American popular culture has produced the most supinely relativist and crassly nihilist zeitgeist ever to exhale from the bowels of Western civilization. The lifestyles of opulent excess that our southern cousins pursue and the degrading forms of media entertainment that they consume communicate values and priorities that would have revolted even the most dissipated of the worthless court sycophants who cavorted with the teenaged Nero in the taverns and bathhouses of ancient Rome. Americans should thank God that Man is a fallen, wretched creature, otherwise their culture would not be the eminently lucrative and exportable commodity (and the key pillar of their global influence) that it is.
The Pope's U.S. visit treats us to the edifying spectacle of an essentially liberal people being instructed by real conservatism, one descending not from the pages of Thomas Paine and Milton Friedman, but from the pages of Origen, Aquinas and Thomas à Kempis. The Pope puts it decorously:
"It is not enough to count on [America's] traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined," he warned the bishops gathered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The "American brand of secularism," he said, "can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator."
Of course, the American brand of secularism can reduce (in fact must reduce) everything to the lowest common denominator. This is entirely a deliberately enacted consequence of the levelling process of American democracy, by which nobody can claim to be "special" (though Americans do self-confer the privilege of being collectively special).
Americans despise unearned privilege. Yes, their habit of elevating to quasi-divine status "celebrities" who impress only by their uselessness suggests that the American definition of the verb "to earn" is an odd one indeed, but their anti-aristocratic impulses are unquestionable. The problem is that truth, like beauty, maintains itself only through privilege. For the truth to be truth (that is, not an option among "truths" but rather the "Truth"), it must be sovereign; it cannot depend on anything for its power, not even on reason. Made ancillary, truth no longer belongs to itself, but to us; and what belongs to us, we may do with as we please. As soon as truth becomes the product of private ratiocination or of public argument, it becomes a man-made object--a commodity; and, in a democracy, commodities are all equal--equally provisional, equally exchangeable, and equally expendable.
Truth is intolerable to republican laissez-faire societies. Conservative author Yukio Mishima once argued that it had become impossible to speak the truth in liberal post-War Japan because the Emperor was no longer divine: in the past, one swore an oath to the Emperor, and where there is no Emperor, there can be no oath. Where oaths are impossible, there is no Truth.
Truth is feasible only for societies with a tradition of privilege, such as monarchies. This is why, despite its rapid secularisation over the last few decades, Europe is still the centre of Western philosophy: Truth, while no longer a sovereign force for them, retains a world-weary, Elvis-in-Vegas-like authority as an object of nostalgic respect. Conversely, America is the first great power in Western history to fail to produce a single indigenous school of philosophy (Transcendentalism and Pragmatism being derivatives of British prototypes). Americans are a practical people, and even the intellectually gifted among them have always recognised the futility--even the danger--of pursuing something that has been placed under social proscription.
No doubt, many conservative Americans--Catholic and non-Catholic alike--will applaud Benedict's critique of relativism, oblivious to the fact that relativism is a foundational feature of their society and now serves as America's primary cultural export. Likewise, most of them are quite unprepared to understand that it is precisely that relativism (rather than America's wealth, power, or "freedom") which frightens and intimidates fundamentally conservative societies--such as Islamic ones.
Certainly, none of them would acknowledge that a society whose pornography industry enjoys a per-annum gross higher than the GDP of many European nations and that provides massive mainstream audiences for execrable monuments of degeneracy like Saw and Hostel needs to ask itself the kinds of uncomfortable questions that would help Americans discover whether they are even still part of the Western civilisation that Pope Benedict represents or whether, like Turkey and Russia, they jumped the rails a long time ago.
Of course, many Americans would find presumptuously ludicrous the notion that anyone could speak on behalf of the Truth in the first instance, as if someone could hold a monopoly of access to a transcendent power that, in any event, may not even exist--as if anyone has the authority to determine (ex cathedra, as it were) what we must believe and what we must reject.
I felt rather the same way when I heard a certain semi-literate Texan bark to the world, "You're either for us or against us!". Americans, though, seemed disappointingly comfortable with this crude moral and intellectual blackmail. Perhaps too few of them understand that, although they are pleased to place the tin wreath of Petrine supremacy upon their Chief Executive, the world is not, and that those of us who still believe in Petrine authority prefer the real one.