The Future of Catholicism

The future of Catholicism can be thought on the basis of strictly theological concepts. Yet it can and must also be established according to the consideration of its relations with the world, if only because the world’s future will change depending on whether Catholicism has a real future or not. What, in other words, is the future of Catholicism from the point of view of the world—and not from the point of view of Revelation?

This way of putting the question should not surprise or shock, if one considers the situation in which Catholicism finds itself in Europe today, especially in France. On the one hand, it appears on the way to a widespread and lasting sociological marginalization—on this point the situation is no longer any different for the countries in the south than for those in the north. On the other hand, Catholicism retains a capability for cultural intervention, for moral mobilization and for spiritual authority without equal in regard to the whole of civil society. Catholicism is not in the majority as regards average convictions and behaviors, but it still exercises a primordial function in the discernment of norms.

From the exterior point of view, that of the world, wondering about the future of Catholicism comes down to asking what the supposedly normative discourse of Catholicism can give to civil society as a whole. In other words, can Catholicism contribute in the future to the good of civil society in general—even and above all when it finds itself forced to condemn the majority leanings of society? Even more clearly, will Catholicism be good for anything, if it has no other role than impugning the arguments on which the quasi-consensus of civil society becomes settled?

Before pursuing this further in order to give a response to this question, let us note a prerequisite: the often antagonistic relation between what the Catholic Church says and the majority opinions of our civil societies does not imply that Catholicism no longer plays any positive role; to the contrary, its contribution lies precisely in the capability it demonstrates of saying the very word that contradicts the predominant opinion head-on and openly, and at the very least renders society the invaluable service of showing that this opinion is not self-evident, that it involves infinitely serious presuppositions and runs the risk of falsification.

Even when the world contradicts Catholicism, it still needs it in order to avoid merely proclaiming platitudes. The world might not even become conscious of its innovations and its declines if Catholicism had not been there with enough courage to awaken its bad conscience—for a bad conscience remains still and first of all a conscience. Catholicism can lay claim to such a role, one that is already as remarkable and respectable as many others.

But one can also hope for another role, if God gives it and thus if the Church asks him for the strength for it: that of replying directly within the pursuit of its own aims, as if the Church alone and by an undeserved grace held the key to the diagnosis of the crisis or even the word [parole] that frees us from it. In this encounter, the Church would no longer speak at the wrong moment, but, still proclaiming the same paradox of Christ crucified, would speak at the right time, so as to be heard. The Church has been granted the task of giving a single and unchanging Word [Verbe] to the world without adapting or lessening it, because he does not belong to the Church—instead it is his.

At issue is not a modification of orientation, which would depend on the Church but, rather, a gift of God. A gift of God cannot be foreseen any more than a future can; but both are foreseen in the manner of a gift happening to our far too limited expectation, which is always surprised—when it finally even sees them!—by the superabundance of the promises kept. Today, perhaps, it is necessary to catch a glimpse of such a situation. The right to confess the faith, which we laid claim to in times when doubt bore it away with confusion and derision, neither disappears nor becomes blurred. But grace might happen, which would permit confessing it to be able to make the reasonable discourse of its original logic heard, which is all the more admissible as other kinds of logic have become bankrupt.

What does the world say of itself? The world such as it functions and is understood is still chiefly defined by the traits of modernity. Modernity is characterized by a fundamental equivalence: I comes down to I, in accordance with the instantaneous mediator of self-consciousness. Descartes radicalizes the Delphic motto “Know Thyself” by knowing himself as knowing, in such a way that in all other kinds of knowing, the knowledge of the I by itself will be known first. Heidegger was thus right to develop Descartes’s Cogito, ergo sum [I think, therefore I am] into a Cogito me cogitare [I know myself knowing]. I never think anything without first thinking that I think (myself), I think the self that thinks, I think I. A different equivalence follows from this—actually the same Fichte unfolded: I = I just as A = A. And Hegel will enrich it with enough mediations for it to resume the whole of reality in its equality via knowing, the concept, and absolute spirit. The absolute recapitulates all things inside, henceforth without exterior, of the dialectically mediated equality of the mind or spirit with itself. Mind or spirit reverts to itself, as much in the sense of a strict equivalence, as in the sense of a complete appropriation. It is not a matter here of a recklessly exploited metaphor but of the founding figure of modernity’s knowing. The principle of identity (non-contradiction— Aristotle) of previous metaphysics is realized concretely and primordially with the identity of consciousness with itself. The principle of sufficient reason (Leibniz) is limited to generalizing the search for equivalences, above all in realms where logical equivalence cannot function.

The modern emergence of the sciences could probably also be read as a generalization of equivalences—all derived from the primordial equivalence of consciousness with itself. The constants of the natural sciences were added in unlimited number to the tautologies of formal logic and to the equations, the systems of equation, and the striking identities of mathematics. In analogical fashion, other domains bear the same mark of equivalence: the “great equilibrium” in economy; more equilibrium in psychology and psychiatry; the equilibrium of terror in strategy, and so forth.

Man reverts to man, and the world reverts to man only by reproducing this fundamental equivalence in it. It is then only logical that history itself would have to return to equivalence: the eternal return of the same in Nietzsche does not contradict the (Cartesian) essence of modernity, but brings it rigorously to a close, much better than the simplistic eschatologies of progress; for progress itself aims at pushing the equivalence between the world and man to its end, so that man would here progress only toward his equivalence with himself.

Finally, one must underline that such a generalized tautology is not a philosopher’s ravings because it instead receives its most exact formulation in the most restrained practical philosophy there is, that of Kant, who, better than anyone else, defined man as absolute end of himself, as final goal: “A final purpose is that purpose which needs no other as condition of its possibility. The existence of man has its purpose [or end] in himself.”

It follows that “man (and with him every rational being) is to be thought of as being an end in himself; that is to say, he is never to be used by anyone, not even by God himself, as a mere means.” By a paradoxical but inevitable reversal this means today that everything that can claim to serve man as a final goal immediately justifies itself; man himself can become a means for man, understood as end—state violence, biological manipulation, attacks on life in utero, and so on, maintain their supposed legitimacy of claiming to serve Man, end-in-himself, at the risk of reducing very concrete men to the rank of simple means.

The fact that the in principle absolute and transparent equality of man with himself is turned against itself is not what is least odd about modernity. Man can certainly think of himself as his own final and nearest goal, but one must still decide who is such a man. Or instead one will impugn this equality by revoking its other extreme: what does man mean, to whom we are all as atomic individuals supposed to return and to match ourselves as our end?

The aporia pinpointed here, which is actually that of modernity, inaugurates what one could not fail to call postmodernity (although it is a formula as vague as what it goes beyond): man does not revert to man, man does not equal man, neither as consciousness, nor as end. Nietzsche saw this and said it: Each human goal results from an evaluation, each evaluation accomplishes one of the states of the will to power; accordingly the goals, even and above all the most transcendent ones, depend directly on man as overman, final authority on any evaluation; every goal takes place among the “thousand and one goals,” of which none is hence the final goal, but the sole effect of the will to power at work in the evaluator.

All goals are possible; hence none is final or absolute. The overman does not say to man who he is or should be, but only tells him that “man is something that shall be overcome.” In this way the transparent equivalence of man with himself is broken; only the immeasurable gap between the overman’s will to power and his thousand and one goals remains.

Linked to the Cartesian origin of equivalence, this break would be formulated in this way: the equality I = I presupposes that one of the two "I"s named in the equation not only exactly reverts to the other, but also knows this equality. Yet the fact alone of seeing the other, even if the other is apparently equal and similar to me, provokes a fundamental inequality between him and me: for it is to me that recognizing oneself as me [soi-même comme moi] reverts; I am not only one of the members of the equivalence, I also measure and master it. Even if no real inequality were to distinguish the known I (the end, what is seen) from the knowing I (in some way the one who sees), the polarization of the aim by this I that I am, which decides it and practices it on an I holding the place of the ideal, inflicts on this latter a functional and transcendental inequality that no excellence will be able to curb.

It is the same with man in his essence as with the empirical individual: he will never be able to see himself, although he sees everything else, except maybe by an inverted symmetry. Not only death and the sun cannot be looked in the face: this is also true of the I (and of God). From the simple fact that I (man) posit and decide on an identity for myself, by becoming mine that identity falls under my influence and paradoxically can thus no longer offer me an image of myself. Any image of myself, if it is myself that puts it up, immediately forfeits its standing; the image cannot be more than me, if it is by me. What I know of myself by myself definitely regresses to what it tries to make known—the I, inasmuch as it precedes all the kinds of knowledge that come forth from it. If, transgressing this strange rule, man claims to revert to himself—by the equivalence of knowledge or of finality—he actually reverts to less than himself, and, confusing himself with what is demeaned in him, he misunderstands himself [se méprend] or, in some way, despises himself [se méprise].

When the crisis of this mistake [méprise], in the proper sense, can no longer be concealed, as is the case today, then self-affirmation becomes homicide, the “know thyself!” is fulfilled in suicide. Not everyone is swallowed up by a volcano, like Empedocles, but the majority lose themselves in less than nothing—in any case in less and for less than what was human in them. In modernity, one often dies in order to know oneself, actually in order to know only the latest truth—and this latest “value” is worth less than man precisely because it results from an evaluation derived from him. In modernity, man does not stop praying to idols of himself as the original whose inaccessibility to the pure spectacle of self by self he does not know. If man does not go back to himself, he therefore goes back to much less than himself. How then does he attain himself? Only by going back to more than himself.

For man to be finally equal to himself, it is necessary for him to go back to more than himself—meaning more than the image that he can see of himself, where he misunderstands and deceives himself. For man to know himself, he must acknowledge that man goes beyond man. What does knowing more than man mean here? Obviously not knowing a different object substituted for man—for the “new man,” except in its Pauline meaning, gives license to barbarities. But maybe it points to a kind of knowing in a mode different from objectification, so as to reach something better than an object, which is by definition controlled by the subjection of the mind that knows it. Knowing without demoting into an object would imply knowing what no mind masters, organizes or produces; cognizing without mistaking could be called recognizing.

Recognizing a human feature [une figure de l’ homme] that would not straightaway be subject to us and hence unworthy, because we did not produce it, but instead received it as a gift. If man can only be known in matching his infinite dignity by going beyond any object knowable in the mode of objectification, then he will reach this surplus only by exceeding objective knowledge itself, which is in turn only possible if man exceeds himself. Exceeding oneself does not mean pushing back the limits of one’s finitude (which would thus be reinforced and concealed at the same time), but, precisely, ceasing to extend the empirical and objective realm of knowledge, in order to await recognition. Recognition of an image of man, “not made by human hands,” in the gift that God makes to man. Pascal points to what is essential here:

Man transcends man . . . Let us then conceive that man infinitely transcends man and that without the aid of faith he would remain inconceivable to himself . . . but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.

What can grant man recognition of a face of man finally worthy of him because removed from his mastery? Pascal says faith. Indeed, faith knows what it does not master, because it is given to know without certainty, and hence knows in the mode of grace.

Today, the function of the Catholic Church could consist in this: to let it show that God alone can give man the freedom to go back—first—to man himself, by giving him the freedom to resemble nothing less than God himself. That man would recognize himself as created “in the image and likeness of God” does not imply his submission to some strictly defined essence (which would limit his freedom, according to Sartre’s shallow misinterpretation), but instead releases and exempts him from the duty of being conformed to any known norm.

Resembling God releases from having to be conformed to the ideological models that dismantle the humanity of man. In fact, if man resembles God, he does not resemble anything known, because God is precisely defined by unknowability:

Therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype . . . since the nature of our mind, which is the likeness of the Creator, evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its own unknowableness the incomprehensible nature (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man).

God does not give a fixed and closed essence to man as things and animals have it; God gives him unknowability itself, which frees him from any definition; bearing the image of the likeness of God means—according to Gregory of Nyssa—to be exempted from any reductive knowledge, hence to be liberated from any idol that man could produce for God and, in the same move, for himself. Unknowability marks the inalienable freedom of God and also of man as a result of this gift that accomplishes creation.

Consequently, a great many theologians hold correctly (with Saint Bernard) that the freedom (libertas arbitrii) given to the original image can never be lost by the creature. Man does not bear the image of God like a slave bears a branding, a product to be marketed, the sign of its manufacturer, a piece of data, a code; he bears this image like a painting bears the style, the touch, and the talent of the painter on its entire surface, which makes it immediately identifiable as such by an expert: “This is a . . . !”—In this sense, one must say of man that “this is a God!” so thoroughly does he bear the indisputable mark. The image that he thus bears of God is not one with his own image, no more than a portrait by Cézanne would stop being first of all of a portrait of his wife, of Vollard, or of a peasant. The image and the resemblance are vouched for by what man most irreducibly himself sends back, by the perfection particular to his face, to a glory that honors him and overwhelms him, without his even knowing it, provoking it, or noting it.

In this way, man exercises a rationally incomprehensible freedom, which, precisely because it does not go back to anything of what man knows, effectively puts to work the incomprehensible and witnesses, quite naturally, to the glory of the Incomprehensible in person. God renders this service (not to say this grace) to postmodern man in order to give him, not so much a new definition of himself, which would become one of the innumerable ideological ideas with which the vague, gloomy battle floods the world with ridiculous horror, than the revelation of his essential unknowability, mark of his freedom, seal of his creation. In this way God grants man to go beyond all that he will never be able to have the least idea of—for the greatest idea will always be less than the recognition of what escapes our capability of producing ideas. Man only reverts or comes down to himself by coming to the Unknowable.

We asked how Catholicism, that is to say, the Christians assembled by the Catholic Church, can today help civil society to survive, even to be reinforced? One response seems established, at least in outline: they should ensure the vigil of the unknowable. Neither advocate of one party among others, nor trustee ofscience in competition with others, the Catholic says that man, myself, my neighbor, cannot be known in the manner of an object, of an ideal or of an idol, but that he is received, definitively unknowable, as a gift of the God who remains forever unknowable.

Nevertheless this response attracts an inevitable objection: To express that man cannot be known, in the best of cases becomes a matter of an exhortation, but it does not contribute to clarifying or enriching real conceptual debate. And just as agnosticism concerning God ends up favoring atheism under a pious cover, in the same way, applied to man, it could authorize worse desertions. There really would be difficulty if we thought we were putting forward a new thesis—“man, this unknown” or “unknowable man”—among other possible ones—“neural man,” “libidinal man,” “structural man,” and so on. That does not seem to be the function of Catholics as guardians of the unknowable. They do not propose a new slogan in the market of ideas, even a scientific one; rather, they impose a norm on all the discourses that, today and tomorrow, claim to be anthropological.

A discourse can demonstrate that such an organ of the human body complies with such and such a model, itself borrowed from some material science or other (regardless of how strange and “spiritual” this matter might be): that’s one point. Yet it is an entirely different matter, different toto caelo, to claim that this analysis concerns, even in the most minimal fashion, something like man; the only transition from one to the other depends, the majority of the time, on a negative statement: If one contradicts the discovered material model involuntarily (via sickness) or voluntarily (via murder), what really dies is or was a man.

This negative proof confirms what we have known for a long time: Knowledge, when it is applied to man as to an object, almost inevitably is sure to kill him. But the reverse is not established so simply. Doubtless, the soul does not appear under any scalpel, scanner or analysis; but this is not something to rejoice about; for the soul exists, before it is put to death; and the more we know what it abandons or what it was managing, the less we know it itself. 

When a doctor, a biologist, a psychologist, an ethnologist, and so forth speaks, one should assume a double attitude: first to listen to them in order to learn, then to understand to what extent what they say does not concern man. Anthropological problems are not decided in terms of positive knowledge, but in terms of the law (juridically, philosophically): In the future we will have to decide regarding which among possible technologies should not be applied to humans. This fearsome challenge can only be met if we have first understood that man cannot be known and that one only respects him to the extent to which one does not allow any techno-science to treat him as if he were not glorified by unknowability.

The unknowability of man is a fact—a theoretical fact observed by postmodernity in spite of itself—but it is a fact that requires a law for defending it because we do not make this fact effective, but we receive it as a gift. To know that he is nothing but what he has received is the defining characteristic of man; he has received being so radically that being comes down, without any remainder for him and for him alone in the world, to receiving himself.

Man is uniquely in debt to himself. This debt should neither be paid back nor weigh like a curse; it only demands to be recognized. Not known but acknowledged—accepted as a gift. That is why we must—that is a commandment of Christ—love ourselves; otherwise we will never forgive, will not forgive ourselves anything, and will become suicidal as much as homicidal. Learning to recognize themselves as being in the mode of the gift, Christians gathered in the Catholic Church possess by right the duty to devote themselves to this according to the imitatio Christi, which makes them accomplish in themselves the likeness of the unknowable.

But it is also possible that this same and unique duty would define, as such, their most precious and most indispensable contribution to the destiny of our common civil society. For the time is coming when, in order to remain human, one must have a will for it, and in order to want it truly, one must have the capacity for it. And in this urgent situation all means are justified, for each and everyone—even the gift of God.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from Believing in Order to See: On the Rationality of Revelation and the Irrationality of Some Believers. It is reprinted by the kind permission of Fordham University Press. Our special thanks go out to their whole team.

Our congratulations go out to Professor Jean-Luc Marion, winner of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize, and to the Lumen Christi Institute whose founding and work he's inspired.

Featured Image: Stepan Ryabchenko, The Blessing Hand of God, 2013; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jean-Luc Marion

Jean-Luc Marion is Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Professor of Catholic Studies and Professor of the Philosophy of Religions and Theology at the University of Chicago. He is the winner of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize and many books, among them Believing in Order to See: On the Rationality of Revelation and the Irrationality of Some Believers.

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