Monsignor Michel Schooyans, Emeritus Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, is the author of a number of significant and seminal works, in particular on life-related matters. His latest book Les idoles de la modernité which presents an overview of his thinking, provides an opportunity to question him. Mgr Michel Schooyans is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy for Life.References to the books cited
1) You entitled one of your previous books The Totalitarian Drift of Liberalism: can you explain what you mean by that?
While we have witnessed the failure of the Soviet system of government, we are now witnessing the emergence of a totalitarian trend arising from liberal ideology. When we examine these two ideologies – Communist on the one hand, liberal on the other – we perceive, at first sight, a significant difference between the two. In reality, the two ideologies have a common characteristic: they glorify the struggle, the survival of the fittest. Hence the following of authors such as Peter Singer. In the Communist system, the class struggle sanctions the victory of the strongest. But when we look at what happens in the liberal ideology, we encounter the same dynamic, that of unrestrained competition and survival. The market remains, but the important instruments designed to regulate it have been undermined. There is no longer a human reality, with its laws and exchanges. There is merely a battlefield where the forces of the weakest confront the forces of the strongest Those who have the right to survive are those who have the capacity to consume and produce.
2) In your next two books (The Gospel Confronting World Disorder and The Hidden Face of the UN), you denounce in particular the new notion of human rights promulgated by the UN: is this still the case and could you briefly explain the issues ?
We have entered a new cultural revolution. The UN is in the process of establishing a new notion of the law. The founding truths of the UN concerning man’s centrality in the world, as set forth in the 1948 Declaration, are being progressively disabled. Under the new UN notion of law, no truth concerning man exists which can be applied to all men. Human rights are no longer acknowledged as truths to be adhered to; they are the subject of procedures, consensual decisions. We negotiate and, as a result of a pragmatic procedure, we decide, for example, that respect for life can be imposed in some cases, but not in others, euthanasia should be liberalised, homosexual unions have the same rights as the monogamous and heterosexual family, etc. This process generates "new human rights", constantly renegotiable in line with the shifting interests of those able to assert their will.
To accommodate these "new rights", and above all the notion of law underpinning them, two strategies are called for. Firstly, it is necessary to weaken the sovereign nations, normally in the front line in protecting the inalienable rights of their citizens. Secondly, at international assemblies, it is necessary to achieve the broadest possible consensus. Once acquired, a consensus can be invoked to achieve the adoption of international conventions, pacts or protocols, which then acquire legal force in States which have ratified them. The result is the progressive formulation of a Kelsen-inspired international law, purely positivist and pyramidal. Under this law, and this law alone, can specific national laws be validated.
3) The myth of overpopulation is enduring : what response can one give today to those who continue to fear overpopulation, sometimes put forward as a facile pretext for the imposition of contraceptive programmes, even abortion?
What is too often overlooked is that the major cause of the population increase is higher life expectancy. All over the world, men and women now live longer than 50 or 100 years ago. Men now living to the age of 80 are alive for twice as long as men who, previously, could expect to live to 40. This is due to a general improvement in living conditions, in particular advances in medicine.
Furthermore, a fact generally glossed over is that there is currently a worldwide trend towards lower fertility. This fact was acknowledged by the UN’s Population Division as early as 1997. Fertility is measured by the average number of children to which a woman will give birth in the fertile period of her life, from 15 to 49 years old. The average number of children per woman has fallen throughout the world. The world’s population is distributed over more than 200 countries. In a good third of these countries, the fertility index is 2.1 or even less children per woman. For a population to be renewed, it is necessary for each woman to have at least 2.1 children. Ultimately, this situation is liable to endanger the future of humanity.
4) The issue of sustainable development crops up these days in all political discussions. There are many alarmist rumours on the subject of the environment. Some have gone as far as to propose permits to procreate.
In the present day, the notion of sustainable development is often invoked in support of the claim that the Earth is overpopulated. To respect the environment, it is necessary to define fixed quotas of human beings permitted to exist. There should be a fixed limit on the number of inhabitants on the earth, which is said to be incapable of supporting a world population reaching saturation point. However, this kind of Malthusian vision is devoid of scientific foundation. No-one is able to determine the limits on human creativity. Man has an inventive capacity which is undefined and indefinable, most palpably in the field of nutrition. In the energy field, we are told oil reserves will run out, which is probable. But when? Our first observation is that man has not always had or lived with oil and our second that man has proved himself capable of discovering and exploiting new energy sources.
In summary, trends in the two major demographic indicators, fertility and life expectancy, confirm that there is no danger of a population explosion. What, conversely, is a cause of deep concern is the increase in the ratio of the old to the young in our societies.
5) In The Idols of Modernity, you write "Modernity is regarded as the golden age of the myth of progress": in spite of the current crisis, this myth continues to take hold! What is the position today and how can we enlighten our contemporaries on the blind alleys to which the utopias of this "myth of progress" lead us?
Boosted by new discoveries in the physical, chemical and biomedical sciences, modern man has developed a belief in the inevitability of progress, understood to mean advances in the knowledge and well-being of man. The idea of mystery is dismissed. Religious truths are prejudices. Grotius excluded God from relations between nations on the grounds that religions are the cause of wars. Henceforth, God is excluded from scientific research. His existence or non-existence is a "metaphysical" question, hence of no interest. All religion can offer is a mixed bag of prejudices.
Supported by certain "philosophers", these discoveries foster the conviction that nothing is beyond the grasp of human reason. The idea of mystery is dismissed. Progress is thus conceived in strictly immanentist terms. The world is a chaos: luckily, man is there to bring order! In short, man will achieve progress relying solely on his own strengths and innate expertise in the various domains of knowledge and various spheres of action. Drawing on his own resources, man – or at least certain men – will even be able to access the Light. Whence the boom in the new scientisms, which promise to resolve issues of meaning which have hitherto evaded religion and metaphysics. The mission of these "Illuminati" will be to guide human society towards happiness and well-being.
Fundamentally, this notion of progress permeates the seats of world Government. It has given rise to an arrogant technocracy, without consideration for citizens or sovereign nations. Today however, most scholars have abandoned the immanentist notion of progress. Conversely, men now believe there is order in the world, an order we are capable of discovering little by little.
6) Finally we come to the great problem of the West. Is this not simply a rejection of God, with all that implies?
Indifference to truth has become one of the hallmarks of western societies. "All truths are equal": this is "pluralism", sometimes called "doctrinal tolerance", which goes hand-in-hand with systematic agnosticism. This indifference is the major flaw in our societies today. To remedy this flaw, recourse is had to the expedient of the rule of the majority. What should be purely a practical guideline has become the ultimate benchmark on which to base legal standards. Full reliance is placed on the will of the majority. A posthumous triumph for Rousseau and the supremacy of the general will, in one sense. The majority is credited with the capacity to imbue laws with a civil "sanctity", in accordance with which, to be a good citizen, one must respect the law unconditionally, at the risk of being accused of insociability and condemned as such. There is no longer room for a higher authority, to be invoked to challenge the law, irrespective of its nature. The relationship between positive law and the quest for justice thus becomes uncertain.
7) Is this rejection of God an inherent feature of modernity? In other words, because modernity is characterised by man’s emancipation from regulation by a higher authority (natural law, divine law), is the rejection of God not a necessity in order that man can be master?
Many of our contemporaries believe God to be an obstacle to their happiness. God is regarded as an impediment to human liberty. These men refuse the idea of dependency; they reject the idea of creation out-of-hand. In their eyes, to be created is to live in dependency, and to live in dependency is to be a slave. The slave must therefore kill the master. From this perspective, to see in creation the first revelation is now devoid of meaning. To see in the human being the image of God is equally devoid of meaning. The only law to be followed is the law of nature, understood in a purely material sense. Yet nature is violent, selecting by eliminating the least fit. It is to this nature, exalted in the Earth Charter and celebrated as Gaïa, that men must now bow because they are the product of a purely material process of evolution and will return to the earth in a death which is final. The culture of death began when men ordained the death of the Father. From this standpoint, this culture can be perceived as a revolt against God and against man, who is the image of God.
8) How can a pluralist and secular democracy "integrate" God?
We will start by dispelling the confusion, skilfully cultivated, surrounding the terms "secularism" and "securality". Secularism is primarily an integrally rationalist doctrine which aims to destroy all religious belief. It is also a set of movements which seek actively to promulgate this religious rationalism. Secularity is understood as the separation of the two spheres, the political and religious. In our western societies, political power has long ceased to encroach on religious power, and vice versa.
It is on the basis of this distinction between secularism and secularity that the question of democracy arises. The great human rights declarations were proclaimed by political authorities. The documents incorporating these declarations, several of which invoke God, are the cornerstone of modern democracy, defined essentially as the recognition by the social fabric as a whole of the right of each man to live, and to live in dignity. The notion of democracy here coincides with the foundations of Christianity: all human beings are children of the same Father, and therefore all equal in dignity. On this basis, a constructive dialogue can be instigated between the different monotheistic religions and some atheists to combat barbarism. Once the recognition of this dignity is undermined, we run the risk of reverting to the discrimination, injustices and cruelties of past ages.
9) One of the consequences of man’s emancipation is the folly of morals which result in attacks against the family, an issue you have frequently touched on: what can we do today to combat this pernicious, seemingly inevitable, trend? What signs of hope can you see?
Many people are becoming weary of legislation which exalts individual interests and passions. If people are as happy as claimed in a permissive society, how can we explain the rise in the suicide rate, in particular among the young? In its desire to please the individual, the State is creating a precarious environment, for which it is incapable of providing a solution. One merely has to look at the misery engendered by the State’s undermining of the family. States legislate, creating the impression that man’s desires coincide with his rights. We must revert to a personalist notion of man, of man as open to others, conscious of his ability to give and receive from others. There is no miracle solution beyond a return to the truth. To build a civilisation of love, we must rediscover that, in God’s plan, man is the shepherd of man.
La dérive totalitaire du libéralisme,352 pp. long, 2nd edition; a work honoured by a personal Letter from H.H. Pope JEAN-PAUL II, Paris, Mame edition and Emmanuel edition, 1995; ISBN: 2-7289-075-4.
L'Évangile face au désordre mondial, Preface by Cardinal Joseph RATZINGER, 346 pp. long, Paris, Fayard edition; revised in 1998; ISBN: 2-213-59878-9.
The Gospel Confronting World Disorder, Preface by Cardinal Joseph RATZINGER, 236 pp. long, English translation of L'Évangile face au désordre mondial, by John H. Miller, St Louis MO, Central Bureau, Catholic Central Verein of America, 1999; ISBN: 1-887567-09-7.
El Evangelio frente al desorden mundial, Preface by Cardinal Joseph RATZINGER, Spanish translation of L'Évangile face au désordre mondial, by Patricia Straulino, México, published by Diana, 2000; 358 pp.; ISBN: 968-13-3266-0.
Nuovo disordine mondiale, Italian translation of L'Évangile face au désordre mondial , by Alessandra Ruzzon, Preface by Cardinal Joseph RATZINGER, Milan, published by San Paolo, 2000, 318 pp.; ISBN: 88-215-4249-l.
O Evangelho perante a Desordem Mundial, Preface by Cardinal Joseph RATZINGER, Translated from Portuguese by Henrique Barrilaro Ruas, Lisbon, published by Grifo, 2000, 404 pp.; ISBN 972-8178-38-7.
La Face cachée de l'ONU, 283 pp. long, Paris, published by Le Sarment/Fayard, 2000; ISBN: 2-866-79302-l.
The Hidden Face of the United Nations, Translated into US English by John H. Miller, from La Face cachée de l’ONU, St Louis, MO, published by Central Bureau, CCVA, 2001, 188 pp. long; ISBN: 1-887567-18-6.
La cara oculta de la ONU, Spanish translation by Patricia Straulino of La face cachée de l'ONU (Paris, 2000), México DF, published by Diana, 2002; ISBN: 968-13-3411-6.
Ukryte oblièze ONZ, Polish translation of La Face cachée de l'ONU, Torún, Wydawnictwo Wyzszej Szkoly Kultury Spolecznej i Medialnej w Toruniu, ul. św Józefa 23/35, 87-100 Torún, T. 004856.610.72.08; T/F. 004856.610.72.73. ISBN: 83-89124-02-5.
Le terrorisme à visage humain, 225 pp. long. Preface by Cardinal LÓPEZ TRUJILLO, second edition, reviewed and augmented, Paris, published by François-Xavier de Guibert, 2008; ISBN 978 2 7554 0245 2. In collaboration with Anne-Marie LIBERT.
Terrorismo dal volto umano, in collaboration with Anne-Marie LIBERT, translated into Italian by Lorenzo Fazzini, Siena, published by Cantagalli, 2009. ISBN 978-88-8272-473-3.
Les idoles de la modernité. Entretiens, 283 pp. long, Paris, published by Lethielleux, 2010. ISBN : 978-2-24962-203-8.
Conversazioni sugli idoli della modernità, translated into Italian by Maria Luisa Buratti Bologna, published by Edizioni Studio Domenicano, Coll. Le Frecce, 2010, 242 pp. long ; ISBN 978-88-7094-750-2.
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© Michel Schooyans, 2011.
Louvain-la-Neuve, April 2011.