Today, the Word on Fire Blog features a short commentary, written by Ron Belgau, friend of the ministry, on the fusion of two entities that often appear to be at odds: contemporary culture and the tradition of the past.
Contemporary culture is suspicious of the past. "Tradition" is almost always a negative word, associated with those who are out of date and set in their ways. Against this negative image of our ancestors, modern culture congratulates itself on the amazing progress of applied science: life-saving new medications, interplanetary space probes, and the astonishing breakthroughs in computing and telecommunications.
Faced with this modern disdain for the past, it is easy for me to make the opposite mistake, and uphold Catholic tradition by heaping suspicion on all things modern.
Recently, however, I was reminded of the danger of this approach while reading John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is the theory that a good action is one that aims at the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This sounds like an attractive theory at first, but it has problems. J. K. Rowling helped to dramatize this in the final book of the Harry Potter series, where the slogan, "The Greater Good," was used to justify doing evil now in hope of producing better consequences in the future--something which the Catholic Church has always condemned. So it's easy for me to dismiss utilitarianism with the same thoughtless disdain with which modern critics dismiss the Catholic tradition.
Then I came across this:
"Defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this – that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence as well as all the morality of life, is dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property of life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness."
Mill saw--as many moderns do not--that the past contains a good deal of wisdom about how to organize our life to improve happiness. We may point out--as many Catholic theologians and philosophers have pointed out--that the wisdom of the past reminds us of the danger of focusing too much on our ends, and not enough on the means we use to achieve them. But even when we have said this, it is heartening to see a Catholic truth affirmed by a philosopher otherwise out of step with Catholic philosophy. It is a reminder of our belief that God has written truth on the human heart, and that the light of reason illuminates those outside the Catholic Church as well as those inside.