Not being Catholic, I am no expert in Catholic theology or doctrine, but I do have some experience with writings and people that deal in the commodity we call common sense. Thus, I was eager to read the newly released book by Bill Donohue entitled “Common Sense Catholicism: How to Resolve Our Cultural Crisis” (Ignatius Press, 2019). Dr. Donohue is president of the Catholic League and is the spirited, and always forthright, defender of Catholic civil rights and values frequently seen on TV. He defends Catholic institutions from the barrage of incessant criticism coming its way from those on the political left and those iconoclasts gleefully occupied with bringing down Catholic institutions.
Plagued as we all are by the steady decline in cultural norms and values, Donohue sets out to determine who among society’s shapers and opinion makers is, to a large degree, responsible for this crisis facing America and the West. He rightfully spotlights those who are called “intellectuals,” the professors, sociologists and social engineers who for decades have offered, actually imposed, concocted social theories onto society that defy common sense and human nature. “The modern ruling elites misinterpret human psychology and sociopolitical affairs. They do so largely because they misunderstand, if not ignore, mandates inscribed in human nature. To be precise, by not giving due deference to the biological, social, and cultural attributes found in every society, the ruling elites have crafted policies, norms, and values that simply do not work. We should be taking our cue from human nature—Catholicism certainly does—not turning our back on it.”
Donohue sites, for example, how the templates of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity, were twisted and corrupted by its philosophers and social engineers into something unworkable. Not taking into account human nature, liberty espoused an unbridled individualism with unlimited appetites, no restraints or sexual boundaries. Its anti-Christian sentiments erased the need for morality. Equality became, as is happening today under the tenet of cultural-Marxism, a blurring of gender differences to the point of denying any difference between the natures of man vs. woman. And fraternity quickly devolved into collectivism. But humans need boundaries, and there are differences in nature between female and male. The naïve, pie-in-the-sky quest for top-down socialism/communism among intellectuals is blind to the implanted and positive elements of self-interest and personal pride. Collectivism snuffs out and corrupts a prosperous and effective society. It, like radical egalitarianism and the libertine, is unworkable.
Because those calling themselves intellectuals are tied not to the practical but to the esoteric and the laboratory theories they devise, they see things exclusively through the prisms they construct. They, Donohue asserts, don’t see reality. If their prescription does not work it is not the fault of their medicine, rather a call for more of their failed medicine. Not only do they lack practical experience, but are intoxicated by arrogance, and they see the world not as it is, but how they want it to become … no matter the dire consequence.
Let me add. Many who call themselves intellectuals are zealots for their own power. They look down upon those not in their closed fraternity and believe they should control; all of course, for the sake of “mankind.” Forget the individual, it is this amorphous “mankind” that is for them paramount. They and the ruling elites reinforce each other. They reject common sense as a guiding approach to solving problems because common sense is a treasure and prize that the common man, the person with experience and practical knowledge, already possess. So as to retain their power over others, the “intellectual” needs to convince the multitudes that problem solving is best left to the rarified few who have superior intellectual methods of grasping situations. They, not the average Joe, must be followed. They convince the populace by invoking their academic status and doctorates … a form of intimidation against the humble people below, often in the form of snobby bullying.
Donohue is not against expertise and knowledge. No way! But he demarcates between mere book knowledge versus true wisdom, between theoreticians versus people whose knowledge is mixed with real life experience and craftsmanship, between ivory-tower types as opposed to learned men who have spent a life out in the fields of farming, industry and management. Donohue writes: “The collapse of common sense is driving our derailment.”
So, who are, or were, men of intellectual acumen, yet not foolish and dangerous “intellectuals”? Well, none other than the Founding Fathers. These were highly educated men, educated from books, but equally from experience; from verse but also from tilling the soil, manufacturing and selling goods; they were men of commerce, letters; they were soldiers and warriors; they were men of the texts, and yet, men of the people – with and among the people. They were not Voltaire and Rousseau or Marx or Marcuse. Much better than these, were our Founders.
These men and their practical wisdom already foretold the success of the American Revolution versus the disaster and brutality, and ultimate failure of the French Revolution. Our Founders appreciated religion, the Bible, and the realistic view of human nature and the human condition bequeathed to us in the Bible. In contrast, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marx, Alinsky, and most of today’s self-proclaimed secular “intellectuals” rebelled against the Bible and the Bible’s morality.
Without biblical morality a society slides into chaos and decadence. John Adams said it correctly. A government should not be an incessant policeman over its citizens; instead people should self-police through a moral behavioral code, the code most readily and efficaciously found in the Bible. Our country excelled like no other because of its underpinnings of common sense, practicality, liberty of the mature individual, rejection of the tyranny of “intellectuals,” and a sense of discipline and sexual morality.
There are skeptics who will tell you that religion and common sense are polar opposites. They will immediately deny the symmetry of Donohue’s title “Common Sense Catholicism.” Donohue anticipates this charge and reminds us that there are two elements to biblical religion: Faith and Reason. Not all religions incorporate reason, but the Old and New Testaments most assuredly do. No doubt, there are aspects of revelation, grace, personal salvation, things of the spirit, and the existential conundrums that are indeed matters of faith. Yet, most of the daily answers for living a well-balanced life and guidance for a successful society and nation are, in Catholicism (especially since Aquinas), Judaism, and Protestantism, rooted in reason, reason emanating from first-class minds with practical, street wisdom.
As on TV, Donohue speaks to us here in lively language, understandable sentences that are both deep and delightful. He has the gift for prose. Within this book’s pages is something for anyone wishing to probe and yet be entertained.
Rabbi Aryeh Spero is author of “Push Back: Reclaiming our American Judeo-Christian Spirit,” president of Caucus for America, and spokesman for the Conference of Jewish Affairs.