The 20th century brought mankind no closer to the truth, no nearer to happiness than it was at the end of the 19th. Arguably, things got worse.
There were countless medical advances, including “miracle” antibiotics, yet we ended the century beset by the worst contagion since the Black Death. It’s called AIDS, and while it may be under relative control in the affluent USA, it is decimating Africa. The United Nations and others made well-intentioned efforts, yet we had more wars and killed more people with “smarter” weapons than in any previous century in history. Psychoanalysis spawned an almost limitless movement of “self-help,” but there’s more mental illness in America today than a century ago.
As psychologist James Hillman has it in a disturbing book title, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse. More hypotheses were explored by more scientists in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined. More trees were destroyed to print more circular arguments. More children were murdered before they had a chance to be born.
How can we possibly believe in progress? How can we be so smugly self-satisfied?
Darwin, Marx, and Freud stood at the head of the century offering new visions, dangling new utopias. But science, sociology, and psychology have led us nowhere new. We’re the same fallen bunch, killing each other, destroying our planet, and justifying it all with the tools of self-hypnosis provided by the media, the internet, and our own suggestibility.
It makes a man proud to be a Catholic.
The Catholic Church teaches that the truth is not arrived at by dialectical reasoning. (What happened to Marxism anyway?) Neither is truth arrived at by scientific experimentation (unless truth includes the atom bomb, cloning of humans, and the potential to create viruses that could wipe out mankind).
Truth comes by way of Revelation, and we have had that Truth for 2000 years now. God gave us his final Word on the subject in the Roman province called Palestine during and through the life of a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. As St. John of the Cross wrote, God has nothing more to say.
I have chosen to illustrate this post with Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of Joan of Arc because (a) I love it and (b) it is an image of small-R revelation. Joan is listening to an angel (he’s hovering in the tree behind her) and the angel is telling her to get on a horse and get across France. History, and the detailed transcript of the trial that led to Joan’s martyrdom, tells us what happened after that.
There’s another reason for this image: God may have had nothing more to say after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord, but he keeps sending us little reminders, by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Every time things look dark, he sends us a saint or two. At the end of the Middle Ages, when the Church was mired in corruption and error, along came Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Clare, and others. When the Protestant Reformation threatened to scuttle 1500 years of Catholic culture, along came a whole army of saints, including Charles Borromeo, Teresa of Avila, and her student, the aforesaid John of the Cross.
Cut to the present day. When the Archdiocese of Boston looked like it might collapse in disgrace, along came Cardinal Sean O’Malley; along came young pastors like Fr. David Barnes and Fr. Dan Hennessey; along came a new generation of committed young men swelling enrollment at St. John’s seminary. There is a palpable vitality in Catholic Boston today, and in parishes like ours in Beverly. Eucharistic Adoration has gone perpetual in Boston for the first time in forty years; our Adoration chapel in Beverly is attended sixty hours a week.