This is the way the world ends…

This is the way the world ends… October 24, 2012

Review of Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller


The unthinkable has happened. Civilization has been eliminated by nuclear war. Following the war, the survivors blamed the disaster on intellectuals, and in the “great simplification,” books were burned and the well-educated were lynched. Only in the monasteries did reading and writing live on—and there only in the greatest of secrecy. Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller’s classic work of science fiction, deals with the aftermath of these events in three parts:

“Fiat Homo” (“let there be man”) is set at the height of the new Dark Age (~2500 AD) and is the story of the discovery of the “sacred fallout shelter” containing the relics of Leibowitz. One of these relics is a diagram of… well, something—the monks aren’t really sure what it is. (Later we find out that it is a diagram of a circuit.) Fortunately, they do know what to do with diagrams… they make an illuminated copy and preserve it for future generations.

“Fiat Lux” (“let there be light”) is set at the end of the Dark Age and the beginning of the rediscovery of science and the restoration of social order through stable states (~3100AD), both of which were sparked (ha ha) by the preserved diagram of the circuit and the hard work of the church through the preceding six centuries.

In “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“let thy will be done”), civilization has been restored, bigger and better than before (~3700AD). Despite repeated assurances from both of the major world powers, the church suspects that another nuclear war is on the way and has built in secret its own space program, on which the preserved wisdom and knowledge of the human race and the teachings and traditions of the church will be carried off to the colony worlds. Will the ship launch before man can exterminate himself again?

One of the issues I found myself thinking about most often while reading Canticle for Leibowitz was the question of just how responsible the church as an institution is to society. Because we Americans live in a relatively stable nation, this isn’t perhaps at the top of our list of church/state interactions to spend time reflecting on. In fact, we often go out of our way to keep any talk of responsibility between the two out of public discourse.

But as someone who has spent some time studying Classical and Medieval history, I was reminded of some of the difficulties Christians encountered at the end of the 5th century, when Rome had collapsed and the only stable institution left in Western Europe was the church. The same questions came up again in the New England colonies throughout the 17th century as the hard work of organizing new societies in the wilderness was undertaken—largely by Christians (though not necessarily by the institutions of the church). These are not, however, questions confined to the distant past. They rise regularly on a smaller scale whenever Christians respond to disasters. Take the example of the Southern Baptists (hardly shining paradigms of an organized institutional church) and their immediate and massive response to the earthquake in Haiti. Using missions organizations already in place, they were able to funnel people, goods, and services into Haiti until the ponderous wheels of the American bureaucracy eventually brought larger relief efforts to bear. This isn’t to downplay the value of the government relief effort, just to point out that in this instance, the church structure saw a societal need and took steps to meet it until the state could resume its proper role.

Which leads us back to the question: what is the obligation of the institutional church to the state? Miller suggests that the role of the church is the preservation of wisdom and virtue. Through the slow, patient work of centuries, the church is to be a repository of learning even through the worst that human nature can do to itself. (This is not the only function of the church, of course, but it is at least one.) Miller is clearly drawing on his knowledge of the early Middle Ages and his Catholicism (which is present throughout the book in various ways).

But how are we to think of the relationship between the church and society? I don’t know that I have any absolute answers to this question—if I did, I would write a book, become rich and famous, and go on all the talk shows. I’ve just got a list of what I think may be good places to start thinking about the obligations of the church to society. (Please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong or add to the list in the comments section.)

  1. The first and primary obligation of the institutional church to society is the declaration, propagation, and modeling of the Gospel. It is our fundamental role in the world to declare the person and work of Jesus Christ, to propagate the good news that man can be reconciled to God through the cross, and to model that Gospel in our own lives and in the life of the church. We are only truly serving society in any kind of ultimate or transcendent way when we keep this at the center of our church life.
  2. The second obligation of the institutional church to society is to pray for it. (I Timothy 2)
  3. The third obligation of the institutional church to society is to speak the truth about virtue, sin, mercy, justice, and God’s law. (But only to speak, not to enforce any of these things.)
  4. From time to time, there may be a clear and obvious need social need for an application of the doctrines of Christian mercy which the church can meet more efficiently than the state. When these occasions arise, there are a few things that need to be kept in mind:
  • The local church is the primary locus of responsibility in actual application. This isn’t to say there is nothing for a hierarchical structure to do (for denominations with such structures), it is just to suggest that the primary point of application should be as personal as possible.
  • Any political role assumed by the church should be viewed as temporary, and be ceded back to the proper civic institution as soon as possible.
  • Any political role performed by the church should be pursued out of its own resources—no taxes in the name of or at the instigation of the church should ever be levied.

5.  These roles should always be applications of the doctrines of mercy, not the doctrines of justice. So while there may be occasions when the local church shoulders the burden of feeding the homeless for a time, responds to an emergency, or provides housing for those who need it; there should never be a time when the church enforces the law, imprisons criminals, or in any other way acts as any kind of court or police force. Those are realms exclusively reserved for God and the state (cf. Romans 13)

Like I said, I’m not convinced that any of those are hard-and-fast rules (save for the first two and maybe part of the third), but they may be good places to start a conversation.

Whatever we finally decide about how the church should interact with society, I cannot stress enough how good a book Canticle for Leibowitz is. In addition to raising fascinating questions about science, politics, religion, and human nature, it’s just well written. The haunting landscape, the delightful characters, and the melancholy tension between hope and despair make this a book well worth reading. I’ll close out this review by quoting the Liturgy of the Saints as adapted by Miller for the 26th century:

“A spiritu fornicationis,

Domine, libera nos.

From the lightening and the tempest,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the scourge of the earthquake,

O Lord, deliver us.

From plague, famine, and war,

O Lord, deliver us.


From the place of ground zero,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the rain of the cobalt,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the rain of the strontium,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the fall of the cesium,

O Lord, deliver us.


From the curse of the Fallout,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the begetting of monsters,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the curse of the Misborn,

O Lord, deliver us.

A morte perpetua,

Domine, libera nos.



Te rogamus, audi nos.

That thou wouldst spare us,

We beseech thee, hear us.

That thou wouldst pardon us,

We beseech thee, hear us.

That thou wouldst bring us truly to penance,

Te rogamus, audi nos.” (A Canticle for Leibowitz, 19-20)


Coyle Neal lives in Washington DC, where he hopes the coming “great simplification” will pass over him, his wife, and their books. 

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