A CULTURAL CANCER
The Disease of Irreverence

June 2011By Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is the author, most recently, of Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapi­entia Press); The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius Press; preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), about her late husband, the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand; and By Love Refined (Sophia Institute Press). She has written extensively for many Catholic periodicals and works closely with the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, whose aim is to translate her late husband’s work into English. In 2010 she received a Doctor Honoris Causa from Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and was honored by Inside the Vatican as “Woman of the Year.”

Many sicknesses are contagious; health is not. It is regrettable but it is a fact. Since original sin, intellectual viruses have penetrated the human mind and have affected its reasoning power. This might explain why slogans have a powerful appeal to most men — in a couple of striking words they seem to offer a solution to problems that plague our society. One of the most overused slogan words in our day is change. Change, we are told, is inevitable. But is change for the sake of change necessarily a change for the better? Few seem to recall that Plato wrote that “any change except to eliminate an evil, is an evil.” To go from sickness to death is change, but rare are those who would welcome it.

Another overused slogan word is progress. This is a most anemic term; it literally means “forward or onward movement toward a destination.” Progress, we are told, must not be prevented. But this raises the question: Where is it leading us? To walk toward an abyss is prog­ress, but it is not advisable; the only intelligent solution in such a case is to regress. Yet, human stupidity having no limit, many are those who proceed further and further until they meet their doom. Pascal remarked that we run toward an abyss after having carefully blinded ourselves so that we can no longer see the danger.

Slogans in the mouth of a charismatic speaker have a soporific effect on sluggish minds, and most men, while physically alert, live in a state of intellectual lethargy that prevents them from raising the right questions. We pay a lot of attention to small, insignificant things, such as saving money by clipping coupons, but fail to ask the crucial questions of human existence: Is there a God? Who is He? Who am I? What is good? What is evil? Is there an objective truth?

We are often urged to “get with the times.” But we would do well to recall the words of G.K. Chesterton. The Catholic Church, he said, “is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his own age.” This great man deserves to be quoted a second time: Commenting on Fr. Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, he remarked that it is “precisely the spirit of the age that has made a shipwreck of mankind from the beginning.”


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I must respectfully disagree with Dr. von Hildebrand on one point:

Those of the older generation witness, with tears in their eyes, the irreverent way people comport themselves at Mass....

In my experience, it is precisely the older generation that are the worst culprits in behaving badly at Mass, at least in my area. Most of the people who are talking and carrying on in church, and even during Mass, are in their 70s to 90s.
Posted by: AnitaMooreOP
June 07, 2011 10:57 PM EDT
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