Civilization Was a Beautiful Thing


By Very Rev. ROBERT I. GANNON, S.J., President of Fordham University

Delivered at the Fordham University Commencement, June 11, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 575-576

IT is only a matter of a few hundred years, my dear brethren, since all creation with one sun and moon was supposed to revolve like an outer shell about the very important earth. This earth was considered the greatest body in existence, though not much bigger than Europe is today, and all the races who inhabited its surface could be easily accounted for. Their supposed history of less than ix thousand years was readily grasped and as charming as any romance. For it centered in a line of remarkable men, Kings and Heroes and Philosophers who seemed to emphasize the fact that man was the lord and center of creation.

Then the walls of knowledge began to recede. New lands and races were discovered. The earth itself proved to be four times as big as scholars had supposed and very much more complex. It was moreover not flat but spherical and turned on an axis as it spun about the sun, not half as important in the system as some of the other planets. The sky, which had been considered solid and only a few miles away from the good green earth gave way to infinite space, filled not with tiny points of light but with tremendous whirling bodies many times larger than our sun. Then history and the sciences followed close behind, pushing back man's temporal horizons thousands and thousands of years, making little of the Kings and warriors and much of great economic and physical facts.

Small wonder then if amid all these changes, it became the clever thing to sneer at man's importance. What was man after all? An insect that crawled in millions on the surface of one tiny planet and struggled desperately for the right to breath and eat and reproduce its kind. How quaint that anyone should care whether man saved his soul or not, how amusing that such an atom should have a soul to save.

That humiliated feeling has come to all of us occasionally in the presence of great nature. A lonely man at midnight stands in wide moorland, and gazing at the vast expanse of stars is sometimes crushed by a sense of his mortal insignificance. But there soon follows a reflection, an exultant sense of his immortal significance, his mastery over and spiritual possession of all that stillness and power. The arch of the sky is not really greater than the arch of his brow, not nearly as great for all that starry vastness is only God's foot-print. Man is His Image, His Adopted Son, a creature of inherent dignity with natural rights.

All over the country commencement orators this week are eloquently picturing the parlous state of the world. With a genius for simplification, most of them are laying the blame at the door of a single man, the Fuehrer of Germany. Some, like our old friend, Al Smith, go a little bit further and link up the three twins, Adolf, Joe and Benito as the villains in the piece. But unfortunately our difficulty is notas simple as that. Would to God it were. For then three Judiths could make their way to these three Holophernes and save our western civilization for a few more years. The fact is, however, that Nazism, Communism and all the other horrors of the present war are only symptoms of the real disease that is killing us. They are merely the burning fever which indicates that deep down in the body, peritonitis has set in. In the present case our peritonitis, is the fact that human dignity has been forgotten because God, the only basis of our dignity, has been forgotten, too. As a result of this, the soul of our European Culture is dead. "Jam Foetet", as Martha said of her brother Lazarus when he had been dead four days. "Jam Foetet." You can dress the corpse up as you like, you can get the cynical young moderns to fill the house with lillies and gardenias, but you cannot hide the odor of inner death. The stench of a dead soul has gone all through society, a stench which comes not from the battlefields, not from bombed homes and sunken ships, but from irresponsible lecture halls, irresponsible pulpits, irresponsible printing presses, irresponsible centers of amusement.

As for us, however, true to our good old Yankee patent medicine instinct, we continue to dose mere symptoms, to devour soothing anodynes, instead of seeking a rational diagnosis. Now, it appears that we are to go to war because totalitarian nations are attacking our way of life. That may seem a little vague at first, but the motive in general is sound enough. Our way of life can be as precious as life itself. And if we go to war, don't worry; we can defend ourselves. No nation on earth can defeat the United States, except the United States. But we continue to overlook the fact that our own fellow citizens have been attacking our way of life with such success for 50 years that there is hardly anything left to be defended. For fifty years, American termites, native and naturalized, have been chewing away the beams on which our nation was originally built. Without totalitarian aid, it is they who have emptied our American churches, poisoned American education and demoralized American labor. They have ruined the American home by the degradation of divorce. They have almost eliminated the American family by the filthy and scandalous campaign of so-called "planned parenthood," a campaign aimed directly at the destruction of the American people though as yet overlooked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For two decades now we have trod the path familiar to every degenerate nation that has gone down before us. War or no war, what hope is there of teaching a beautiful ideal of justice and self-government to a people whose mothers, millions of them, murder their own children in cold blood every year? Unfortunately, therefore, we do not have to look abroad for the enemies who will sabotage democracy and blow up the bridges of progress. Every American citizen who is doing his part in putting God out of American life is hastening the inevitable end. Hitler can never destroy democracy in America, for our democracy has already committed suicide.

Fortunately we believe in the consoling doctrine of the Resurrection, but we believe that only one Voice can ever say "Talitha cumi"; we believe that democracy will riseagain, but not until the authority of God is recognized again in public and in private life.

Apparently, then, it has fallen our lot to see the end of a civilization. Very well. In many ways, it was a noble and a beautiful thing. But with all its faults and all its virtues, we shall probably see it replaced by something else. And what will that new something be? The pagans around us have not the vaguest idea. But we know at least this much, that the Source of whatever was noble and beautiful in the past is a Source of eternal inspiration, all holy, all wise, all powerful, always ready and able, in His own good time, to disclose another masterpiece. Until that time comes it must be the function of your University and mine to keep alight in the darkness the Christian tradition of true democracy—the tradition, that is, of God's sovereign authority and of man's inherent dignity, of man's immortal significance; the tradition that Man is the Lord and Center of a universe that belongs to God.

We begin our Second Centenary at Fordham with supernatural hope.