Antique Map of Europe. Flickr

Our Desire Already on the Move

In a modern context of crisis and dissolution, a wary but optimistic social analyst, Dr. Paul Vitz, comments on the hope for the world expressed in a recent CL flyer on the state of desire.
Suzanne Tanzi

A recent Italian census report from CENSIS (Center for Social Investement Studies) raised eyebrows not only throughout Europe but also on other continents, as it identified the nature of the current social, economic, and political crisis in Italy as a "drop in desire." Such a decline at the individual level is said to have caused a "flattened society, a wave of disorderly instincts, and a disappearance of law and desire from the collective unconscious." These results recalled comments made by Fr. Julián Carrón recently, on the topic of work: "Is it possible to keep desire alive in the face of the challenges of the present? The most obvious temptation is to gloss it over and close down the game" (Traces, Vol. 12, No. 11 [Dec. 2010], p. II). Communion and Liberation in Italy went more deeply into these remarks and the subsequently released census report by challenging and inviting all with the flyer entitled, "The Forces that Change History are the Same as Those that Change Man's Heart." This flyer posits that desire needs an object equal to its needs–but who can reawaken desire? Ideology cannot answer but experience can. "The Church will have to show that Christ is so present that He is able to reawaken the person to the point of not totally depending on historical circumstances." The Church is a people who subject reason to experience, "recognizing something that already works in reality."

Across the ocean in the USA, this "flattening of desire" can also be observed, "in the bewilderment of the young and the pessimism of adults, political apathy, moral decay, and general fragility. But America has not the centuries of branding the modern state in Europe has, and there is still something of the maverick alive and well and perhaps pointing in a positive direction," as Dr. Paul Vitz explains to Traces. His broad range of expertise includes specialties in motivational psychology and modern culture studies, focusing on the relationship between psychology and Christianity. He has also worked extensively in personality theory, moral development, and the connection between psychology and art. His experience as a university professor, a psychiatrist in New York City, a father of six, and a grandfather of thirteen brings unique insight to discussion of America's potential for change and growth based on the component of a "desire" that he sees being revitalized in today's society.

What do you think of the 2010 CENSIS report registering a "drop in desire" as being at the heart of the current crisis? Does this diagnosis hold true for the America of today?
Yes and no. The common ground we share with Italy and Europe is that we are all on the rotting edge of modernism–what I call "morbid modernism." That is, we are looking at the end of the modern era, ushered into the West by Europe itself around 500 years ago with the Renaissance. It has simply exhausted itself, to the consternation of many. All the ideas and ideologies are almost played out, and this is felt much more acutely I think in Europe than in the USA, leading to a level of cynicism, indifference, and confusion–a degradation of desire–that we have not reached here. While we suffer many of the same ills, there is more of an element of hope in our culture, and desire is fueled by hope.

What kind of hope do you mean?
Our society still has a significant Christian component which is developing new ideas. This pre-modern enthusiasm of a religious kind is alive and growing among young Christians, with great energy and purpose, and it is infectious and productive. Examples of this energy are the many new Christian institutes, schools, journals, e-journals, and blogs set up by both Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. All of these are fueled by new ideas and by hope. In brief, to the question, "Who or what can awaken desire?" it seems to me that the only answer is Christ.

And this is an attraction you have observed growing in the young…
Certainly, even if for now it is a minority. Change lies in their hands, and it will be an enormous challenge, but I see not just new ideas and organizations but also at the heart of it a much needed re-growth in personal identity that the faith offers. Being based on the positive reality of Christ present, it is so very unlike the identity built up under various ideologies, particularly in Europe–fascism, communism, socialism, and so on–all of which have ended in disillusionment. Ideology is the crown of modernity–and what is left of that? Here in the U.S., the same ideologies have been worn out, as have been most of the so-called "progressive" ideas of the past decades.

But there is a kind of grassroots impetus to rebuild…
Yes. Hope-filled young people of today are tremendously entrepreneurial. And it is today's new technology that has and will continue to allow for such growth and innovative success. With the freedom we want our country to continue to express, I see, as already noted, many new programs in the form of schools and think tanks and other initiatives that can provide a new infrastructure for how we will live. This just-emerging new vision points to what I have called a "trans-modern" world.

What does this mean?

Trans-modern does not mean a reactionary going back to the past in a fundamentalist sense. The trans-modern idea is not that you reject the modern but that you take the best of it and transcend it with the spiritual meaning you know is behind everything; you transform the understanding of science and government with this same awareness; and you transfigure it in the physical way that government and organizations run and that families live. Since the growth of the modern state has been played out, we are looking into the future of a new epoch. Whatever happens, the era of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment has definitively ended.

And do you see this upbeat progression taking place across America?
We can hope! But if it does, some places will be slower than others to catch on. It is not at all necessary for everyone to be Christian, of course, but those roots are the ones clearly inspiring legitimate ideals for true and solid change and growth. The northeast, along the eastern seaboard, plus California and perhaps Illinois, might be called our "little Europe," as these areas are rooted in the secular mentality that plagues the West, reflecting similar symptoms such as population decline, exhausting of the socialist ideals of the past, over-subscription to state governments… without any proposals for a way forward. We are not seeing a positive social agenda coming from the secularists, whose final agenda items–gay marriage and centralized health care–are turning out to be problematic. There is nothing else on the table.

Do you believe that the government will support the kind of revival you have described it here?
No. We will have to stop looking to the government for solutions. In the 1930s, there was a capitalist and big business crisis during which the government stepped in to support society. Two plus generations later, we are now going into a crisis of confidence in the government itself, from which it will never recover. While there will be some struggle over this, the government will be smaller and, optimistically speaking, it might move into the role of supporting the rising more-decentralized social systems. I think that the present economic crisis in this country is a kind of "early warning sign" for the down-sizing of the state as we know it. There will be an economic retrenchment in which the new trans-modern "desire" may learn and grow through sacrifice and experience–not ideology.

Why do you think there would be a struggle over this?
Decentralization is a dagger pointed at the heart of the modern state. But the modern state is beginning to receive a vote of "no confidence" from its own people–it is no secret that our own elected government has no idea how it is going to fulfill the promises it made to get elected! The problem of an over-promised and economically under-funded state is especially acute in Europe. How all this will work out in Europe is hard to say, but there, like here, the answer, if there is one, will come from a Christian revival led by young people. In the U.S., the situation is less acute, as our population is not in decline and we have no serious Islamic problem. And, as mentioned, we have a strong new Christian vision.

So your greatest hope for change lies in a spread of religious awareness…
Yes. A reality like Communion and Liberation and many others here in the U.S., plus some in Europe, have great potential to kindle spiritual revival. Indeed, these entities are now a key part of something already on the move.