Review Essay: Hahn and McGinley’s Future of Civilization

In their recent book, It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion, Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley develop a Catholic world and life view, undergirded by an ultimate framework consisting of the truths of creation, fall, and redemption by Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and the corresponding virtue of religion properly disposing us to respond “to the Faith, ordered to the truth, ordered to Christ” (6). The authors give an account of the integrality of the Christian life, of the one True Religion, the Catholic Faith, which is the fixed point of reference from which we engage the full spectrum of culture, including the social and political orders, indeed, civilization as a whole.

What is the central argument of the authors? Their central argument is to restore a place for religion within the natural order of virtues, of rationality and truth. They reject the move of the “modern world . . . to put up an impermeable barrier between the life of the mind and the life of faith” (16). This rejection follows from their understanding of the interdependency of faith and reason, and the corresponding claim that “there are many religious truths that are available to every human mind. . . without the aid of divine revelation” (16-17). “The idea that we can know timeless truths about human and even divine life by reason alone and that we should all order our lives around those notions causes the modern mind to short-circuit” (17). This short-circuiting is under the cultural influence of Enlightenment rationalism that detaches religion from reason and truth (3). Religious claims are then seen as subjective and relative: seeing Christianity as one religion among many, each equally true, and each equally a vehicle of salvation. By contrast, they affirm the inherently and irreducibly public nature of religion and its corresponding notion of objective truth, in contrast to the modern tendency to privatize religion and to subjectivize and relativize religious claims (17; 87).

The authors presuppose the truth-attaining capacity of the human mind and philosophy can justify that capacity. This against the culture that has become “increasingly agnostic about objective truth, and certainly the ability to recognize truth in law” (131). Given the public truth of the Catholic faith, then, individuals as well as societies and their governing laws and structures should embody the true religion. One more thing: since the virtue of religion is a natural virtue, that means that it is a virtue for all men and also then a duty for everyone. (45-6)

The authors rightly reject religious relativism. “There is, rather, one religion, and that is, as we will see, the virtue by which we give justice to the one Lord who created and saves us” (5). They explain, “Religion, understood as the duties in justice we have to the truth, doesn’t even have to refer to the supernatural at all.” Thus, the authors are talking here about the truth of natural religion and not of revealed religion. “This idea of natural religion formed the philosophical foundation that Christ and His Church used, and continue to use, for the glory of God” (11). Natural religion is the necessary infrastructure for revealed religion upon which to build, just as grace requires nature.

Their understanding of the relationship of faith and reason is the First Vatican Council’s teaching regarding a duplex ordo cognitionis (15). The latter refers to a “twofold order of knowledge [that is] distinct both in [epistemic] principle and also in object,” according to the dogmatic constitution on the Catholic Faith of that 1870 council. “In [epistemic] principle, indeed, because we know in one way by natural reason, in another by divine faith; in object, however, because, in addition to things to which natural reason can attain, mysteries hidden in God are proposed to us for belief which, had they not been divinely revealed, could not become known.” The authors correctly understand the interdependency between faith and reason such that reason cannot lead us to conclusions that contradict what we know by faith, and vice-versa.

They enumerate the naturally knowable truths of religion that can be known, in principle, without the aid of divine revelation. “There is one God, and there is one truth about Him and the universe He created” (14). “[W]e, and everything around us, were made by an all-powerful being. . . . Someone outside of time and space had to create time and space” (17; 64). This, too, is the teaching of Vatican I: “The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things; ‘for the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ [ Rom 1:20].” In sum: “We can also know, then, that we owe this God everything. His existence and magnificence are not idle facts. Not to honor and, yes, worship Him for having created us would be ungrateful in the same way that ignoring any act of generosity is ungrateful. The acts by which we acknowledge and, in whatever measly way we can as finite human beings, repay that divine generosity are, on a human level, just basic courtesy. Taken together and applied to the divine, they form the virtue of religion” (18). Therefore, “Religion . . . even if just a basic natural religion, makes society possible” (20).

What, then, is the natural virtue of religion? Having recognized the truths of religion, we interiorize them such that we are now virtuously disposed to “recognize and live out the duties implied by our place in the order of society and of the universe” (20). The authors add, “the virtue of religion consists in fulfilling duties to the truth. In so doing, we place ourselves harmoniously in the social and cosmic orders” (22). Furthermore, the virtue of religion is a matter of justice: what I call immanent and the authors call “transcendent justice” (32), or the horizontal and vertical dimensions of justice (113). As a matter of immanent justice it is the chief among the moral virtues; it orders us horizontally to the common good. Regarding transcendent justice, the virtue of religion is what the authors call the virtues of virtues, and which Aquinas calls the “chief of the moral virtues.” This transcendent virtue is, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church §2095, informed and given life as are all the moral virtues by the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. “‘Thus charity leads us to render to God what we as creatures owe him in all justice. The virtue of religion disposes us to have this attitude’” (33).

Aquinas explains: “It denotes properly a relation to God. For it is He to Whom we ought to be bound as to our unfailing principle; to Whom also our choice should be resolutely directed as to our last end; and Whom we lose when we neglect Him by sin, and should recover by believing in Him and confessing our faith.” This virtue, then, brings us into “right order with Him and all of creation, freeing us [from sin] to fulfill our nature to the fullest” (35).

There are limits, however, to natural religion and its corresponding virtue. Of course this brings us back to the divine truths that are known by faith, the object of which are “the words and actions of Jesus Christ. . . . the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church . . . [and] the sacraments. The truths revealed and embodied in these supernatural realities impose duties on us” (21). This knowledge of divine truths that has been interiorized as the virtue of religion results in the integrity of the human person, placing us harmoniously in the order of creation. This integrity is the ground “in which all the other virtues can take root and thrive” (22). The virtue of religion is, then, deepened “in a particular way through the sacraments.” “There is no substitute for the assurance of grace we receive in the sacraments. Only in accepting and practicing the true faith are we able to worship God and participate in His religion in the authentic ways He has provided for us” (22). The failure to order our life immanently and transcendently, in short, the failures of justice, results in the subversion of “the divine order that is necessary for peace and the common good” (36). Regarding the failure to keep transcendent justice, according to the supernatural order, in particular, “injustice to God,” the authors explain, “harms order and the common good just as surely as injustice among humans does” (37).

Recall then that the virtue of religion is a public oriented virtue. “In other words, the virtue of religion pertains to communities just as it does to individuals” (44; 83). The question is then raised by the authors: “What does the duty of religion have to do with politics and law?” (46) The authors reject the privatization of religion and the corresponding claim that the public square is neutral. This private/public bifurcation is inconsistent with the “logic of Christ” (98), of his Lordship. The public square is not neutral, a naked square free of religion. Rather, religion forms societies and hence there is no escaping religion (62). “Every aspect of our common lives encourages us to one way or the other: toward justice or injustice, truth or falsehood, good or evil. There is no avoiding these fundamental concepts, no way to be safe and still in between them, no neutrality. This is because our laws and customs ultimately emanate from what we value most of all, what we place on the highest pedestal, from what we honor above all in our common life. In other words, society emanates from worship” (50). That is, societies are grounded in ultimate commitments, presuppositions and life-orienting beliefs, about man and the world, truth, justice, and morality, and these are religious principles by virtue of being ultimate.

The authors argue that religious neutrality does not exist. A society is based in religious principles as a matter of fact; the only question is which principles (73; 83; 85). Thus, since the Catholic Faith is “the fixed point to which all other systems of beliefs and practice conform or from which they deviate” (6), the authors explain, “there is no non-religious alternative to true religion.” In other words, “The choice isn’t between Christ and a . . . secular mentality but between Christ and His antagonists” (99). Counterfeits or perversions to true religion are “necessarily idolatrous” (87). Idolatry is man’s conscious rejection of the root and fullness of the meaning of the Truth. These idols bring disorder “with nature, with ourselves, and with each other” (57; 102).

Furthermore, the authors reject individualism because they are social realist in that they regard communities to be as real in an ontological sense as individuals. Rather than only the individual having genuine rights and duties, natural communities, such as marriage and family, “have their own existences, their own duties, and their own goods to pursue.” They have reality or substance of their own, and hence these communities are not just a free association of individuals. (40) As social realists, they reject historicism. The latter denies the constant structural principles or inner nature of communities grounded in the order of creation. According to the authors, “we can understand how the laws, regulations, and customs we live under both enshrine a moral vision and influence the way we all think about truth, goodness, and justice” (48-49). Thus, marriage and family are grounded in the divine order of creation. In particular, “Marriage is the essential social institution, the human relationship from which all our social relationships receive form and guidance” (153). Here, too, regarding the creation order grounding marriage, the authors appeal to the natural law, which is human participation in the eternal law of God, and the corresponding understanding of that law, order of creation, that we access through human reason (56-7).

The order of creation is the depth structure of creation itself such that living out of the truth of our relationship with God entails bringing ourselves not only “into right order with Him,” but also with “all of creation, freeing us to fulfill our nature to the fullest” (35; 117). John Paul II states, “Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation.” In this light, we can understand why Jesus calls us back to the law of creation (Mark 10:6-7), to the deepest foundations of what God made, that grounds an inextricable nexus of permanence, twoness, and sexual differentiation for marriage. In particular, marriage is such that it requires sexual difference, the bodily-sexual act, as a foundational prerequisite, indeed, as intrinsic to a one flesh union of man and woman: “So then they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8)

Sin savagely wounds and seriously disturbs the order of creation, human nature, and hence human reason, inhibiting our response and understanding of that order such that “we become at war with nature, with ourselves, and with each other” (57). “The soul is created with God in the place of honor, though original sin obscures this truth” (64).

Redemption in Jesus Christ, the fullness of true religion, “offers the integrity of the self with the self, with community, with creation, and with God” (145; 146). We live in the fullness of truth in justice to God and man in submitting to the truth of creation. The grace of redemption renews and restores creation from within to God’s divinely intended end; thus grace heals, elevates, and perfects our fallen human nature (135). The heart of the redemption in Jesus Christ is the sanctification of the whole fallen creation. This is why “True religion . . . is the lifeblood of civilization” (124). Furthermore, authentic progress is essential to our civilization. “Like individuals, societies are never standing in their relationship to Christ. . . . We are either moving toward Christ by cooperating with His grace, or we are moving away from Him by spurning His grace. And this holds true for families, societies, and civilizations just as surely as it does for individuals” (126, 135).

Moreover, the authors argue that “we are most fully human not only from being in a “right relationship with Jesus Christ” but also “through His Church.” They explain, “The fullness of the virtue of religion is found in the Church’s ministry, beginning with the Mass and continuing through the other sacraments and the invisible graces she mediates to us. We cannot hope to grow in our sanctifying relationship with Christ without her” (177). In short, without the Church, we will not become fully human because she mediates the grace of redemption so that man might regain his true humanity in Christ.

Given the deep structure of creation that is the organizing principle of public life, of society and culture, and of law, the civil order must be knowingly grounded in the nature of reality itself.

Hahn and McGinley’s book possesses the qualities of coherence, cogency, and clarity in their articulation of an integral Catholic world and life view, grounded in the truth of Christian revelation. This book is sorely needed. Still, I conclude this article review with several critical remarks.

The authors remain silent about how divine truths can be known by natural reason with certainty through the things that God has made (17). This is important and reflects a weakness in their argument because natural religion is, according to them, the philosophical foundation of revealed religion. Is this natural knowledge of God implanted in us at creation such that various kinds of experience of the world may be regarded as signals of transcendence—wonder at its very existence, its transience and contingency, apparent order, and purposiveness, and of ourselves, our finitude, moral obligation, the grandeur and poverty of man, and others. Or is it a knowledge of God arrived at through natural theological reasoning: a variety of ways that demonstrate via philosophical argument (e.g., cosmological, teleological) that God exists?

Furthermore, does faith need philosophical reasoning like natural theology in order to be justifiable in claiming to know these truths about God? Or is natural theology sufficient but not necessary for coming to a knowledge of God? What about the noetic influences of sin on natural reason? The Catechism of the Catholic Church §37 summarizes the longstanding teaching of the Catholic Church on this last question. Given “the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone.” This justifies the necessity of revelation “not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also ‘about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason’.” It is mystifying why the authors are silent on this matter of sin’s noetic and epistemic influences as well.

I share their commitment to the natural law, the normativity of the creation order, and the claim that human reason can, in principle, access the truths of that law. I also share their commitment that we can know, in principle, timeless truths about human and even divine life by reason alone, as I quoted them above. Given their view of the truth-attaining capacity of human reason, and the corresponding understanding of the interdependency of faith and reason, it is puzzling why the authors leave us with the decided emphasis throughout the book that their only critique of counterfeits to true religion is a tu quoque argument — you’re a religion too.

Religious liberty is missing in the authors’ vision of the Christian life in contemporary society. In particular, there is no discussion of Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae. In their view, does the affirmation of religious liberty entail the rejection of the Kingship of Christ, dethroning or uncrowning Christ?  If not, why not? Of course, they want rightly to avoid the error of religious and doctrinal indifferentism. We live in a free society that is pluralistic. In that society, one is free to hold religious or irreligious views. Yes, “Error has no rights.” Rather, it is persons who have rights, who are, in other words, the subjects of rights. The exercise of that freedom does not entail that I am rationally justified in holding those views, nor that those views that I hold are objectively true. By the terms of our free and open society, however, there exists in principle a public forum in which I am at liberty to persuade another person of his mistaken views. What is clear is, Yves Congar correctly states, the “Church wants to exercise an influence on persons, through persons, through the channel of their beliefs and the force of truth itself.”

There is no discussion of ecumenism. The relationship between the one Church of Jesus Christ that subsists in the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and the plurality of churches on the other is a key issue that is not addressed in this book. How do we avoid the claim, on the one hand, that outside the visible boundaries of the Church all you have is an ecclesial wasteland or emptiness? On the other hand, how do we avoid concluding to ecclesial pluralism or relativism from the teaching of Vatican II that there are elements of truth and sanctification outside the Church’s visible boundaries? Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio and John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint articulate a receptive ecumenism in which “[Ecumenical] dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’. . . . Dialogue does not extend exclusively to matters of doctrine but engages the whole person; it is also a dialogue of love.” The Council affirmed the distinction between the propositional truths of faith and their theological expression such that one tradition or other, outside the Catholic tradition, may have a “deeper appreciation of some aspect of a revealed mystery, or has expressed them in a clearer manner.” In addition, “these various theological formulations are often to be considered as complementary rather than conflicting” with Catholic teaching. In this respect, these deeper formulations “are directed toward a right ordering of life, indeed, toward a full contemplation of Christian truth” (Unitatis Redintegratio §17). Where do the authors stand on the matter of ecumenism?

Given the Lordship of Christ, the authors argue, “[religious] pluralism is revealed as a mirage.” Yes, “[religious] pluralism is also not the natural state of humanity” (169). Since it makes no sense to claim that all religions are equally true, given their incompatible truth claims, religious pluralism “collapses under the weight of its own incoherence into despair of the possibility of discerning [divine] truth at all.” Religious diversity, then, belongs to the order of the fall into sin because it reflects the human reception of that “offer,” “call,” and “grace.” Man is open to resistance and hence to distorting, misinterpreting, and rejecting God’s revelation in creation and, indeed, redemption in Christ. Their position correctly rejects relativistic theories of religion. The latter seek to justify religious pluralism de iure (or in principle), such that religious diversity is expressive of God’s will, as Pope Francis’ joint signing of the document, Human Fraternity, as well as his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, seems to advance. Of course it is another thing to recognize de facto religious diversity as a sociological and historical fact (de facto).

Nevertheless, the Church does not hold that non-Christian religions are completely false in all the claims they make, but only in those that are logically incompatible with Christian truth claims. So, as Vatican II says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” (Nostra aetate §2) Of course, these fragments of truth are falsified, meaning thereby distorted, misinterpreted, and effectively denied, when interpreted from the standpoint of the non-Christian religions. Thus, through her work of evangelization, “whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also healed, ennobled, and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil, and the happiness of man” (Lumen Gentium §17).

By contrast, the authors’ position sounds more like a Christo-monism denying that God reveals himself universally in and through the works of creation. But this is excluded by their own Catholic world and life view. God’s creation revelation, which is a normative revelational principle, remains valid, even when human thought has reached the last stage of idolatry. He has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:16) in his general revelation. He reveals Himself to all men at all times and all places so that men, in principle, may know something of God’s existence, His attributes, and His moral law. (Rom 1:20; 2:14-15; Acts 17: 28).

The reception of this general revelation, of course, is open to resistance and hence to distortion, misinterpretation, and denial. (Rom 1:18-32) Indeed, although St. Paul is “deeply distressed to see that the city [of Athens] was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), he also expresses his appreciation to the Athenians: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22) Nevertheless, St. Paul argues against Athenian idolatry, revealing to the pagan Greeks the God not only of creation but also of redemption in Jesus Christ. (v. 31) The Church unequivocally affirms “the duty of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows” (Nostra aetate §4).

I heartily recommend the book of Hahn and McGinley. May it generate a discussion that is sorely needed about why the future of civilization depends on true religion.

Eduardo Echeverria About Eduardo Echeverria

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his STL from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of many publications, most recently Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018), and Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2019).

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Prof Echeverria,

    I appreciated your article about Hahn and McGinley’s Future of Civilization. I agree we need a discussion about this topic. As I read your essay, I thought about the philosophical assumptions made. They reflect a Western view of reality. Any reflection of the future must take into consideration the Chinese world view. The role of China in the future will reflect five thousand years of civilization. Our Western assumptions make it almost impossible to understand the system of values at the root of that civilization.

    The hope for a peaceful transition to the new reality requires dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI gave us a profound Way to enter the dialogue. “It is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: ‘I possess the truth’.“The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love.”

    Pope Benedict XVI #27 Apostolic Letter on Church in the MIddle East

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