Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete.

The Dictatorship of Desires and the Experience of Truth

A conversation between Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete and Dr. Joseph Weiler on relativism and skepticism, faith and tolerance, in America and Europe, a way out of slavery, a path to freeing the heart of contemporary man.

Lorenzo Albacete: When I was working at CNN “interpreting” the events of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, one of the things that provoked most interest was Cardinal Ratzinger’s warning about the “dictatorship of relativism” in his homily before the conclave. While in Europe there had been, and continues to be, a great discussion about this, it seems to me that in the United States this is different, and I’d like to understand why. In Europe, this is related to the post-modern suggestion that the Church is welcome to take its part in social life as promoter of abstract values, as an inspiration to the people, but not as a source of truth. The claim to know the truth is seen as anti-democratic; anti-pluralistic. Instead, I have the impression that in the United States the discussion has not reached this point yet. It seems that “relativism” is seen only in terms of concrete moral judgments, and not on the capacity itself to know the truth. Do you agree that there is this difference between the United States and Europe and, if so, why?

Joseph Weiler: I think one reason for the difference between the United States and Europe in this regard is that there is a bigger cleavage in the United States between the intellectual world or the elite media (which are in this respect very much like their European counterparts) and the broad population in which there is much less moral relativism and much less epistemological skepticism. In addition, the United States is a far less secular society. This cleavage, in some respects, corresponds to the cleavage between religiosity and secularism. Intellectuals that lead the media tend to be secular. And the American hinterland (which starts ten miles away from New York City!) is, for the most part, far more religious than most of Western Europe.

Joseph H. H. Weiler. Via Wikimedia Commons

Albacete: Historically, in the United States, why has religiosity been able to last longer vis-à-vis secularism than in Europe?
Weiler: When we talk about religiosity both in the United States and in Europe we talk about Christianity. I am not a Christian, so I’ll try to express this carefully, in terms of a combination of two factors. First, Europe faced the Second World War in a way that the U.S. never faced it. The devastation, the Holocaust, the destruction, was not experienced in the U.S. As a result, European society faced a theological challenge that America did not–namely, the question “Where was God?” I don’t think America had to face the “Where was God” question in quite the acute way that Europe faced it. Now comes the delicate part where I have to be very, very sensitive. In my book, Christian Europe, in a gentle way I hint that the Church and by this I mean especially the Catholic Church, was not always quite up to this challenge during the ’50s and ’60s. It didn’t give a spiritual answer to the question that the world raised. Instead, it seemed to be mostly obsessed with a political message: “Don’t vote Communist,” rather than responding to a spiritual crisis that Europe faced. The Church is at its best when it’s the prophet at the gate, counter-positioning itself vis-à-vis society, vis-à-vis the establishment, like a Zion, like the prophet Amos. That is why the Church had great success after World War II in Eastern European countries–in Poland, for example–because there it was the prophet at the gate. The Church did not respond to the spiritual needs of the people at that time. As a result, the Church lost two generations, basically. People who would have responded to a spiritual message turned toward the only spirituality they found, which was in the counterculture on the political left. Instead, the Church seemed like the sort of Sunday compartment of the Christian Democrat parties of Western Europe. That did not happen in the United States.

Albacete: In the United States, the Protestant Church has been much larger and influential than the Catholic Church. Those that did not align themselves with the intellectual world that you are talking about seem to exercise a great influence among the people. Is this an important factor also in explaining the difference between the United States and Europe?

Weiler: Let’s turn to the reality of religiosity in the United States. It’s not a homogenous picture. Here, “success” is not measured by a church affiliation. What makes the difference is the practice of religion. The old traditional mainline Protestant churches are in decline. The churches that are vigorous and successful are evangelical Christian. (One should also add that, statistically, the fastest growing church in the United States is the Catholic Church, but that’s because of the influx of immigrants from Hispanic countries.) What is the key to the success of the evangelicals and of that segment of the Catholic Church, namely not that old sort of Irish or Italian Catholic Church but the Hispanic Catholic Church, which is the one that is growing? They understand that category of religiosity that the others seem to have forgotten. They do not make the mistake of reducing Christianity to a morality. For many Christians, to be a Christian is merely to be a good human being. Christianity became a matter of supporting good causes, helping the underprivileged, giving to charity. But of course we religious people do not have a monopoly on morality. You can be an atheist and be an entirely ethical and moral person. What is the category of religiosity that has no equivalent in secularity? It is sanctity. That has no secular equivalent. The churches that are succeeding are those who say, “We are hardwired as human beings in search of sanctity.” The churches succeeding are those who are not embarrassed or diminishing the importance of the artifacts of sanctity–such as the sacraments, for example, in your Church. And they are not reducing religion to morality. It is not that religion doesn’t demand morality, but it’s not the only thing. If you look at the evangelicals, when they go to church they do not only hear a sermon about what is the good thing to do and what is not the good thing to do, they live through an experience where they can actually experience vicinity to God and sanctity. In the Catholic Church, those who are successful are those for whom the Eucharist is real. In other words, it is not just going to church and hearing a father say, “Jesus demands for us to be more of human beings,” but for whom unashamedly the Eucharist is a meaningful religious experience.

Albacete: So it is indeed a matter of experience? In the United States, Christianity is still for many an experience before it is a discourse?

Weiler: Yes, and if the churches do not provide that, the people are going to. The politicians understand this better than those in the intellectual elite and the media. Indeed, you can doubt the sincerity of many, of those that on the day they decide to run for office start going to church, but, on the other hand, if I look at Congress, for example, there are people who strike me as genuinely religious and not just manipulative of religion. In Europe, it is very difficult to find political leaders who openly live their religiosity. It is seen as a personal, private thing. I have met several prime ministers in Europe, and I am thinking of one in particular who said to me, “I read your book; I am so glad you wrote it and I agree with your thesis.” I said, “Well, if that is so, Mr. Prime Minister, why don’t you say that publicly?” And he said, “Well, that would be unacceptable to my party.” Whereas in the United States, although we should openly say that there is a huge measure of hypocrisy among political elites, at least the political climate is not such that that you are afraid to acknowledge religiosity openly.

Albacete: Your mention of sanctity and experience is, I believe, the key to this matter of the “dictatorship of relativism.” I’d like to discuss this in terms of desire, of the experience of desire, regarding the “dictatorship of desire.” Desire is certainly a word Americans understand, especially the “desire for happiness” to which our Declaration of Independence points. As you said, the human being is structurally made for sanctity–that is, the true fulfillment of the desire of the human heart for happiness is found only in a relationship with God. We are made for this totality and all our desires point to this one, to the Mystery in which we find what our heart is looking for. When a sense of this is eclipsed, what happens? The quest to satisfy the desire becomes something I have to do, an ethical project and, in the end, a political project. The religious quest for sanctity becomes a political quest for the satisfaction of many, often conflicting, desires. Since these cannot all be satisfied (outside of sanctity, it is impossible), there occurs a reduction of desire, as well as an intensification of the particular desires that remain. We experience what Hershel called a “tyranny of needs” seeking political satisfaction. Particular desires demand the status of political rights. My question is, what do you think about this analysis, especially coming from the Jewish tradition?

Weiler: To understand the Jewish view of this, I would invite the readers of Traces to study very carefully Chapter 19 of Leviticus, arguably the central chapter of the Bible. First of all, it begins with the command: “You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.” Now go to verse 18. You will recognize it too: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the quest for sanctity, and the way to it. But then, notice the next verse, verse 19: “You shall not let your animal breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” The typical reaction of my Christian friends to this is, “Verse 18 I recognize, but the other one I have contempt for… that’s the problem with the Jews, that they follow all this detail…” Indeed, if you study the whole Chapter 19, you will continually see this juxtaposition. Ok, now I will explain how I understand the meaning of this. The code of Jewish Law, including the ritualistic aspects, is not what many people think. They think of it as the skin of a fruit. They say that the real fruit is to love thy neighbor as thyself. But we do not make this distinction! There is no privileging in the text. They are juxtaposed; both are the fruit. You keep the Sabbath and you don’t fornicate are equally important. You love thy neighbor as thyself and you do not mix wool is given the same status in the text. How come? The three most important segments of ritualistic Jewish Law are, first, what we eat, kosher. The other is the core of Jewish sexual law–namely, cleanliness–so you do not have sexual relations with your wife while she is menstruating and for 7 days after that. And the third one is the Sabbath: on Friday evening, all working activity comes to an end, you do not switch on a light, you do not write, you do not work; it is a total day of rest. Now, these are the expressions of the three greatest desires: eating, sex, and career. But if I’m not in the discipline of sanctity, I eat whatever I want, I have as much sex as I want, etc. To some people, that is freedom. To advance your career, you work as much as you want–that is also freedom. But, in fact, it’s a form of slavery. That’s what animals do; it’s a form of slavery to your nature. Instead, the practice of Jewish Law has two intertwined significances. One is that in all aspects of your practical life, from the moment you wake up, the first words you utter, not even thinking, are, “I imagine God before me always.” It’s a law that that’s what you have to say every morning. Now let’s just focus on those three examples I gave. Every time I go to the table or I put food to my mouth I have to ask myself, “Is it kosher? Is it not kosher?” I cannot eat everything I want. In the act of eating, I am fulfilling the commandment of God. In the act of loving, through sex with my wife I am fulfilling the command of God, and I have to plan my week–I know that so well because on Saturday I cannot work, I cannot travel. I once turned down an honorary doctorate because a certain university in Europe said the ceremony is always on a Saturday and they cannot give it in absentia. But to plan your week in such a way is an act of liberty because by submitting yourself to something that is outside this world you liberate yourself–but not through an ascetic discipline. You are commanded to eat and enjoy yourself, to live life to the full, to multiply, to have children. You enjoy your life; it’s not a discipline of asceticism. It is a way of constraining desires, of resisting what Fr. Giussani calls a “tyranny of desires.” This is a program which says you cannot be a slave to your desires. In living your life, you do not attain sanctity in one hour a week when you go to the Temple and everything is silent and you have your one hour of sanctity. It’s a life that you live. It mixes the moral and the ritual; what brings the moral and the ritual together is this notion of sanctity, and it’s not clerical. It says: all of you are a community.

Albacete: And so, what exactly is the best way today to resist this dictatorship of desires that influences our politics so much?

Weiler: First, it is a matter of modesty. That is why in my book on Christian Europe I chose the words of the prophet Micah: “What does God demand of you? … To do justice, to love charity, and to walk modestly with your God.” In other words, hectoring: “We have the truth, we know the truth” is not the law; the law is to remember the virtue of modesty. Secondly, it’s to lead by example. We have the same struggle within the Jewish community: 85% are not observant; they do not follow this law. Many young people say to me, “But it is too difficult, it is hard. How can I make a living?” By living this life, you show others: I have a successful career, I have a beautiful house. So you lead by example. You see, Judaism does not privilege asceticism in any way. What I protest again and again to my Christian friends is that when you go into the workplace you wouldn’t know they are there. And the ones you do know are the immodest ones. Finally, we have to protest against a tolerance which is built on epistemic uncertainty and moral relativism and instead preach a true tolerance that doesn’t seek to impose the truth. So we have to confront the dictatorship of relativism by exploding one myth. The myth is that if you deny epistemic skepticism and moral relativism you are an intolerant person. One of the great achievements of the late Pope, John Paul II, was to show you can preach and practice tolerance and at the same time deny epistemic skepticism and moral relativism. And that is the true measure of tolerance. Because you believe that you have the truth, you know you have the truth, and yet you refrain from imposing yourself on someone else.