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June/July 2000

A THOROUGHLY MODERN MIND

ANTHONY S.D McCARTHY (M.A)

"The 'Modern Mind' is confirmed in its folly by the fixed
idea that someone or other somewhere "proved" its errors
to be truths and that the proof was final and obvious."


Hilaire Belloc

Survivals and New Arrivals

Christopher Hitchens writes widely and well. No one can doubt his talent for vituperation or his ability to produce interesting copy. What one can and must doubt is the value of his ruminations.

Two areas where Mr Hitchens is always on hand for an opinion are the activities and theology of the Catholic Church. Before I examine the validity of the relevant statements so confidently peppered throughout his writings, it is as well to note what Mr Hitchens rejects. Not for him the grey conformity of the ‘mainstream’, where serious judgements are deemed ‘judgmental’; where truth is defined as something ‘everybody knows’; where presuppositions are never challenged.(1)

Here is a secular man willing to use the word "evil" and to condemn, as a Stalinist device, the practice of condemning a protagonist’s motives instead of his arguments.(2) Given this, we might reasonably hope for him to be a respecter of truth and an adherent to the rules of rational debate. However, when it comes to the Catholic Church the fine sentiments dissolve and we are faced with yet another proponent of the respectable form of anti-Semitism; anti-Catholicism.

Eclipse of Reason
A certain loftiness of tone is insufficient to replace argument, just as cultivation and intellectual pretension do not ensure truth. Shaming one’s opponent into agreeing with you is a device which can be used effectively, but it is always the sign of the uncourageous thinker, the thinker too timid to proclaim honestly what is good and what is true. Why is this so? It is so because any criticism presupposes an objective standard; therefore a critic who denies the existence of such a standard is not a critic in any meaningful sense. The critic who accepts the need for a standard has no need to resort to shaming and bullying tactics. The ‘critic’ who rejects objective standards can resort to little else. This is a problem for the ‘radical’ Hitchens, who informs us, in a revelatory statement, that:

"[n]othing is sacred. Nothing is written. Only doubt is scientific. Very probably only doubt is truly artistic."(3)

The question as to how this sceptic can be meaningfully radical is not answered for us, for if he is to doubt everything (i.e. be, in his view, truly scientific) how is he to denounce anything. As G.K Chesterton put it ‘...the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.'(4)

Given this disastrous position, what is left but to appeal to feeling over intellect. Unfortunately Hitchens believes himself to be on the side of Reason and says so. He describes his polemical book on Mother Teresa as:

"...a small episode in an unending argument between those who know they are right and therefore claim the mandate of heaven, and those who suspect that the human race has nothing but the poor candle of reason by which to light its way.’"(5) [Italics in original]

Hearing that reason is opposed to knowing or coming to certitude, is hearing of something that has a character very close to contradictory. Nevertheless, the false modesty displayed with regard to reason in the above extract is informative. For, if reason is taken as capable of supplying only partial and provisional truths, what is it that supplies us with authority in judgements? The answer here is predictable - Hitchens! Sure enough Hitchens does claim to know a great deal, without the support of reason. Here he is giving his thoughts on Christ’s exorcism of Lot’s demons:

"[i]t’s much more difficult to see the scene as it actually was; a bunch of stupefied Galilean peasants watching the convulsions of an epileptic and then seeing some pigs behave oddly on a neighbouring slope, and being induced to draw the connection by an exorcist on the make."(6) [Emphasis added]

So, Hitchens apparently knows the scene ‘as it actually was.’ How does he know that it was as he says? A clue is given by his reference to David Hume’s injunction on miracles:

"[w]hich is more likely, that the laws of nature have been suspended? Or that I am under a misapprehension?"(7)

Never mind that Hume’s sensationism cannot give rise to the concept of "laws of nature."(8) The question to ask is: ‘does the continual repetition of natural sequences prove the impossibility of exception?’ The answer to this question is a categorical ‘no’, for there is no rational connection between the two. But Hitchens apparently knows that such exceptions could not possibly have taken place. Reason didn’t get him there. How about evidence? Sadly our ‘radical’ writer has problems with this too. The description of the peasants as stupefied and (by implication) gullible is justified on the grounds that they believed a miracle to have occurred. Thus, to believe in miracles is to be gullible and therefore untrustworthy. This circular argument against miracles does not allow evidence to penetrate it. For if evidence be given for miracles, it is dismissed, for to give it is to prove one’s own stupidity.

Already we can detect the defining features of that ‘Modern Mind’ which Belloc described so well: Pride, Ignorance and Intellectual Sloth. Let us see how this mind operates with regard to the doctrines and philosophy of the Catholic Church.

Ignorance: deception: self-contradiction
We know that Hitchens associates innocence with ignorance, as is demonstrated by the following ‘thought’, granted to us in conclusion to a piece on anarchists:

"[t]heir often religious and millennial attitude to the future derives in part from a religious attitude towards the past; towards some primordial and timeless hellhole of ignorance, innocence and simplicity such as Eden is reported to have been."(9)

One wonders which reports are being referred to. The Book of Genesis recounts the Fall of Man as one caused by the blindness of Pride, resulting in the distortion of unaided human reason and a corruption of the will, inclining it to falsehood. The prior state of Man, in this account, is one of union with the Creator and therefore immense wisdom. What ignorance there was, was ignorance of sin (i.e. practical evil) which is, according to Catholic teaching, among other things, a breaking away from Truth. After Original Sin "[t]he eyes of the mind were no longer able to see clearly; reason became more and more a prisoner to itself."(10)

One may disbelieve in the doctrine of the Fall of Man, but one may not claim that Eden was "reported to be" a hellhole of ignorance and innocence. The Fall of Man is a story wherein innocence and wisdom are destroyed by disobedience to God. Choosing sin is not to choose knowledge, but to choose ignorance.

By representing Eden as something other than this, Hitchens reveals ignorance but no innocence. To be contemptuous of innocence, to associate it with ignorance, is to attack that very sense of wonder that is necessary for true philosophy and true science. It comes as no surprise then that Hitchens, whilst misrepresenting the story of Eden, declares himself a supporter of that ‘reason’ become more and more a prisoner to itself, more and more a fig-leaf to cover his own erroneous and partial statements.

Ignorance of Church teaching, coupled with a distinct lack of innocence, is further demonstrated in the following passage:

"The Catholic Church is a limitless source of fascination, to believers as well as unbelievers, because of its attitude toward sex and procreation...Homosexual acts are condemned, as in a way are homosexual persons. Heterosexual acts taking place outside the bond of lawful matrimony are condemned, whether premarital or extramarital. The sexual act within marriage is frowned upon unless it has reproduction as its object."(11)

What is one to say of a writer who finds the Catholic Church a limitless source of fascination, but only on the grounds of its attitude to sex and procreation. To say that this suggests a narrow mind would be an understatement, but narrow it is, and deceiving.

It is true that homosexual acts are condemned, but homosexual persons are not. The use of the words "in a way" is both imprecise and clumsy, perhaps maliciously so. The Catholic Catechism unambiguously states that homosexual persons, or rather, persons with such an inclination: "...must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."(12) This statement appears under the section Love thy neighbour as thyself. By blurring the distinction between agent and act our author reveals his unacknowledged debt to behaviourist logic, a logic incapable of appreciating the Christian injunction to hate the sin and love the sinner.(13)

Not content with the above misrepresentation, Hitchens then makes a patently false statement; namely that sexual acts which don’t have reproduction as their object are "frowned upon" by the Catholic Church. One would hope that a critic of the Church’s teaching would take the trouble to find out what that teaching actually is.

Humanae Vitae encourages the natural method, which permits use of the infertile period "for acceptable reasons where the married couple are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born." Pope Paul VI goes on to state: "...when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity towards one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love."(14)

How can this be said to constitute "frowning upon" the aforementioned acts?

No answer!

Moral questions relating to contraception and chastity are complex and require careful philosophical analysis; an analysis Hitchens shows no signs of undertaking. Thus can he state:

"[t]he Roman Catholic Church stands alone in condemning the desire to remove oneself from the caprices of nature and evolution...."(15)

No mention there of the natural method encouraged by the Church and taught by, among others, Mother Teresa’s nuns. No mention of the issue, made explicit by Pope John Paul II, of maintaining an adequate relationship between domination of the forces of nature and mastery of self.

Either Hitchens is unaware of the existence of the natural method, or he equates it with artificial methods of contraception. If the former is the case, one can see why he does not discuss it, but one can’t see why he is published, or why he is taken seriously as a commentator. If the latter is the case, he is simply mistaken.

The Church’s teaching is that the contraceptive intention is wrong. By this is meant, not the intention to limit the number of children a couple may have (an intention which Humanae Vitae can approve of) but rather, the intentional action of "purposely rendering infertile a life transmitting act and changing it into another sort of act altogether."(16) Artificial contraception does precisely this, whereas the natural method, by insisting upon regular abstinence, does nothing to render occasions of fertile sexual union infertile.(17) It must be added that a couple entering into Catholic marriage and proposing always to confine intercourse to infertile periods would, in the eyes of the Church, be falsifying their marriage. For a married Catholic couple are bound to ‘...possess solid convictions about the true values of life and family.’(18)

Pope John Paul II (dismissed by Hitchens as reactionary and authoritarian) has gone to great lengths to show that the Church rejects artificial contraception not only because She regards it as a violation of chastity and a subversion of natural law, but also because She believes sexual intercourse to have an inherent meaning of total bodily self-giving. Contraception obscures this meaning with "a contradictory language of withholding and refusal." In what sense contradictory? The Pope’s position is that "[t]he fertility, which is withheld or refused, is not simply a superficial, biological component of the person which can be manipulated in the pursuit of other ends, but an aspect of the person as a whole. Contraception therefore violates the dignity of the person because it falsifies the total offering of self which intercourse is meant to express."(19)

In order to understand the Church’s teaching here, issues relating to the dignity of persons, the nature of love, the purpose of sex, need to be thought through. Hitchens simply refuses to engage with these vital issues.

On the question of abortion Hitchens at least appears to have found out what the Church’s teaching is. He even seems to be sympathetic to it:

"[t]he nobility of this essential teaching is compromised by the fact that it depends on an unnecessary theological assumption about ‘ensoulment’ - the point at which Thomas Aquinas maintained that life became human and immortal. Two objections can be made here the first being that human life can and should be respected whether or not it is constituted by a creator with an immortal soul; to make one position contingent upon the other is to make respect in some way contingent."’(20)

Remember that "nothing is sacred" for Hitchens. Remember also that "only doubt is scientific." Yet here, the value of human life is both certain and, well, "sacred", or at least something demanding unconditional "respect." In fact, to offer some explanation as to why this should be so is to make this respect "in some way contingent." No explanation is offered by Hitchens about this, yet an attack is made upon explanation itself. Who "knows they are right" here?

Hitchens, as we have seen, does not adumbrate his conception of the human person; refuses to tackle the question of the dignity of persons with regard to contraception and marriage; yet appears to then assert the absolute value of human persons.

It is right to assert this value, but more needs to be done. If Man is no more than a complex and accidental product of evolutionary forces, what is it that gives him special status? Certainly the majority of people feel that Man is a creature deserving great respect, but this feeling needs to be founded, otherwise it remains merely a feeling. That it is a good feeling, based upon something true, is what the Church urges. Hitchens appreciates the feeling, but for him it has become no more than prejudice, something that needn’t be argued for. The Church can defend the feeling with a reason. Thus, what is for Hitchens a matter of sentiment, is for the Church a matter based upon reason, and it is reason which prevents the sentiment from being merely sentimental. It is as well to remember that if history teaches nothing else, it teaches us that when sentiments are cut off from reason and can no longer be defended by a system of thought, those sentiments wither and die.

The Church holds a consistent position with regard to the dignity of persons, contraception and abortion, a position not purely reliant on sentiment. Hitchens has this to say with regard to holders of this position:

"No one who is not for the provision of sex education, contraception, and child care should be allowed to have any position on abortion at all." [Emphasis added](21)

How very enlightened! The Stalinism here is unmistakable. First throw in the separate issues of sex education and child care, then proceed via this false association, to caricature one’s opponents, and finally, eliminate said opponents from the debate because they happen to disagree with you.

The desperation of this tactic is a sign of immense weakness, a weakness further compounded by Hitchens’s failure to grasp even the most basic teachings of the Church, a failure which necessarily leads him to distort other teachings. Thus can he labour under the assumption that ‘conscientious Christians’ believe that they are not to forgive others. Presumably these ‘conscientious Christians’ know not what they say as they intone that segment of the Lord’s prayer where they ask God to "...forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."(22)

Audacity does not make up for this ignorance, as can be seen when Hitchens condemns Christ for saying "you have the poor with you always", happily oblivious to the fact that Christ and His Church have never meant or interpreted these words to be an injunction to cease striving to eliminate injustice, humiliation, want and hunger.(23) Christ does mean, according to His Church, that man will always have needs which cannot be satisfied except by help for the needy and by sharing one’s goods with others. That Christ makes almsdeeds (i.e. letting others share in one’s own goods) a condition of access to His Kingdom, and of true perfection, is, unsurprisingly, ignored by Hitchens.

 

Retreat from Reality
Evidence, truth, reason - all are subverted by Hitchens, the self-proclaimed disciple of the Enlightenment. Chesterton once said that all the authority of the ministers of the Church was only a dark defence erected around one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all - the authority of a man to think.

In order to think we must maintain a firm grip on existence, and it is a sure sign of the Modern Mind that it has lost such a grasp. Hitchens demonstrates his loss whilst attempting to confront the most fundamental questions of reality:

"There are as it happens, many people who regard the origin of the universe as, according to excellent evidence and disinterested inquiry, a black hole. They (we) do not choose to make a black hole an object of worship. They (we) worry about those who do; especially about those who defend their black hole interpretation with thermonuclear devices. They (we) regard all religions as perfectly equal and pardonable revelations of the same fallacy. God did not create man in his own image; man created God in his/her image. There is only one humanity, but an infinite number of gods. This position may be a mistaken one, but it took quite a while to evolve and is congruent with quite a lot of what is observable, demonstrable and thinkable...In the beginning was, if not the black hole, at least the author. If the argument from design asks where the author came from, it must go on asking who created the author of the author until the whole utility of the question dissolves. [Emphasis in original]."(24)

What does "disinterested inquiry" (by which is meant modern science) actually have to say on the matter. The answer, is precisely nothing. Scientific proofs are valid only for things perceptible to the senses, since it is only upon such things that scientific instruments of investigation can be used. A scientific proof of God’s existence would have to lower God to the level of beings of this world, thus making a methodological error with regard to what God is. Science can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God. Quite what Hitchens means by "black hole" is hard to gauge. Either he means what a scientist means (i.e. a celestial ‘object’ that has undergone such total gravitational collapse that no light can escape from it), in which case there is no scientific evidence for such an ‘object’ preceding the origin of the universe, or he means the nothingness preceding the origin of the universe. Let us charitably assume the latter to be the case.

Given this, it is clear that Hitchens must believe that the universe simply came into existence accidentally and from nothing. But, given that he values science so highly (as indeed he should) must he not accept that if nature were not intelligible there would be no science. Why is this so? I can do no better than to quote Jacques Maritain who states: "[n]ature is not perfectly and absolutely intelligible: and sciences do not try to come to grips with nature’s intelligibility taken in itself (that’s the job of philosophy). They rather reach for it in an oblique fashion, dealing with it only insofar as it is steeped in, and masked by, the observable and measurable data of the world of experience...Yet the intelligibility of nature is the very ground of those relational constancy’s which are the ‘laws’ (including that category of laws which deals only with probabilities) to which science seen phenomena are submitted..."(25)

If nature is intelligible however it must proceed from an intelligence and any philosophical analysis must end by saying that a Prime Intelligence necessarily exists, which is the first principle of the intelligibility and essences of things, and causes order to exist in them as well as the infinitely complex network of regular relationships.

To the question ‘where did the author came from?’ it must be replied that the very asking of the question assumes what is impossible. As Thomas Aquinas makes clear, everywhere where there is motion/change there is something else which is causing the change and if a cause is itself subject to change, then it is moved or activated by another agent. But it is impossible to regress from agent to agent without end; if there were not a First Agent, the reason for the action of all others would never be posited in existence. So it is necessary to stop at a Prime Cause, itself uncaused, absolutely exempt from any change for it is absolutely perfect.(26)

One way that has been used to explain away the Intelligibility point is Kant’s idea that our minds somehow impose order and intelligibility on the world. Such a philosophy would have us believe that all scientific discoveries would cease to be true if humans ceased to be. It also has the result that in the words of Stanley L.Jaki: "[o]nce man’s mental categories determine all forms of existence, the universe must degenerate into a subjective entity."(27) The real universe becomes merely a regulative idea ‘a by-product’ of the needs of the intellect. In this subjectivist atmosphere no true science is possible. For Hitchens, given that we created God, it is really a small step to believing we created the universe. Is it fair to attribute this Kantian subjectivism to our author? The following extract gives us an answer:

Hitchens claims he has ‘refuted’ Mother Teresa’s statement that: "...today peace is threatened by abortion, too, which is a true war, the direct killing of a child by its own mother. In the Bible we read that God clearly said: ‘Even though a mother did forget her infant, I will not forget him’." This is what he says:

"Few women who have had abortions, even those who still feel remorse or regret, will recognise themselves as having committed actual infanticide."(28)

Either a woman having an abortion has committed infanticide or she has not. What she "recognises" and what is the case are entirely separate matters. But if the above statement is the refutation Hitchens claims it to be, then he must mean that if a person believes (or fails to recognise) that X is the case, then X is (or is not) the case! Even though Hitchens believes abortion to be the taking of a life, he apparently accepts that a mother who, in having an abortion, does not believe that she has taken a life has not taken a life in any meaningful way! This solipsistic way of thinking reveals that hatred of objectivity which lies at the bottom of our author’s work.

The retreat from reality is complete. All that is left for this mind is the expression of feeling. The true tragedy of this mind is that it will not think, and as Belloc reminds us, this is surely a weakness for anything calling itself a mind. In order to attack Catholic doctrines this mind will deny reason, objectivity and finally the external world. What this mind does believe in is itself; in setting its own standards, and in regarding itself alone as an ultimate authority. I have presented you with just one example of this type of mind, a well known writer, admired and applauded by many. But read any journal or newspaper today and you will encounter the same rejection of first principles, the same nihilism, the same usage of the word ‘science’ as an attractive wrapper for whatever contradictory beliefs are forwarded.

Hitchens tells us that "nothing is sacred", but given his fear and hatred of the good and the true, it is clear that what he really believes is that ‘nothingness is sacred’ and we know from what lineage that thought descends.

*****

The author would like to thank John Atherton, Martin Bysh, Tomasz Pilch, Timothy Wilkinson and Patrick McCarthy who all provided useful comments on the above. All faults and failings are purely my own. Special thanks to Dorota.


(1) The Observer (London), 19 November 1995.

(2) No One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, p.112 (Verso 1999)

(3) For the Sake of Argument, p.292 (Verso 1993)

(4) Orthodoxy, p.28 (Templegate 1984). Interestingly Hitchens describes Chesterton as "an unscrupulous Roman Catholic apologist." (see Prepared for the Worst, p.144 (Hogarth Press 1988). In his scrupulousness Hitchens forgets to give any justification for this statement.

(5) The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, p.xii (Verso 1995)

(6) The Nation Magazine, U.S., 17 March 1997.

(7) Ibid.

(8) For a detailed examination of Hume’s radically anti-science philosophy see Stanley L. Jaki’s The Road of Science and the Ways of God, Ch. 7 (Scottish Academic Press 1978).

(9) For the Sake of Argument, p.225 (Verso, 1993).

(10) Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, p.35 Pope John Paul II (CTS 1998). See also Romans 1:21-22.

(11) The Missionary Position, op.cit.. p.51

(12) The Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.595 (2358) (Geoffrey Chapman 1994)

(13) The result of Hitchens' logic is that if someone he loves does something very wrong he is obliged to hate that person!

(14) Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, p.18 Pope Paul VI (CTS 1999)

(15) The Missionary Position, op.cit., pp.53-54

(16) Contraception and Chastity, G.E.M Anscombe, p.16 (CTS)

(17) A way of explaining the difference between the two is to quote Elizabeth Anscombe’s analogy with an industrial action case. If we accept that the aim of industrial action, in a given case, is justified, it still matters how it is pursued. One worker is ‘working to rule’ and this does make a difference to the customary actions he performs in carrying out the work he does. Although his ‘further intention' reflects back on his actions, he is still, for example, driving this vehicle to this place, which is part of his job. A different worker deliberately sabotages a machine; this is emphatically not part of his job. As Anscombe says "[t]his holds quite without our having to point to the further intention." She concludes: "[t]hus the distinction we make to show that the 'rhythm method' may be justified though contraceptive intercourse is not, is a distinction needed in other contexts too." Ibid, p.20.

(18) Humanae Vitae, op.cit. p.21.

(19) The Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II (extract from introduction by Dr. J. Grabowski) p.16 (Pauline Books 1997)

(20) The Missionary Position, op.cit. p.52

(21) Interview with Christopher Hitchens by Sasha Abramsky in The Progressive, Vol. 61, 1 February, 1997.

(22) The Missionary Position, op.cit. p.88 footnote. While it is true that only God can absolve sins, it is a Christian duty always to forgive those who wrong you.

(23) Ibid. pp.28-29. Apparently Hitchens is under the impression that Christ breaks open a costly box of unguent exclusively on his own feet before making this statement. What a shame that in their hurry to sneer at Christ and Christianity neither our author or his publishers actually bothered to read John 12:8. But then, much is forgiven famous authors who attack Catholicism.

(24) For the Sake of Argument, p.292 (Verso 1993)

(25) Faith and Science: Catholic Perspectives -God and Science, Jacques Maritain (Newman Centre Caltech 1998)

(26) Ibid.

(27) The Purpose of it All, p.130 (Gateway Editions 1990)

(28) The Missionary Position, op.cit. p.57. Hitchens in ‘refuting’ Mother Teresa statements prefaces his remarks by writing: "[t]here is not much necessity for identifying the fallacies and distortions which are piled upon one another here" - a bullying tactic which attempts to deflect critics from analysing what he has actually written.

 

 

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