A favorite book of all of post world war II Popes right up to Benedict and Francis has been Romano Guardini’s “The End of the Modern World” written by Guardini during the second world war but first published in America in 1956. In that prophetic work Guardini goes through the list of theories concerning the modern world, as it was exemplified in the mass slaughters of the 20th century. Those slaughters were caused by the modern heresies of capitalism, communism, fascism and Islamism but Guardini argues that we cannot understand those slaughters or the modern condition with all the old theories….History is not some gradual decline from a golden age like the philosophies of India and of the ancient world contended. History is also not the narrative favored by modern liberals of gradual progress and emancipation rooted in science and technology. History is not cyclic and it is not merely a “nightmare from which I am trying to awake” as Stephen Daedelus exclaimed in James Joyce’s Ulysses. All these common understandings of where the world is going are incorrect according to Guardini. Instead the modern world we find ourselves in is in utter discontinuity with anything experienced by human beings in the past. We are as a species embarked on something completely new and there are as of yet no categories that can capture the great rupture that began in the 20th century.
Even the traditional Christian view of history will need deepening (not revision or “updating”). The Christian view of history involves a pivot point that occurred 2000 years ago in Palestine with the birth of Christ and then the scandal of the Cross and then a long period of expectant hope, based on the resurrection and the looking forward to the final revelation. While these dogmatic truths remain true in our current situation, most nominal Christian no longer believe these truths. Instead they have bought into one of the 20th century heresies. Yet it is these and other dogmatic truths of the Catholic church that will give us the categories to understand what is occurring to human beings in the modern era.
We live now, according to Guardini, in the era of the mass man; a frightening creature who knows more and more about less and less and into whose hands are concentrated enormous powers. Science has delivered Nature into the hands of the anonymous mass man-an utter mediocrity who because of the heresies he is taught in schools and via media is capable of the greatest crimes—all the while believing that he is serving “progress” or “emancipation” of some kind. A single individual infected with heresy who acts from the mass can press the button on a nuclear device or release into the air a pathogen that will annihilate hundreds of millions of people. Science and ‘democracy” and capitalism has delivered into the hands of the imbecilic mass man these and other awesome powers.
Needless to say the anonymous mass crushes true individuality and excellence which can only come about when the individual is oriented to God and Church. But Guardini does not merely catalogue the horrors of the mass man. Instead he asks what should the church do given this is what we have to work with? It as if the Church now has to develop a ministry or theology for working with autistic savants only because modern education is designed to create mere mediocrities who can nevertheless crunch numbers competently in a huge corporate or government bureaucracy. The imbecilic mass man has immense technical skills but no wisdom. Each individual is therefore a truncated individual with hypertrophied tech skills and absolutely no spiritual awareness. Or better his spiritual awareness is driven only by one of the modern heresies that accommodate the mass man: Islamism, democracy, capitalism, progressivism, liberalism or communism etc…
What happens to the church is such as mass society? True doctrine and true belief begins to disappear. The church will need to respond to the rapid decline of true belief: “The rapid advance of a non- Christian ethos will be crucial for the Christian sensibility. As unbelievers deny revelation more decisively–as they put their denial into more frequent practice it will become more evident what it really means to be Christian…”
“Christianity will once again need to prove itself deliberately as a faith which is not self-evident; it will be forced to distinguish itself more sharply from a dominantly non-Christian ethos. At that juncture the theological significance of dogma will begin a fresh advance…I emphasize its absoluteness, its unconditional demands and affirmations. Dogma in its very nature surmounts the march of time because it is rooted in eternity….In this manner the Faith will maintain itself against animosity and danger.”
In order to withstand the onslaught of dehumanizing heresies thrown at the church from all sides the thing that will save the church is its reliance and its adherence to the ancient and ex cathedra defined dogmas. In addition, since human beings cannot live long without these life affirming dogmas the culture of the unbeliever will begin to die out. He with then flail about looking for anything but those dogmas to generate meaning and culture.
“At the same time the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will eventually cease to reap benefits from the values and forces developed by the very revelation he denies. He will have to lean to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through him. He will have to learn to experience what this honesty means…The last decades (meaning the world wars) have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades are only the beginning…”
The modern man is really a child who nonetheless has access to nuclear weapons. So how does the church deal with this situation. The church needs to be there to offer to mass man the old dogmas thus giving him an alternative to the heresies which will only lead to mass slaughters again.
Guardini claims that aside from the horrors of mass man the phenomena of mass man points to the need for a new theology and a new ‘personalism’ that can lead mass man away from the lure of the heresies. The new person has to be born out of the mass man. Indeed mass man makes possible the birth of the new person: “The new “Person” is destined to stand forth with a spiritual resoluteness never demanded of man before. Strangely the very mass which carries the dangers of totalitarianism also offer the fullest range of spiritual maturity to the new human person. Such a challenge demands an inner freedom and strength of character which we can scarcely conceive. Nothing else however can withstand the powers of anonymity which grow more immense day by day.”