The Family and Contemporary Culture
Adapted from lectures given at the Newman Institute Ireland

  1. Introduction
  2. Culture and the Sacred

    Facts of Life

    Culture and the family

  3. Understanding Modernity: Development of Individualism
  4. Nominalism

    Two Kinds of Freedom

    Nature and Grace

    The Church and the World

  5. The Sincere Gift of Self

Marriage and Redemption

Freedom and Truth

Philosophy and the Culture of Life

Note 1: The Family and Human Rights

Note 2: The Family and Culture in the Catechism

Reading List


1. Introduction

We are living through a crisis of society and culture, which manifests itself in the rising incidence of family breakdown and social crime. The roots of the crisis lie far back in our history. It is important for us to understand this, and in the pages that follow I will trace it as far as the fourteenth century. I will be writing from a Christian (indeed a Catholic) perspective, but I will try to do so in a way that others can relate to from within their own traditions.

Each major religious tradition has its own insights concerning the family and the building of society. Much of this wisdom is a common or shared heritage of all mankind. Today Christians need to draw upon that common wisdom, and explore it with their neighbours, for we live in a society influenced by many diverse cultures. At the same time, we must face the fact that what we have come to call "modernity" was born not in the East, or in Africa, or in Latin America, but in the Christian West, and to a large extent its problems are Christian problems, which only a deeper understanding of the Christian tradition may help us to unravel and understand.


Culture and the Sacred

There is no such thing as a purely secular culture, or at least one that is capable of long-term survival, for a very simple reason. The creative energies of human beings are effectively harnessed to build a civilization only if people can be persuaded to work together for the common good. But such unity, or solidarity, has no lasting foundation without a sense of some transcendent Other, which lies beyond individual self-interest. Thus a society may consciously try to eliminate religion, as the French did after 1789, or the Soviets after 1917, but it will end up inventing a substitute that is every bit as bad and almost certainly worse. Alternatively, it may try to confine religion to the private sphere, as the Americans did with their separation of Church and State. In this case it could be argued that the very act of separation, far from establishing religious neutrality, simply placed America firmly in the tradition of Protestant Christianity. Furthermore, to the degree the public square is indeed cleared of religion, what has actually emerged there is a substitute religion called "consumerism", with its glamorous promises of this-worldly fulfilment through Nike or Microsoft, its ritual football matches, its Pop Idols and its holy (i.e. expensive) relics of Elvis and Marilyn.

Like it or not, the virtues that make modern society workable at all, and which soften and civilize the often brutal pursuit of money and pleasure, are left over from an older religious tradition. "The fact is this: that the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom; including, of course, many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom." [G.K. Chesterton is referring there, of course, to the truths of the Natural Law. For a masterful summary of these as reflected in a variety of pagan cultures, see the Appendix to C.S. Lewis’s little book, The Abolition of Man.]

It is not that Christendom was an ideal society, by any means. The failure to live up to our Christian calling was just as evident then. It was Chesterton himself who said, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried." But at least it was clearer then where that calling came from and what it meant. Nowadays, it is easy to forget that the virtues of chastity and honesty and integrity, of compassion and respect for innocence, to which we appeal against a few corrupt priests and child-abusers, are themselves part of our inheritance from Christianity, and have been given to us by the Church.

The crucial religious insight that lies behind the virtues which are essential for the existence of a civilization is a recognition of the presence of the Sacred, not simply beyond the world but within it. If we define the transcendent as that which lies beyond ourselves and the world, then the sacred is the immanent transcendent: it is that which represents or mediates the transcendent to us. The existence, nature, wisdom and will of God is expressed within the world and within ourselves, though only partially. Those places and people and things which in some way bear the mark of the transcendent upon themselves are what we regard as sacred. Through these things, which are known in every religion, God is calling us to the happiness of closer union with him. He is calling us to become sacred, to be "sanctified".


Facts of Life

What are the basic facts of life, known to all religions, that we need to recall if we are to understand and defend the Christian idea of the family in the modern world?

Fact number one: the world is not flat. There are levels of reality, levels of goodness, levels of beauty. That is to say, the transcendent is expressed more fully in some places than others. Of course, we normally think of the flat-earth hypothesis as being the product of a superstitious mind, but in fact it is modern science that gives us the flat world when it reduces everything to numbers, and treats moral or qualitative values as purely subjective projections.

Fact number two: if the world has levels, so do we. The human person is more than an animal, because it possesses a "reflexive" self-consciousness or spiritual interiority. We have an inner life, which is only communicable if we choose to reveal or share it. Our interior landscape is centred around the Source of our being. The instincts and desires that are normally at war within us can be unified or harmonized around that central point (the "heart" or the "spirit"). This inner journey or struggle is the basis for any progress we may make towards sanctity. It is the way we respond to the call addressed to us by the transcendent that we encounter outside ourselves, in the sacred. And it is a moral struggle, a struggle towards what the Gospel calls "purity of heart" and "poverty of spirit". I would connect this with the passage in Centesimus Annus (n. 36) by Pope John Paul II, where he speaks of "consumerism", and of the need to subordinate "material and instinctive dimensions" of our being to "interior and spiritual ones". It is here that Christian anthropology should be in closer dialogue with modern humanistic psychology, which too often forgets the existence of a higher-level authority and spirit within the self.

So, fact number three, we are on a journey from one level to another. This amounts to the fact that we are not simply created by God as a finished being, but called by him to completion, which can only be achieved through the use of our own freedom. Our end as well as our beginning are in God, and the two are not the same. From this the Catechism of the Catholic Church draws out the implication, in its chapters on the nature of man, that each of us is a person, made in the image and likeness of God who is a trinity of Persons, revealed in Christ. Our nature is inherently social, and we exist in relationship with others. The first of those is God, who gives us our existence, and gives us also the other relationships that define our existence as a child or a brother or sister born into a particular family and tribe. These are not relationships we choose, any more than we choose to be born in the first place. They are a gift. [Chesterton: "Our uncle is a surprise."]

It is worth mentioning here another of the key remarks that John Paul II has made about modern culture, for it relates directly to this "third fact", the fact about being on a journey. In Centesimus Annus (41) he writes of the danger of alienation. It is through the "free gift of self that man truly finds himself", he writes. "This gift is made possible by the human person’s essential ‘capacity for transcendence’. Man cannot give himself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or a false utopia. As a person, he can give himself to another person or to other persons, and ultimately to God, who is the author of his being and who alone can fully accept his gift. A man is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself and to live the experience of self-giving and of the formation of an authentic human community oriented towards his final destiny, which is God. A society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people."

The Christian Revelation tells us that the journey between levels, the journey towards God, is dangerous, and we have already fallen off the right path. Furthermore, like a good shepherd, God has come in search of us to lead us home. It is in the Incarnation that God reveals his own nature and the nature of man: he reveals our "most high calling" (Gaudium et Spes 22). He reveals the end of the road. God plants himself like a signpost at the centre of the world, pointing to the Father.


Culture and the Family

Catholic social teaching is centred on the family, but the Catholic Catechism unfolds it mainly through an extended commentary on the Ten Commandments, which are found in the Jewish Bible that became the Christian "Old Testament". These are said to be an expression of the Natural Law by which we are made, codified in such a way as to establish a Covenant between God and man. That is, they define the ways in which man will give himself to God, in exchange for God’s gift of himself to man.

This Covenant makes God the "Father" of his People. He is no longer simply their Creator; he is Father. The first three Commandments describe our relationship with him. The other seven Commandments anchor us in a human community, the human family, which is tied to God through this supernatural kinship-bond, and heading towards him.

The fourth Commandment, for example, is not just about honouring parents but about belonging to a family and to a People that exists in time. These are the relationships we are born into, the commitments we inherit. The Pope explores this particular "Commandment of the Family" in his Letter to Families. It is this, rather than, say, the commandment against adultery, which is the foundation of the human family. We are all born of parents long before we are able to make a new family ourselves. Family is first of all something that we must receive as a gift, intimately bound up with the gift of existence from God.

Patrick Riley’s book Civilizing Sex examines the relationship between the Commandments, civil society, the family, and Western civilization. Riley points out that the Fourth Commandment, to which is attached the promise: "so that you may have long life in the land which God has given you" gives assurance of national stability and prosperity "provided the family’s structure is respected" (p. 76), thus establishing the link between the family and the common good of the larger society. He goes on to show how this link, "forged by marriage, is kept strong by chastity" – the theme of his book.

Another book that uses the theme of Covenant as a key to understand the family is Scott Hahn’s First Comes Love. Hahn shows that the experience of love between man and woman, the experience of building and maintaining a family in the world, is profoundly related to the interior life of God and the way this life is shared with us through the Incarnation in the Church. God is family. In the end, "the Trinity is the family we were made for, the home we have desired." And Hahn writes that we become members of this family through a covenant.

One of the things this brief course is intended to do is to enable us better to understand the nature of covenant. For as Scott Hahn emphasizes, "a covenant is not a contract; it is not an exchange of goods. A covenant is an exchange of persons. One person gives us his former self, his former identity, to be accepted into a new family" (p. 76). This exchange, the giving up of self to find self, is precisely what the modern world has failed to understand, or forgotten. But without that crucial idea, both the traditional concept of the family and the essence of Christianity may be easily lost.

A healthy society depends upon a healthy family. The family is the birthplace of culture, because it is the place where we learn our first lessons in love and work and service. It is where we learn to tame our sexuality, where we learn to be brothers and sisters, where we learn to regard the human person as a "gift". It is where we enter into a covenant with each other, which prepares us for the covenant with God. And through the covenant which links earth with heaven a new destiny is revealed: to live "as God lives" – the God who is love, who is covenant, who is family.



2. Understanding Modernity: The Development of Individualism

It is hard to address the crisis of the family in the modern world without an understanding of the historical background. In Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948) and Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity (Yale, 1993) we find a perspective from the history of ideas which enables us to fill out the meaning of the phrase used by John Paul II, "the culture of death". Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Ignatius Press, 1999, though originally published 1937) is another outstanding work that explores these themes.

The ancient Greeks developed a sense of the interior moral life as a progress through a series of ontological levels (body, soul, spirit and Absolute). But the individual self was still only an expression of the universal order of cosmos or polis. Christianity brought a stronger sense of the self based on our direct relation to (and responsibility to) God rather than to the cosmos: this was conceived as a personal relation, deriving from membership (before any polis) in the family of God. Each person was made in the image and likeness of God himself, according to Holy Scripture. (The maturity of the Christian sense of the self can be seen in Augustine’s Confessions, possibly the world’s first autobiography.)

Jacques Maritain and other twentieth-century personalist philosophers have written about the great discovery of the Christian tradition being that of the human "person", namely the self constituted within a real and direct relationship to God and neighbour. But they also describe a loss of this sense of the person in the modern world, as it gave way to the idea of the individual: a self-determining conscious subject defined by its own decisions rather than by its relationships. We see this process in the art and literature of the Renaissance, where the emphasis on the autonomous individual (e.g. the artistic genius, the discoverer) was so strong that the link between man and cosmos, man and society, became hard to maintain and justify. Later, with Descartes (cogito ergo sum), we arrive at the modern self, which is nothing but a function of its activity – in this case, thinking.

The period that saw the birth of individualism was also the period of the birth of modern science. The study of the cosmos was now being pursued less by means of introspection, or the use of metaphors based on the human form, and more by the empirical method of observation and experiment. As technology began to offer ways to transform the world and re-shape nature itself, and as the opening-up of the physical cosmos through exploration and astronomy undermined old certainties about the shape of the world, the pre-existing harmony of self and cosmos was further disrupted, until the human self – now emancipated and increasingly alone – began to be seen as the maker of meaning rather than its mediator.

It is this process – the formation of "modernity" through the growth of individualism (religious, political, economic) – that we are trying to analyse here, in so far as it has an impact of the Christian understanding of the family. (The story may be pursued through the Enlightenment to the Existentialists and Postmodernists of the 20th century with the help of some helpful books you will find in the Reading List at the end of these pages.)



Both Weaver and Dupré locate the roots of modernity in the 14th century. The hundred years after 1300 was disastrous for the medieval world view. It was the century of the Black Death, the Great Schism in the Papacy, and the 100 Years War. It was a century in which old certainties and structures were collapsing, and a new world order would soon emerge that had less room for God. In particular, it was the century in which the philosophy of Nominalism (associated with the Franciscan William of Ockham and his successors) swept away the medieval synthesis of St Thomas and the High Scholastics. Nominalism it was that set the scene for the Protestant Reformation (Luther regarded William as his "master") as well as for the philosophical developments of the later Enlightenment period, which will not be discussed here in detail.

But what was this "Nominalism"? The ancient Classical and Christian tradition had held that knower and known are united in the act of knowledge, which is possible on the basis that the world which is known and the mind which knows both contain Ideas. The world is an expression of eternal Forms, which exist either in themselves (Plato) or in things (Aristotle) or in the mind of God (Augustine). These Ideas – also called "Universals" - are real, and so this tradition was called Realism. These real Forms or Ideas enter into the mind of the knower in the act of knowledge, which therefore "knows" by becoming united with the essence of that which is known. Exactly how the Ideas entered into the mind, or whether they were there somehow already, was a subject for debate. St Thomas believed that they entered by virtue of a kind of intellectual light (the active intellect) which abstracts a given "species" from sensory experience. The marriage between knower and known therefore takes place in this "intelligible species", which is the embodiment of a Universal in the mind. But Nominalists denied the existence of the species altogether. Indeed they denied the real existence of the Universals. For the Nominalists, ideas such as Beauty or Truth or Justice, or even the less transcendental ideas such as Dog or Cat or Table or Chair, are only labels, names (nomines) we attach for the sake of convenient reference to the only things that truly are, that is, to individual objects.

The exact extent to which William of Ockham himself can be called a full-blooded Nominalist (or even to possess a coherent and consistent philosophy at all) is subject to debate, but he certainly taught that we can only know individual things, rather than "Universals", and that we grasp these immediately by an intuitive power of the mind rather than mediately through a "species". This meant that sin, charity, grace, salvation and all the dogmas of the Church, including even the existence of God, became unknowable – for all of these involve Universals – except by our acceptance of the authority of the Church which tells us about them. We cannot understand; we can only accept, or refuse to accept. William himself was a believer (although he was constantly in trouble with the Church and his ideas were three times condemned). Later followers often were not.

This new philosophy swept through the universities. Perhaps it suited the sceptical temper of the age. At any rate, whether it created the age or reflected it, the effect was to reduce the world to a single "level". Whereas previously there had been a realm of Ideas and rationality mediating between God and man, now there was no mediation, only a gap crossed by a single, fragile thread: the will. The reasons for belief – the things which made belief reasonable – had been taken away. Thus in Nominalism lay the seeds first of fideism, then of agnosticism, and then of atheism.


Two Kinds of Freedom

For Thomas Aquinas, the will had been a rational power, and its fixed end was the knowledge of truth. The freedom of the will enables us to navigate our way through reality to arrive at this end. The more we understand, the more we are free, until we achieve complete freedom in the loving union with God. According to William of Ockham, by contrast, God created and maintained the world through an arbitrary use of power, unrestricted by any order of wisdom. A sin was a sin simply because God said it was, not because it was evil in itself. God might have decided to make us hate him, or to make adultery and murder into good acts instead of evil, but he had chosen otherwise.

For the followers of Ockham, the will is not a rational power, but an arbitrary one. This emphasis on the will is termed voluntarism, and it had two immediate effects. One was to suggest that the legal order should be determined by the will of the lawgiver, rather than its intrinsic rationality. (This prepared the way for the coming age of absolute rulers.) The second was to suggest to philosophers that the order of the cosmos could not be deduced by logic but only be discovered by observation, thus encouraging the development of modern science. The two tendencies came together around 1600 in Francis Bacon, the great prophet of the modern technological approach to nature – for whom, since nature had no intrinsic purpose (telos) of its own, no "final cause", it was up to us to give it one by our own will: that is, to master and control it.

Throughout the literature of the Renaissance we see the prevalence of the idea that since the will is the centre of man, man is a creature who is responsible for shaping himself, and determining his own destiny, as God shapes the world. The idea had a lot of appeal, but the difficulty now was to come up with a coherent theory of responsible action, for the self had effectively been sundered from its objective reference in the social whole, that is in the common good or common goal of human nature. None of the Enlightenment thinkers succeeded in solving this problem, although various solutions were tried.

In an important book by the Dominican writer, Servais Pinckaers (The Sources of Christian Ethics) Nominalism also plays an important part. Pinckaers argues that it led to a new conception of freedom. Freedom for moral excellence or virtue was replaced by the idea of freedom from constraint, or freedom of opportunity – the freedom to choose between alternatives. We see this conception of freedom active in the French Revolution, which threw off of the constraints of the ancien regime. But we also see it much later in the phenomenon of consumerism, which depends upon the belief that we are more free the more choices we are offered of different things to purchase or consume. The older tradition would have said that it doesn’t matter how much choice we have between Pepsi and Coke, if we remain powerless to choose the one thing which is virtuous and right. The power to be good, rather than the mere power to choose, is what we ought to be seeking, because it is only this which will lead to our ultimate happiness. The saints in heaven are not less free because they can no longer choose to do evil.

How does all this affect the family? The individualism I have been describing weakened the bonds within the family structure itself. The fundamental bond in a Christian family (apart from that which exists between the mother and child) is the covenantal relationship between the married couple themselves. This means a sharing of life and mutual commitment so deep that we can say the two have become "one flesh". This is the basis for the existence of the sacrament of marriage as a source of grace for the couple. But individualism does not understand covenants. It turns a covenant into a contract – which is a much less serious thing, and more easily dissolved. Furthermore, the Nominalist emphasis on individual self-determination rather than the social whole and the common good eventually sets not only the parents against one another, in a battle of self-interest against self-interest, but the parents against the children and the children against the parents. For individualism, there is no social whole, no community, other than that created by the temporary agreement of individuals to live together under certain conditions and for a specific purpose.

Secondly, this tendency is reinforced by what we have said about the "consumerist" understanding of freedom. The glorification of choice, applied to marriage, not only undermines the idea that a couple can bind themselves to each other for life, but also teaches us to view the world and each other as material to be exploited or used for our own individual ends. We define ourselves as "choosers", as consumers (not producers or lovers), and so everything around us becomes a field of options to be chosen. The only basis on which we can choose is our own desires, because otherwise someone else would be choosing for us. In this way everything, including the relationships we choose to enter into, becomes effectively instrumentalized.


Nature and Grace

Individualism is associated with various forms of dualism: nature and grace, body and mind, will and intelligence, Church and world, facts and values. There had always been in Christian thought a dualism between Creator and creation, but this dualism was moderated by the existence of a twofold relation. God and the world are related, first, by origin, because the world reflects the Ideas of God (his "wisdom"). Thus the world is a fabric of natural symbols, in which everything exists in relation to God and is determined in its very being by that relation.

Secondly, it is related by its end. Its destiny is to be saved and assumed into heaven, into God’s eternity, with Christ in the Resurrection. As the Eastern Fathers put it, the world is to be "deified" through man. This deification includes matter, which for the ancient Greeks was a negative principle and for the Gnostics an evil one. Christians believed that the body is good and would be included in the Resurrection. It is the whole person, body and soul, who is saved by Christ.

The "fateful separation" between nature and grace happened mainly in the West. After Augustine, Dupré suggests, Western Christians laid more emphasis on the effects of the Fall, to such an extent that for Thomas Aquinas the Incarnation itself had been a response to the Fall, and would not have happened otherwise. This was later taken to imply that nature would have had a destiny other than deification, if God had not decided to become man and given it this higher calling. That implication was only drawn, however, until after the impact of Nominalism had weakened the sense of an intelligible relationship between God and nature.

If God’s power and will was unconditioned by Wisdom - the world of intelligible Ideas - then his calling to union with himself (by grace) could only be the result of a divine decree, bearing no necessary relation to any intelligible reason, even that of the subject’s moral state or good deeds. As we have seen, Creator and creation were separated by a gulf that had previously been filled with the divine Ideas. The only way across that gulf was by personal experience of salvation.

This is where Protestantism comes into its own, and indeed the loss of philosophical mediation went along with an attack by Protestant leaders on the idea of any human mediation of divine grace by the Church and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, by Our Lady and the Saints. The emphasis was upon the naked confrontation of God and sinner, of the individual faced with his experience of God, now supposed to take place in his encounter with the unmediated Word of God in a vernacular translation of Holy Scripture. (Of course, the Bible had to be invested with semi-divine status to disguise the fact that it too was a form of mediation, and one that is intimately associated with the Church.)

By the 19th century even Catholic theologians had tended to accept that the world existed on two separate storeys, with grace occupying the second floor. This made it almost impossible for them to engage with the culture at large, for increasingly that culture was being determined by what was happening on the ground floor: the world of nature, and the scientific exploration of nature. God had become, for many, an "unnecessary hypothesis".

The dualism of nature and grace, faith and reason, was associated also with a growing separation of faith from morality and theology from spirituality – and with a "fortress mentality" within the Church, which rejected any influences from outside as dangerous and corrupt, and an extreme clericalism which insisted on keeping the laity in a subordinate and passive position.

Dupré does not take his account up into the modern period, but the scene was now set for the Church’s confrontation with the Modernists in the late 19th century, who wanted to accommodate theology to the findings of science. The way out of this conundrum was eventually found in the century that followed partly with the help of the nouvelle theologie and the ressourcement movement, in which Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar played a key role (although the movement was anticipated by John Henry Newman in England). It was the influence of the ressourcement which led to the breakthrough at the Second Vatican Council by which the Church began once more to engage with the modern world in a constructive manner.


The Church and the World

The positive achievements of modernity are many and obvious, and many of them were openly celebrated in the documents of the Vatican Council. Apart from improved medical, communications and transport technology, and our ability to free people from many kinds of pain and feed them in greater numbers than ever before, the modern world has seen a new appreciation of subjective experience and arguably developed a stronger sense of the inviolability of conscience. Democratic government is a considerable improvement over systems which permitted corrupt rulers only to be removed from office by violent revolution. The education of modern sensibilities against torture, against cruelty to animals, against the death penalty, has all been positive. So has the extension of education and political participation to women. The list could be extended to include the toleration, or outright appreciation, of religious and cultural diversity – even when this is coupled with a conviction that not all belief-systems are equally "true".

Yet still these positive achievements affect a relatively small minority. Human cruelty and intolerance has not been abolished, and in many ways the advance of technological power has made things worse. Hunger and disease have not been eliminated either: most of our resources seem rather to go in the direction of warfare. The most educated and enlightened nations are the ones which suffer from the worst social fragmentation and the hidden holocaust of abortion.

The Church has to find a way of responding to all this – of healing the sickness but integrating those positive achievements that represent an advance on what went before. The key to the integration of nature and grace (without the absorption of the one by the other) is the Trinity revealed in Christ and the union of divine and human nature in him. This is essentially a nuptial relation. An understanding of nuptiality, or marriage, is therefore essential for the healing of theology and even for a healing of the world – not to mention a healing of the family which is the basic cell of society. "Nuptiality" implies a union in love which deepens in direct proportion to the growth and integrity of the lovers. The Christian and the Church, in other words, are involved in a marriage with the world, a marriage which is consummated in the Eucharist.

According to David Schindler in Heart of the World, Center of the Church, the healthy relationship of Church and world is distorted into a "bad marriage" when the Church is tempted either to control the world by force, as in the Middle Ages ("integralism"), or to give up its own integrity ("liberationism"), or to maintain a merely contractual or individualistic relationship ("neoconservatism"). The mistake of the early liberation theologians was to allow the world to absorb the Church, as though grace had no goal in view other than worldly fulfilment in peace and justice. The mistake of neoconservatives, on the other hand, was to accept the externality of the world to the Church, while trying to throw a bridge over the chasm by exerting a more powerful moral influence. But the ethical link is always going to be too weak, and come too late, in the face of rampant individualism and consumerism. The true solution, argues Schindler, lies in a more radical integration of Church and world by means of "communio ecclesiology".

Let us relate this back to the philosophical issues already discussed. The dualism that divided the Church from the world, and which the Church is now struggling to overcome, led to a moral and spiritual implosion within society. Cut off from the transcendent, and from the sense that creation has an intrinsic meaning and purpose, human moral behaviour and social structures – especially the family - lost their coherence and intellectual justification. It took a few hundred years, but the result was the emergence of a culture oriented largely towards physical pleasure and death. The dynamic tendency underlying this development was set in motion by the philosophical revolution of the fourteenth century, led by the Franciscans.

These philosophers were not bad men - indeed, some of them were saints. They were trying to incorporate in their philosophy the Christian insight that an individual (Jesus Christ) has assumed priority over all universal ideas. In other words, the particular human nature of this man, united with the divine nature in a single hypostasis, had become a concrete universal: the definitive expression of God’s nature and wisdom. Truth is not, in the end, an Idea, but a Person. This was, however, itself an idea, and a very dangerous one. It had consequences. Later philosophers proceeded to grant priority to the individual over the universal in epistemology and ethics as in metaphysics. But to concentrate all mediation between God and man, and all universal intelligibility, in this one figure, Jesus Christ, who could be known only by faith, was to risk losing everything – God, man and intelligibility – once faith grew cold.

Perhaps the lesson we should take from all this is that modernity is fundamentally a Christian phenomenon. While the early Franciscans would have been horrified by some of the turns it took in later centuries, nevertheless the dynamic towards individualism is present within Christianity, perhaps more than in other religions. Individualism originates in the Christian emphasis on love. It is by a deeper understanding of love – in marriage and the family, in nuptial theology, in ecclesiology – that we can best try to solve the cultural problem of individualism.


3.The Sincere Gift of Self

Let me recapitulate. The culture of death is a culture of "alienation". Man has an essential "capacity for self-transcendence", which is frustrated in any society which does not encourage and foster the "sincere gift of self". The consumerist society that surrounds us today is such a society, because everything is measured in terms of the advantage to the self. The message of the TV commercials is quite clear on this point. "Because I’m worth it!"

To transcend ourselves means to go beyond ourselves in self-giving love to another person. Only in this way can we "find" our true selves, or rather bring ourselves to the completion, the happiness, that God intends us to achieve by the use of our freedom. We find ourselves by losing ourselves, by making sacrifices.

Individualism, of course, is all very well, until suffering comes along, as it surely will eventually. Then individualism turns to despair. Suddenly I find I am "worth" nothing, or less than nothing. In crisis, the individualist may at last discover the truth of which the Pope speaks: that our happiness and sanity depend on our capacity for self-transcendence, for self-gift, for going out to the Other. The psychologist Viktor Frankl (inventor of logotherapy) found that only those people kept their humanity in the concentration camps who were able to keep faith with something or someone beyond themselves. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes are built around the discovery that the escape from addiction depends on accepting the reality of a "higher power".

The "culture of death", which afflicts modern families is given this rather dramatic name by the Pope because it literally leads to death. It leads to spiritual death, if followed to the end, and it leads to the physical deaths of millions of unborn children. It leads to the death of families, and the death of faith, hope and love. Life, faith, hope and love all come, ultimately, from outside the self and are things we receive. They are not things we can generate for ourselves. Nor are they things which, once received, we can hold on to and keep for ourselves. They live only in being given, and they are increased by being shared with others.

Hans Urs von Balthasar described the culture of death as a "world without women [because it is a world in which any differences between men and women have been suppressed], without children [because all children have either been killed or converted into toys], without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation [because poverty and humiliation are seen as mere failure to be successful] – a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria [since the only realities are those which can be seen and measured], where the disinterested, the useless, the [seemingly] purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated" (cited in Schindler, p. 261).

The culture of death is conditioned by the divorce of nature from grace. Individualism places the telos of our nature within the natural world and potentially under our own control. But we are not, as a matter of fact, made for a fulfilment entirely in this world. We are called to union with God, which is only possible through self-gift, which opens us up to prayer, which enables us to receive grace, which in turn orders us towards our supernatural end in God, who is love.


Marriage and Redemption

I said that the gift of self in its fullest form is expressed in a covenant. Two kinds of covenant are possible: the gift of self to another human person, and the self-gift to God directly. It is worth dwelling on this for a moment. Firstly, the human covenant. I can give myself to a friend, even to the extent of laying down my life for him, but this does not yet constitute a covenant, for a covenant requires reciprocity. It is modelled, if you like, on the divine love of God in the Trinity, a love of perfect exchange. We find the nearest approximation in sacramental marriage, where two lives are merged into a new thing.

Such a union is "for life" in several senses of that phrase. It is "for life" in the sense that we cannot subsequently change our minds and dissolve it. The self that is given to the other in the marriage vow is not the self of me aged 25 or me aged 27-36. It is the me who is the same "me" from now until death. I may change radically: I may lose a leg, or an eye, or most of my brain. The Nominalist might say that in that case I am no longer the same person: the "me" has changed. The Christian knows that I have the same soul and I am the same person throughout my life - the same person whose life was given and merged with that of another.

The union is "for life" also in the sense that in giving I receive – and the gift is always more than merely a return of the same thing. I do not give you a Christmas present only for you to turn around, put new wrapping paper on it, and hand it right back. The gift of self is a gift that opens us up to receive the unexpected. I give life: I receive new life. I may even receive a child. To sterilize the act of love is to kill the gift; it is to turn my gift into a thing, something less than a person – a gift of pleasure, or comfort, perhaps, but not a gift of myself, full of the magic that comes from God.

The Covenant between God and man is the archetype and source of the human covenant of marriage. It is instituted from God’s side in the Old Testament, and culminates in the "New Covenant" of Jesus Christ. It is a Covenant which reveals the nature of God, or the inner life of God. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is only through the Covenant that the Trinity can be revealed to us. For what the Trinity means is that God himself, in his own inner life, is Covenant. He is Covenant because he is love.

Now the modern world, as we saw, being a world of "individuals" rather than of "persons", does not understand covenants, whereas the Church wants to hold open the possibility of the covenant, because this is the path to our supernatural end. That is what is at stake in the battle over divorce and family legislation. The Church wants people to be able to give themselves to each other in a total way. She knows that it is possible, and she knows that the child born within such a covenantal marriage is already riding on a current of grace that is denied to the child who is born of a temporary liason. It may be that the Church will have to accept that most "marriages" are not of this sort. What she cannot do is deny the reality of marriage itself, which is rooted in human nature and in its divine destiny.


Freedom and Truth

The Pope says in Veritatis Splendor (87): "freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self". Our modern crisis involves a separation of freedom and truth. Freedom is possession of the truth, and the truth of the self and the world is pure relationality to the Father. Thus freedom and truth come together in the Cross, where the Son offers himself freely to the Father on our behalf. They are separated by individualism, which seeks the possession of the self by the self alone, and not through self-gift or relation to the Father.

This idea of the unity of freedom and truth is put very succinctly by Joseph Ratzinger in the Spring 1987 Communio, where he takes the modern understanding of freedom – freedom from constraint – and deepens it until we see that it is contained within a deeper concept of freedom, freedom for virtue, which is unity with the truth. "He who can merely choose between arbitrary options is not yet free. Only he who takes the measure of his action from within and need obey no external constraint is free. Therefore, he is free who has become one with his essence, one with the truth itself. For he who is one with the truth no longer acts according to external necessities and constraints; essence, willing, and acting have coincided in him."

Thus Maximilian Kolbe was never freer than when he was offering his own life for a fellow-prisoner in Auschwitz – and action founded on the interior freedom that comes from living our true vocation in Christ, which is love. The Pope writes that freedom is at once "inalienable self-possession and openness to all that exists, in passing beyond self to knowledge and love of the other" (Veritatis Splendor 86). Christ has "set us free for freedom" (Gal. 5:1), for we are never truly free until our true self, our true vocation, is accepted as gift and lived as self-gift. "Freedom exists for the sake of love" (Love and Responsibility, p. 135). Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20), and "the true will of man is the divine will" (Blondel).

All this teaching on authentic freedom and liberation is implicit in that beautiful scene we call the Annunciation, where the Blessed Virgin Mary accepts without compulsion the destiny for which she has been prepared, and thus restores on our behalf the receptivity of the creature before its Creator, making possible the union between man and God. In the Annunciation, Our Lady was not hampered either by Original or by personal sin from being able to say "Yes". If she had been less than Immaculate, there would have been some shadow or weakness in her power to consent. In us, who have lost our original integrity, division within the self causes slavery to sin. We cannot make a real decision, though we have the illusion of freedom in a multiple-choice world. Through Mary, we are given the power again to make a real decision. There may come a point in our spiritual life when we realize that we are free to choose, as we have never been before. But this decision is not a choice between a range of paths spread out before us; it is between forward and back. Or rather, there is only one decision to take, and we may either take it or refuse. This choice is between life and death. It is a grace that comes to us from Our Lady, and it affords us a glimpse into her own luminous freedom.


Philosophy and the Culture of Life

This conception of freedom uniting itself with truth is rendered unintelligible by Nominalism. I make no apology for dwelling so much in this course on philosophy, which the Pope in Fides et Ratio (1998) calls the "mirror" of culture (section 103). Not only does it reflect the mentality of the culture, but it helps to form it, and while few members of a society may be professionally engaged in philosophy, the majority imbibe its conclusions by other means. Nominalism destroys the possibility of knowing by participation. The relation between things and persons is no longer interior, by virtue of intelligibility, but exterior, by the will acting upon them from outside. The world becomes a vast machine with many parts, which man can take apart and reassemble as he chooses.

I think we are better prepared now to appreciate the importance of the Pope’s account of the development of modern philosophy, its limitations and dangers for the faith, in Fides et Ratio. In section 98 of that letter (drawing on Veritatis Splendor) he sums up the main practical conclusion. The loss of the idea that the truth about the good, the truth about our existence as a gift coming from and returning to God, can be known by the human mind brings about a change in our notion of conscience. "Conscience is no longer considered in its prime reality as an act of the person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth different from the truth of others."

He goes on to say that, if it is to tackle problems such as that of the family and the defence of life, moral theology has to rely on a "philosophical ethics which looks to the truth of the good, to an ethics which is neither subjectivist not utilitarian. Such an ethics implies and presupposes a philosophical anthropology and a metaphysics of the good." The key to this anthropology and metaphysics has been given us by the Pope, and it is fundamentally mystical. It is founded in prayer, which is the oxygen of the soul because it opens us to the transcendent. Man is a mystical animal, an animal with an interiority, capable of giving himself to another in that dimension, and only able to find himself in the giving. But in order to be able to give he must first learn how to receive.

Exactly how we make philosophical sense of our power to know – whether it is by means of concepts, or species, or Ideas or archetypes, whether by an active intellect or a hyperactive thyroid – is and probably always will be a matter for argument. Neither the Catholic tradition nor the Pope dictates an answer. But that we can know, and that we can know our "most high calling", is more than just important. It is crucial, both for ourselves and for our families, as for our whole society. We have seen what happens when people start to deny us our power to know.



Note 1

The Family and Human Rights

We have seen the way that philosophers came to believe that morality is determined by the (arbitrary) decision of the lawgiver. Voluntarism leads to legal positivism: that is, the doctrine that what is right is what is legal, and what is wrong is what happens to be illegal. Now as this idea took hold, it naturally led to a demand that these laws be codified, and in particular that the rights of the individual under the law should be codified. As the individual grew in importance, the rights of the individual rather than the demands of the common good came to be seen as the basis for all justice. The purpose of a just society was simply to make sure that the rights of all individuals were respected. The end result of this was that everything became a battle for power, a battle to define the law, a battle to make sure that my own interests are represented in the political process which determines the difference between right and wrong.

But what are rights? Where do they come from? Rights are grounded in anthropology – in our understanding of human nature. If man is defined increasingly in terms of his ability to choose and to consume, this is a weak anthropology that can set no limits to the rights that might be claimed in the name of the individual. Thus we see the claim to divorce, to abortion, to cloned children… everything we want becomes a right. The only basis for a coherent doctrine of human rights is a belief in a really existing human nature in which those rights subsist; and the only basis for a human nature is a transcendent origin, or divine Creator. If human nature is to be something other than an evolving succession of individual physical states has to be defined in relation to something that transcends time. It can exist as a unity only in relation to the divine intention to create it. Every human being is a person of equal worth and dignity because created by God and called to union with him [Catechism, paras 356-7, 1929-30]. There is no other basis for a belief in human equality – for in every other respect, of course, we are radically different from each other, and not "equal" at all. Thus the doctrine of divine creation is the basis of our anthropology, and it gives us a coherent position from which to argue both for the existence of human rights, and for the definition of what rights we actually possess.

If I am more than a stone or a statistic or a consumer; if I am not just a thing but a person, then it is because I have been endowed with my existence by God for a purpose (Greek: telos). It is with purpose, with teleology, that morality enters the picture. I have been sent into the world to do something: to live, to love and to seek God. I have an obligation, which is a moral obligation towards God, to do what I was created to do. That obligation establishes a right, and that right demands respect from others. Every right imposes a duty. Others have a duty to allow or help me do what I was created to do; I have a duty to do the same for them. And from these simple facts it follows that every person has a right to life, first of all, and to worship, to freedom, to make a family, to own property, to be educated, to receive a just wage, and so on. In fact, because human nature, being made in the image of a Trinitarian God, is intrinsically social, all the rights that pertain to that nature have social implications [Catechism, 1878-82, 1905-8].


Note 2

Catholic Teaching on Family and Culture in the Catechism


Creation: 295, 299, 302, 311, 372-3

Person: 355-61, 1700-06

Rights: 1928-30

Freedom: 1730-42

Path of charity: 1889

Common good: 1905-7, 1914

Vocation to love: 1604

Marriage and celibacy: 1620

Covenant: 1640

Basic cell of society: 2201-3, 2207-13

Procreative: 2337, 2366, 2371, 2378

Indissoluble: 2384-5


Reading List


  • Léonie Caldecott, "A Sincere Gift: The Pope’s ‘New Feminism’", from Curran and McCormick SJ (eds), John Paul II and Moral Theology (Paulist Press, 1998)
  • Allan Carlson, "The UN: From Friend to Foe", Touchstone, Nov. 2000
  • Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity (Yale University Press, 1993)
  • Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Ignatius, 1999)
  • Scott Hahn, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002)
  • Thomas A.F. Kelly, Language, World and God (Columba Press, 1996)
  • Linacre Centre, "A Theologians’ Brief – On the Place of the Human Embryo within the Christian Tradition" (submitted to the House of Lords, 2000), available with other useful papers on the Linacre Centre web-site (
  • Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (Ignatius, 1995)
  • Francis Martin, The Feminist Question (T&T Clark/Eerdmans, 1994)
  • Glenn W. Olsen (ed.), Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (Crossroad, 2001)
  • Servais Pinckaers OP, The Sources of Christian Ethics (T&T Clark/CUA, 1995)
  • Patrick Riley, Civilizing Sex: On Chastity and the Common Good (T&T Clark, 2000)
  • David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church (T&T Clark, 1996)
  • Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Gift: Creation (Marquette University Press, 1982)
  • Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love (T&T Clark/CUA, 1999)
  • Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (William Collins, 1981)
  • Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago Press [1948])