The 40th anniversary of the beginning of the end of our Republic
The decision of the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973 was a tragedy not only for unborn children who would die by the tens of millions over the next 40 years but also for the Republic which these men had a special obligation to defend in their capacity as judges. When they decided to reinterpret the Constitution to establish a right that no one had recognized for the first 200 years of this Republic, the right to kill unborn children, little did they know that they were really sounding the death knell of the Republic itself.
St. Augustine, in the second book of his masterwork, The City of God, bemoans the self-destruction of the great Roman city-empire and civilization that he loved so dearly. But he defends the Christian religion against the charge that it undermined the Roman state; he argues powerfully that what brought down the Roman civilization was the decline of morality among the Roman people and their leaders, and he traced this decline in large part to the influence of their devotees to the pagan gods who could do nothing to teach them true morality but did a great deal to encourage immorality in the very worship and honoring of the gods themselves.
Augustine cites Rome’s own great men to defend his thesis that the depravity of Roman morals is what undermined the order and stability of the Roman state itself. He cites, in particular, the great Cicero who decried the destruction of the ancient moral culture of Rome, not perfect in itself to be sure, but far superior to what had taken its place in later times. In one section, Augustine quotes Cicero, himself quoting from the poet Ennius, in which Ennius wrote that “Rome’s severe morality and her citizens are her safeguard.” “This verse,” says Cicero, “seems to me to have all the sententious truthfulness of an oracle.” In Cicero’s opinion, it was, as Ennius held, the “severe morality” of ancient Rome that safeguarded the citizenry and thus safeguarded the republic itself. Augustine agreed totally.
But by the time of Cicero (106BC – 43 BC) things were already in severe decline and it all came tumbling down in the time of Augustine. He quotes Cicero once again;
“For what survives of that primitive morality which the poet called Rome’s safeguard? It is so obsolete and forgotten, that, far from practicing it, one does not even know it. And of the citizens what shall I say? Morality has perished through poverty of great men; a poverty for which we must not only assign a reason, but for the guilt of which we must answer as criminals charged with a capital crime. For it is through our vices, and not by any mishap, that we retain only the name of a republic, and have long since lost the reality.”
How familiar all this is in our own day. Cicero bemoaned the loss of the ancient moral culture which was so “obsolete and forgotten” that his contemporaries did not even know it. Indeed Sallust, another great Roman orator and historian, (86 BC – 35 BC) is quoted by Augustine, in addition to Cicero, as a powerful witness to this devastating situation Sallust charges that the morals of the citizens by his time had become “utterly wicked and profligate.” These were not the charges of Christians who did not yet exist as such, but of noble Romans.
Does all this not sound a lot like the moral culture of a growing majority of our citizens, especially in the centers of “learning” today? Likewise very contemporary is how Cicero speaks about a central cause of this moral decline and pestilence: “Morality has perished through poverty of great men.” He means the poverty of great leaders who also serve as moral examples to the republic’s citizens. Our media and too many citizens today blindly dismiss the personal immorality of our leaders as inconsequential so long as they do our political bidding, as if moral leadership had nothing to with political leadership and the common good and the very survival of the state.
Then comes the conclusion of Cicero, and Augustine obviously: “For it is through our vices, and not by any mishap, that we retain only the name of a republic, and have long since lost the reality.” That is the judgment on our own age as well. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court sounded the death knell of the American experiment. There is no worse immorality than the sanctioning and carrying out of the death of innocent children. The terrible and rapid decline of our society’s general morals was inevitable once that line was crossed by the moral poverty of our leaders. And now we, like the Rome of Cicero, have a real poverty of leaders who can offer any moral example and leadership to help us out of this mess.
Is there no hope then? Yes, of course; Rome had hope after Cicero and Sallust since Christianity was about to be born and enter into Roman history. But by the time of Augustine, it was truly bereft of hope. Christ, and his moral teaching, had never taken full hold in the Roman world, and so that civilization began a slow death that terminated in the time of Augustine. We too may have a chance to reverse course, but not simply by employing political means, which in this case have a limited efficacy. The devil has too much influence in that arena for a clean sweep. It’s the Gospel alone that can reverse this course and save a dying political order, and its people, from ever greater disasters.