Populists often appear when people are seeking solutions to problems arising in a country undergoing social change.
In America, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders drew attention to our growing class divisions, our deepening political polarization, our anemic economy, and our formalized and bureaucratic education.
The question on everyone’s mind is, in two words, “What gives?”
But the answers populists have are always — at heart — political, and the problems they say they can fix go deeper than politics.
So what is the real underlying cause of the current political malaise? Secularization.
It’s a feature of modern life that is more of a problem than we realize. As the Italian-German theologian Romano Guardini suggested in The End of the Modern World, modernity separates us from our true purpose, which is union with God.
This separation is the real problem, because it leads to more anger and coarseness, more imbalances of power, more confusion.
Of course, most people aren’t theologians, but they likely sense something is amiss.
They see the confusion and coarseness of the age and want to do something about it; and so they’ve turned to these populist politicians, mostly because they’ve forgotten how to relate to God.
Their natural religiosity has to be projected somewhere.
But this is not a new problem. In some form or another, it has been around since about the 18th century when the French Revolution upended society.
Emmanuel d’Alzon, founder of the Augustinians of the Assumption, grew up in the 19th century, in a post-revolutionary France that had jettisoned God.
In an 1830 letter to a friend, wherein he detailed his decision to become a priest, he argued, in effect, that cultures that disrupt the order of being become “lawless” and “sick.”
He couldn’t enter politics, he explained, because he would not be able to influence people in a fundamental way — and to do that, he reasoned, he’d have to separate from French culture by attaching himself to God and His Church. He eventually founded the Assumptionists to “go wherever God is threatened in man and man is threatened as image of God.”
One of the chief apostolates of the Assumptionists is education, and their methodology can contribute to a renewal of public life in the United States by reminding the world that the secular worldview is not all-encompassing.
In America, education is often seen as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) website, the purpose of education is to promote “student achievement” and to foster “global competitiveness.”
These buzzwords show the DOE is more about creating better employees than better people.
Emmanuel d’Alzon was not interested in such things. His vision of education was a human one. Education, he suggested, would bring the world back to sanity.
He wrote: “The deepest desire of my heart is that the world needs to be penetrated with the Christian idea. Otherwise it will fall apart. And the world will not receive this idea except through individuals who will be taken up by it.”
Without such an education, human beings will remain listless and adrift and confused. The problems we’re seeing will continue.
That’s why we need ideas. I’m going to follow Rod Dreher’s lead and propose “the d’Alzon Option.”
A d’Alzon Option would exist as a kind of middle ground between the two extremes we often see in Catholic education: Schools that, while well-intentioned, want to resurrect education as during the pre-conciliar Church; and schools that, besides the crosses hanging on the walls (if they even have those), are no different than their public counterparts.
A spirited defense of God should be central to a truly d’Alzonian education.
But d’Alzon’s goal was not to “make [people] seminarians.” Instead, it was “to prepare them to live in the world,” to “act in a way to make others love and respect their faith,” to be “deeply attached to the cause of God.”
He believed in “education in all its forms,” and so a d’Alzon Option might have multiple components. Maybe parishes could become centers of education. In addition to CCD classes, they could offer courses on literature, history, politics — all grounded by a Christian ethos.
This is a perfect opportunity for lay collaboration, involving parishioners who are teachers or academics — or even armchair students of a particular field. It will feed an intellectual hunger which most people have.
As for schools, they should be more mission-oriented.
They’re not merely expensive alternatives for public schools; they’re not tickets into the upper middle class; and they’re not supersized versions of parish CCD programs.
They are institutions tasked with, as d’Alzon wrote, “penetrating the world with the Christian idea.”
Students who attend them should come out truly understanding the why of education, which is this: Their formation as serious, thoughtful human beings who recognize that they exist in a reality that is more expansive and brilliant than any of them probably ever realized.
So what would be the result of “the d’Alzon option?”
We cannot expect the world would cease disappointing people, because it will always disappoint. It’s imperfect, after all. But perhaps people would develop a fuller sense of their own humanity.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll go from asking “what gives?” to at least starting to solve some of the problems facing us.
Jonathon Bishop is vocation coordinator for the Assumptionists.