenment thinking that underlined breaking with the past. They embraced all the rhetoric about mankind “coming of age,” now able to think for himself.15 (Ultimately, they also embraced DeSade and eroticism.)
In this account, Fascism is the result of the rebellion against this “enlightenment” by the people who lacked the courage to make the transition, who sought a refuge in a past that could not be brought back. This would be the governing assumption as progressivism moved forward. Del Noce underlines how fundamental the error is here along two major lines. First of all, Fascism had nothing really to do with tradition, the Fascists being more like Marxists in their rejection of transcendence, and in their modern and revolutionary goals. Secondly, a truly successful anti-Fascism that would also be anti-Communist would have seen in tradition the moral and intellectual basis for an authentic reform in Europe. But progressivism was locked in, and would only become more and more radically anti-traditional as time went on.
Catholic progressivism and the annihilation of religious thought
No treatment of the age of secularization would be complete without a discussion of Catholic progressivism, which has been formed by the same set of assumptions and arguments concerning secularization, decomposed Marxism and the Enlightenment that we have been discussing so far.
In Del Noce’s time, there was the “death of God” theology. Today we often hear of “post-Christian theology” or “postmodern theology”, but Del Noce found that it all went back to the series of assumptions that Pius X fought back against in the early 1900s.16 It is beyond my purposes here to go into more than a couple of the major assumptions. These progressive Catholics never outrightly proclaim to negate the transcendent God, but the emphasis is always on immanence. The last Theology Conference I attended struck me as a place where theologians treated virtually every subject under the sun other than the God of the Creed (unless it was to relativize or immanentize him).
Catholic progressivism makes very little if anything of original sin, following the mainstream Modern thought. Like his secular counterpart, the progressive Catholic theologian believes that theology today has “come of age,” and can no longer be bound by old dogmas which, as we might suspect, are held to be byproducts of older social, political, and religious conflicts. Progressive theologians can be counted on to cheer anyone who attacks the Church for actually teaching Catholicism and can equally be counted on never to help in any fight based on preserving transcendent norms defined by the Church, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, etc. Since they never really accept the truth of the transcendent norm or doctrine as something that is real, they are easily hoodwinked into thinking that all manner of social problems can truly be resolved by endless “dialog” with people who hold diametrically opposed positions.17 They do this because they are attempting to see the good in the other side and be honest about the bad inside the Church. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with such a disposition, so long as what is truly the opposite of the Church teaching is opposed. But since they share their secular progressive counterparts assumptions about the alleged “historically situated” nature of so-called transcendent values, they are destined to follow in the path of secular progressives in “the dialog.”
It all reminds me so much of when I studied Theology, in a time when Saint John Paul II was laying down certain definitive lines concerning Catholic teaching, such as in Veritatis Splendor. The progressives would respond to every attempt by the Pope to define Catholic teaching by calling for the need to “continue the dialog.” Del Noce saw through this very clearly, and concluded that “all the fermentation of religious progressivism can conclude only in the annihilation of religious thought into secular progressivism. In fact, the annihilation of religious thought can only take place by turning it into the type of secular progressivism” that prevails today.
To take it further, “secular, Protestant and Catholic progressivisms no longer exist as such. What exists is just one progressivism characterized by an irreligious form of atheism.”18
It should be added here that the new society of well-being, or technological society, does have a role for religion. Having identified it with atheism, this proposition may sound contradictory. For those interested in the history of philosophy, it would be a role very similar to what the early positivists in fact envisioned for religion in a universe where God did not exist. Saint-Simon, Del Noce writes, was actually the first to articulate the premises of the technological civilization.19 Saint-Simon articulated a “New Christianity,” which would be a “Religion of Humanity.” It would support Saint-Simon’s vision of a scientific transformation of the world, putting an end to the exploitation of man by man and replacing it with a united humanity working together to transform nature for the common good. It would of course suppress any leanings toward transcendence. Saint-Simon actually envisioned a “Council of Newton.” It would be composed of twenty-one members elected by all mankind and headed by a mathematician. This Council would replace the Pope and the College of Cardinals, who unfortunately seemed not to understand the nature and finality of science. This council would determine the means necessary to prevent the re-emergence of class struggle between owners and non-owners. All would work in the same factory, directed by the supreme council. Anyone opposed “would be treated as a quadruped.”
As absurd as some of this sounds, in its basics it is very much along the lines of the understanding of religion that the Modernists would ultimately propose later in the Century. 20 Del Noce is convinced that a similar role for religion exists in the technological society. As traditional religion is “non-verifiable,” there would not be any role for it. But it can still exist to serve the norm of “vitality,” as Del Noce calls it. Insofar as people need something subjectively stimulating to keep their lives going in the technological society, religion is free to fill in. Del Noce notes that this puts religion on the same level as drugs, or sex for that matter. Del Noce sees this as the essence of blasphemy, that is, subordinating religion’s truth to whatever vitalizing function it may be able to perform in a society.21
An enormous, unique contribution
In conclusion, Augusto Del Noce’s views concerning the dynamics of secularization in the West in the postwar world are an enormous contribution to the understanding of the subject. Del Noce’s themes seem so timely today even though he passed away in 1989. This is because he was successful at doing what few ever really try to do, that is, to discover the metaphysical roots of the principles that came to prevail. Political philosophy in the West largely lost its depth, as even many conservatives seemed overly impressed by shifting political, economic, and social strands. Del Noce saw the incompatibilities within Marxism, holding that the proletarian revolution as an absolute ideal was the last remnant of the older scheme of thought he was in general trying to replace. He saw further how decomposed Marxism would continue to wreak havoc, uniting with the Enlightenment ideas in a way such that only science was left standing to hold things together. Positivism, mixed with the radical relativism that Marxism left behind, has created a society that is and can only be anti-religious and anti-tradition. It was modernity’s rejection of transcendence that ultimately led to the eclipse of the moral absolutes that led “to the hubris of science as the new ideal that rises and replaces the others as primary value.”22
• Related at CWR: “Atheism: The core of modern Western culture in the thought of Augusto del Noce” (Dec 14, 2020) by Dr. Thomas R. Rourke
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