The Enemy of New Ideas

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

The Catholic Church is always the enemy of new ideas, many have said, but G.K. Chesterton saw things differently:

It probably did not occur to him that his own remark was not exactly in the nature of a new idea. It is one of the notions that Catholics have to be continually refuting, because it is such a very old idea. Indeed, those who complain that Catholicism cannot say anything new, seldom think it necessary to say anything new about Catholicism. As a matter of fact, a real study of history will show it to be curiously contrary to the fact. In so far as the ideas really are ideas, and in so far as any such ideas can be new, Catholics have continually suffered through supporting them when they were really new; when they were much too new to find any other support. The Catholic was not only first in the field but alone in the field; and there was as yet nobody to understand what he had found there.

Thus, for instance, nearly two hundred years before the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, in an age devoted to the pride and praise of princes, Cardinal Bellarmine and Suarez the Spaniard laid down lucidly the whole theory of real democracy. But in that age of Divine Right they only produced the impression of being sophistical and sanguinary Jesuits, creeping about with daggers to effect the murder of kings. So, again, the Casuists of the Catholic schools said all that can really be said for the problem plays and problem novels of our own time, two hundred years before they were written. They said that there really are problems of moral conduct; but they had the misfortune to say it two hundred years too soon. In a time of tub-thumping fanaticism and free and easy vituperation, they merely got themselves called liars and shufflers for being psychologists before psychology was the fashion. It would be easy to give any number of other examples down to the present day, and the case of ideas that are still too new to be understood. There are passages in Pope Leo’s Encyclical on Labor [also known as Rerum Novarum], released in 1891] which are only now beginning to be used as hints for social movements much newer than socialism. And when Mr. Belloc wrote about the Servile State, he advanced an economic theory so original that hardly anybody has yet realized what it is. A few centuries hence, other people will probably repeat it, and repeat it wrong. And then, if Catholics object, their protest will be easily explained by the well-known fact that Catholics never care for new ideas.

Nevertheless, the man who made that remark about Catholics meant something; and it is only fair to him to understand it rather more clearly than he stated it. What he meant was that, in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which still claim to be new, though many of them are beginning to be a little stale. In other words, in so far as he meant that the Church often attacks what the world at any given moment supports, he was perfectly right . The Church does often set herself against the fashion of this world that passes away; and she has experience enough to know how very rapidly it does pass away. But to understand exactly what is involved, it is necessary to take a rather larger view and consider the ultimate nature of the ideas in question, to consider, so to speak, the idea of the idea.

Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.

There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.

On this map of the mind the errors are marked as exceptions. The greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes; not to mention any number of intellectual battle-fields in which the battle is indefinitely open and undecided. But it does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction, to a blank wall, or a sheer precipice. By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future. The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; and upon these the real issue of the case depends. She does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes, those hoary and horrible and devouring monsters of the old mistakes. Now all these false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation. Their first statement always sounds harmless and plausible. I will give only two examples. It sounds harmless to say, as most modern people have said: “Actions are only wrong if they are bad for society.” Follow it out, and sooner or later you will have the inhumanity of a hive or a heathen city, establishing slavery as the cheapest and most certain means of production, torturing the slaves for evidence because the individual is nothing to the State, declaring that an innocent man must die for the people, as did the murderers of Christ. Then, perhaps, you will go back to Catholic definitions, and find that the Church, while she also says it is our duty to work for society, says other things also which forbid individual injustice. Or again, it sounds quite pious to say, “Our moral conflict should end with a victory of the spiritual over the material.” Follow it out, and you may end in the madness of the Manicheans, saying that a suicide is good because it is a sacrifice, that a sexual perversion is good because it produces no life, that the devil made the sun and moon because they are material. Then you may begin to guess why Catholicism insists that there are evil spirits as well as good; and that materials also may be sacred, as in the Incarnation or the Mass, in the sacrament of marriage or the resurrection of the body.

Now there is no other corporate mind in the world that is thus on the watch to prevent minds from going wrong. The policeman comes too late, when he tries to prevent men from going wrong. The doctor comes too late, for he only comes to lock up a madman, not to advise a sane man on how not to go mad. And all other sects and schools are inadequate for the purpose. This is not because each of them may not contain a truth, but precisely because each of them does contain a truth; and is content to contain a truth. None of the others really pretends to contain the truth. None of the others, that is, really pretends to be looking out in all directions at once.

I’m reminded of Anomaly UK’s point that the brightest minds of half the world spent about a thousand years thinking from a Catholic perspective and Walter Miller’s example, in A Canticle for Leibowitz, of the post-apocalyptic Catholic church as a source of great practical wisdom, with established methods for steering flawed human beings toward productive behaviors — not unlike the Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong crowds, but more experienced.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes.


    There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors.

    Were the Church truly wise she would know that the most important parts are being able to communicate and persuade.

    Charitably, much of this art is dark; telling it in public is apt to destroy its usefulness. For example, it is not persuasive to openly admit you know how terribly stupid a 100 IQ is in absolute terms. Nevertheless, to pitch the message accurately, it is necessary to take it into account.

    The Church does not pitch her message accurately.

    Unfortunately, the disease causing the anti-rhetoric seems clear.

    that a sexual perversion is good because it produces no life

    The Church would rather you be Catholic and a fool than an atheist and wise. If you’re not already Catholic, what’s wrong with perversion is catching diseases. The Church nevertheless attacks the disease free.

    Worse, this is not merely doctrinal, but cultural. The Church refuses to learn to marshal arguments as a modern scientist would, and rather insists that the scientist learn to marshal them as the Church has. Then, she blames the scientist of moral decrepitude.

    I also see the materialist obsession with numbers, in reflection. How did ‘shut up and compute’ appear before the idea of computers?

    torturing the slaves for evidence because the individual is nothing to the State

    The Church can say that this lead to that in the past. It’s a good start, but she does not strive to understand how or why. Thus, her arguments repeatedly fall to ‘this time it’s different,’ as indeed it is, every time. On the other face of this coin, there are times where the logic is the same but the face is different, and thus passes the Church’s scrutiny.

    This is fundamentally why the Church is in retreat. She was persuasive in her early life, but refuses to learn what has changed. She expects what was once persuasive to remain so, and she is wrong.

    The above idea appeared because the Church is a power structure, its main purpose is to provide obedience. Consciousness does not obey, it thinks for itself, and thus must be opposed. (Catholic meditative prayer did not disappear coincidentally.) It is unfortunate that it apparently takes two millennia for this particular mistake to mature, but now the Church cannot think for itself.

  2. Aquinas Dad says:


    Frames are for pictures – the Church teaches its message as it always has; simply, directly, and repeatedly.

    Scientists do not debate, sir, they propose theorems and them examine them. Philosophers and rhetoricians debate. Since the Church has many philosophers and rhetoricians we are aware of that and, thus, expect others – even scientists! – to understand and follow the process of debate.

    “The Church would rather you be Catholic and a fool than an atheist and wise”

    No, sir, the Church simply knows that you cannot be an atheist and be wise thus we hope to make everyone Catholic so they may learn wisdom.

    “If you’re not already Catholic, what’s wrong with perversion is catching diseases.”

    No, sir, the issue with perversion is that it is perverted. Thus, anyone who is perverted need wisdom, disease or no.

    “Consciousness does not obey, it thinks for itself…”

    Foolishness, sir, simple foolishness. Does a child not obey its father? Does a citizen not obey just laws? Rejection of legitimate authority is one of the first hallmarks of modernity. And if the rest of your knowledge of the Church is as accurate as your beliefs on meditative prayer, then I suggest you read more about the Church itself, not what others think of her.

  3. Alrenous says:

    A fine example of how to pitch your message as if you didn’t want it heard.

  4. Aquinas Dad says:

    And who, sir, has not heard of the Catholic Church? Has not seen its buildings? Never heard of the Pope? Does not know that it is the oldest church?

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