Papal selection, popular culture, and the crisis of moral authority…

Ken Myers-3

The numerous discussions surrounding the recent election of Pope Francis have been quite telling. Would the new pope come from Europe or possibly from Africa or the Americas?  What about internal Vatican politics—the “curia cardinals” vs. the “reformists”?  How would, and should, the new pope handle the ongoing sex abuse scandal in the priesthood.  And what about same-sex marriage?


From a traditionalist perspective, George Weigel focused on religious freedom.  He argued in a Wall Street Journal column for a new pope who would be “a charismatic, missionary culture warrior, challenging the world’s democracies to rebuild their moral foundations.”  Among progressives, the dream was for a revolution in the church—the acceptance of contraception and women priests along with the approval of homosexuality.  The call was for the church to get out of the dark ages and into the 21st century—the “church’s war with modernity should be called off.”


Much of the discussion about papal selection reminds of a landscape covered with a dense fog—only the peaks of the mountains show above the heavy mist.  But if each mountain is followed down through the fog to the valley below, a terrain is discovered that is common to all the peaks.


Once we stop looking at peak issues in the papal debate and descend through the fog, we find a common terrain best described as a crisis of moral authority.  One of the more insightful commentaries written about papal selection appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, “Right and wrong: Who has final say?


On most of the issues we asked about, majorities of Catholics surveyed say that the locus of moral authority resides with individuals, who should decide for themselves after taking church teachings into account. One in five Catholics or fewer says that church leaders such as the pope and bishops are the proper arbiters of right and wrong in these areas. Between one-fifth and one-third of Catholics say that moral authority is best exercised by individuals and church leaders working together.


The conviction that the “locus of moral authority resides with the individual” is not unique to Roman Catholics.  It’s a view common to mainline Protestants and Evangelicals—many of whom are in agreement with this foundational belief of their secular neighbors.  Indeed, it is quite possibly the characteristic feature of the modern age in which we live, and it is a new moral feature that is at odds with the morality of the past.


We’ve come to the point of “worshipping ourselves,” according to culture commentator Ken Myers, editor of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.


[T]he essence of modern culture is the denial of any authority beyond the self and its desires. That theme is explicit in many influential philosophical writings that shape what we now think of as modern societies. For centuries, the idea that societies should be organized in order to reflect the laws of nature or of God has been on the wane, being replaced by a new ultimate goal: the promotion of individual self-fulfillment. Daniel Bell, professor emeritus of the social sciences at Harvard University, once described this as the enthroning of the self at the center of the moral universe.


In his famous book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis described the elevation of self-fulfillment in similar terms. Lewis observed that for both Christian and classical culture, the principle moral task was “how to subdue the soul to reality”—that is, how do we train our souls to fit in with the order of things in the universe. Social and cultural institutions in traditional societies were generally organized around this task. But the modern project, Lewis warns, turns that older and wiser goal on its head. The chief end of modern society is “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.” Similarly, social and cultural institutions in modern societies have tended to follow the logic of this goal. The idea that divine or natural law should restrain or direct social activity was still widely plausible at the beginning of the twentieth century. But by century’s end, almost all social institutions were committed to encouraging the liberation and fulfillment of desires rather than their restraint.


Myers continues:


For most of the modern period (the beginning of which has been recognized somewhere between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution), the idea of a self-centered universe was kept at bay by traditional institutions in Western societies. But the commitment of those institutions to divinely established moral boundaries for social life became more and more tenuous. Moral conservatives tend to blame that decay on a succession of prophets of liberation, from foul-mouthed disk jockeys to publishers of pornography to progressive activists and lawyers and judges. But the loss of certainty about the existence of moral absolutes and the reduction in recognition of moral authority has more to do with technical, social, and economic changes in American culture than in the deliberate crusades of libertines. …


Modern culture destroys confidence in eternal ethical norms by first separating the individual from the sustaining and restraining institutions of family and community that are, in God’s providence, the normal mechanism of moral instruction and authority. Popular culture, by detaching individuals from family and community, has a tendency to encourage an attitude of moral autonomy. Not all popular culture is explicitly rebellious in its content, but the overall dynamic of popular culture, when it is not recognized as subservient to the specific moral demands of one’s family and community, tends to encourage personalities committed to preserving independence above all. As long as our most valued cultural experiences are delivered to us by strangers whose only interest in us is as sources of revenue, we should not be surprised that standards sink lower and lower and behavior becomes more and more depraved.


In his short article “Worshipping Ourselves,” Ken Myers provides us with a very useful primer on the crisis of moral authority.  If you’re not familiar with Ken’s work, this article will be a good introduction.  He is a remarkably astute culture commentator in his own right.  But he is always pointing beyond his own observations to other resources.  In this case, he directs us to the work of C. S. Lewis and sociologist Daniel Bell—an illustration of why Ken has been described as having the “gift of bibliography.”


“Worshipping Ourselves” is available online here.  For an even better introduction to Ken’s work as producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, please go here, and click on “Listen for Free” and “Free Podcasts” in the left column.  Here’s how the vision of Mars Hill Audio is described:


We believe that fulfilling the commands to love God and neighbor requires that we pay careful attention to the neighborhood: that is, every sphere of human life where God is either glorified or despised, where neighbors are either edified or undermined. Therefore, living as disciples of Christ pertains not just to prayer, evangelism, and Bible study, but also our enjoyment of literature and music, our use of tools and machines, our eating and drinking, our views on government and economics, and so on. …


MARS HILL AUDIO is committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.



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2 Responses to “Papal selection, popular culture, and the crisis of moral authority…”

  1. Ken is right on target about the pervasive influence of the “self” being the center of authority for so many Americans, and, increasingly so for evangelicals. I have always appreciated his cogent arguments from a Biblical world-view on this score.

    When we think of moral relativism and some of the key influences, we may first be inclined to think of rock groups and mass culture of the “’60s.” And certainly, they were significant.

    But an oft-forgotten and deadly impetus for this moral relativism came from a source which influenced the young parents of the “Greatest Generation:” Dr. Benjamin Spock. It was Spock who was a significant carrier of the “therapeutic” virus that so profoundly affected us baby-boomers and every generation since. In short, it was Dr. Spock who taught us how to fall in love with ourselves. We desperately need to understand his influence if we are going to successfully re-ground ourselves in Christian absolutes.

    Doug Kennard

    • Thanks, Doug! Yes, we should be aware of the influence of folks like Dr. Spock. And we could add numerous others such as Peter Singer and John Dewey. But Ken is pointing to something more foundational and less obvious than these celebrated relativists. To quote Ken again: “Moral conservatives tend to blame that decay on a succession of prophets of liberation, from foul-mouthed disk jockeys to publishers of pornography to progressive activists and lawyers and judges. But the loss of certainty about the existence of moral absolutes and the reduction in recognition of moral authority has more to do with technical, social, and economic changes in American culture than in the deliberate crusades of libertines.”