The “branding” of Catholicism

This reflection includes some material from earlier posts


As our tribal identities recede into the oblivion of history, religions that are nothing more than ethnic identifiers will follow them. By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that ethnic identification is a superficial phenomenon. The ferocity it can generate was on horrific display in Belgium in 1985 when Liverpool soccer enthusiasts attacked rival Juventus fans and many were killed. Religion can play a similar role, and many of us come out of such a tradition. “Catholic,” for many, was simply another word for being Irish or Polish … or some other tribe that perhaps had to defend itself historically against a non-Catholic invader or overlord. “Dogmas” became shibboleths … passwords for who was really in the tribe and who wasn’t. Doctrine came to be used principally to contrast with what was “non-Catholic;” it was a “brand” identifier.

So branding is not an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. But in our post-tribal globalized age, when even nation-states can fail, it has a wider application. Branding identifies the successful transnational business corporation which has become the very symbol of solidity, viability and social preeminence. The Roman Catholic Church has lately begun to exploit this potential by identifying itself as a commercial enterprise which offers quality products for sale. Marketing those products is the key to corporate success, and an essential part of marketing is establishing a clearly recognized profile in the global marketplace, a coherent package of visible symbols — a “brand” — that sets the corporation apart from others in the eye of the prospective consumer. These symbols must be immediately associated with its desirable “product line.” As tribal support wanes, the Church needs something it can sell to anyone, anywhere.

“Preserving the Vision”?

Is this just more hyperbole … a fantasy I have conjured to focus my axe-to-grind, my criticism of the Church? Let me assure you it is not.

In the spring of 2012 when the Bishop of Brooklyn NY, USA was questioned about the documented loss of over 200,000 Catholics from his diocese, he responded: “we’ve still got 1.5 million. We can live with a quarter million less.” Coming from someone who professes to believe traditional Catholic doctrine which includes the claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” this is astounding! Concern for the salvation of those who left, or questions as to why so many would feel impelled to do so were never mentioned. The only thing that seemed of interest to the bishop was his organization’s viability.

Is this one man’s idiosyncrasy? In a letter to the NYT dated May 20, 2012, ex-Jesuit Tim Iglesias of Oakland, Calif., wrote:

… I believe that [Catholic church leaders] are pursuing a very deliberate strategy. They have decided that a smaller, more unified and doctrinally focused church community is preferable to a welcoming, diverse and unruly one. All of their actions are consistent with this strategy.

If what Iglesias is saying is true, the Brooklyn Bishop is not alone. His attitude is part of a “deliberate strategy” of the hierarchy — corporate manager-bishops — who have unilaterally opted for downsizing the Church based on the efficiency criteria of successful business organizations, not on the definitions and goals set by the Church itself.

The fact that these episcopal sentiments mirror the mindset of the CEOs of major corporations must be seen square­ly for what it is: a redefinition of Church — the crass substitution of the goals, structures, motivations and operating dynamics of a commercial business enterprise in place of a community that claims to be inspired by the vision of Jesus. We are not dealing with morality here; it goes far deeper than that. It’s a matter of fundamental identity. Are you a Christian community concerned about people, personal liberation, gratitude for life, justice, widows and orphans, or are you a corporate commercial enterprise concerned about your survival: your “products,” your customers, your income, your assets, your buildings, their utilization and productivity?

As if in answer to that question, less than six months earlier in November 2011 the Diocese of Brooklyn published a “Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools 2011-2014” whose language recapitulates this corporate commercial mindset. It is labeled “Preserving the Vision” and it can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website ( ). It includes the clear order that all Catholic parochial schools in the Diocese will be converted into “academies” by 2017, thus completing their privatization, their final separation from the parish and any semblance of being the project of a “Christian community.” Education for the paying elite, whether Catholic or not, will be the official order of the day — the “product” the Church sells. The mission statement for the “strategic plan” makes this clear:

Goal #2: Increasing enrollment through effective marketing and outreach to the diverse communities within the Diocese.

Effective marketing? Outreach to diverse communities? Those phrases reveal the commercial nature of the ecclesiastical efforts. The fact that we are talking about conversion to “academies” should dispel any illusion that “diverse” might mean an outreach to the poor … when would you ever “market” to people who, by definition, cannot pay? It is precisely to bypass traditional commitment to the poor in favor of paying customers that this qualifies as a “strategy.” “Diverse” clearly refers to “non-Catholics” who are willing to pay for high quality, private education, where their children can pursue excellence undistracted by “under-achieving” needy Catholics — immigrants’ children — shunted to the public schools.

There is a whole section on “marketing.” The following is from a list (p.13) of strategic goals for the “marketing” effort. Notice the conspicuous use of the word “branding”:

Goal 16. High priority will be given to effectively marketing Catholic schools and acade­mies within the Diocese of Brooklyn in order to build a strong educational brand through­out the Diocese and increase K-8 enrollment by 10% each year so that buildings are fully utilized.


16.1 To maximize effectiveness and clarity, marketing and branding messaging at the dio­cesan and local school and academy levels will be presented to all diocesan constituencies in a “single minded” manner and delivered with “one voice.” Schools, academies and various offices within the diocese will work collaboratively to ensure this consistent branding and messaging.

16.2 Specific marketing resources will be identified and committed to fund an integrated marketing communications program of branding Catholic education within the Diocese of Brooklyn and to support individual school and academy recruitment activities.

This uncharacteristic use of terminology coincided, in a most revealing way, with a similar anomaly of speech uttered by Cardinal William Levada, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Commenting on his June 11th 2012 meeting with the nuns of LCWR Levada said:

“Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic church, aren’t representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity,” [1]

Product identity”? This kind of untraditional talk used in such unconnected circum­stances fairly compels the conclusion that the corporate managers — the bishops — are in agreement defining the Church as a commercial enterprise; and they are spontaneously using terminology that reflects their objectives.


Based on this I am going to extrapolate and make a serious accusation and prediction: that the morally discredited hierarchy of the American Catholic Church, saddled with an obsolete, incoherent doctrinal inheritance, and faced with the erosion of support from preferred ethnics, is deciding to turn an irrational doctrinal liability to corporate advan­tage by marketing its beliefs as “ancient tradition” regardless of their lack of “truth” value. “Tra­­di­tion” gives an aura of depth and quality to its various services — its “product line” — which include education. This might seem a commonplace observation about a “common sense” strategy. But it takes on a severe condemnatory significance because it means that the Church, far from grappling with the reformulation or repudiation of erroneous, useless and even damaging dogmatic anomalies, is … for “branding” purposes only … entrenching itself behind them, and thus becoming a cynical purveyor of delusion. In its desperation to find a way to escape its terminal obsolescence, the Church leadership has abandoned any concern for the truth.

“Truth,” I contend, has been abandoned. What at one time, and not that long ago, was a sincere belief in the inerrancy of the magisterium, is no longer held by the well-educated Church authorities who are as savvy and modern as the rest of us. The corpus of doctrine is cynically being kept unchanged by men who really do not believe these doctrines are relevant any longer, in order to promote the corporate “branding” for its product line. Pope Francis’ recognition that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church … cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,”[2] reflects this attitude; it suggests that his pastoral style could easily be made to coincide with the strategy of rehabilitation through corporate re-definition. The pope suggests doctrinal insistence is irrelevant, but he does not offer to retract one iota from the dogmatic absurdities hallowed as “tradition.”

This is disturbing. The entire human family appreciates Francis’ warm, familial, humble demeanor and pastoral priorities. His style is a welcome change in the leadership projections of the Catholic Church, which has been, historically, arrogant and overbearing in the extreme.

But it has become clear in the year since the beginning of his papacy that he has absolutely no intention of moving to reform doctrine, even those easily modified like the absurd rationale for the ban on contraceptives and the utterly hollow basis for denying priesthood to women. Our feelings for Francis should not excuse a profound betrayal. The autocracy of Roman Catholicism has been consolidated to the point where no change of any significance can take place unless it is initiated or at least actively supported by papal authority. If Francis has decided he will not attempt to modify the inherited teaching on faith or morals in any way, it cannot happen. There is no other agent of change in the Church. He has to realize if he has any interest in change — and many believe his actions imply he does — he is the one who has to do it. Others may be willing to assume the burdens of “cleaning up” the dogmatic mess and allowing him to live a simple life as he seems to desire, but they cannot; as the Church is currently structured they are not the custodians of doctrine, he is.

The ironic thing is that the first doctrines that need to be changed are those that justify the exclusive power of the pope in these matters. The fact that they are accepted as doctrines means that they are not readily perceived as the typical self-serving justifications always trotted out by autocrats determined to maintain their exclusive grip on power. They are touted as “sacred” dogma. All Catholics (in theory) believe in (1) the inerrancy of the magisterium managed solely by the hierarchy, (2) the infallibility of the pope when teaching ex cathedra on faith or morals, and (3) the apostolic succession of all bishops. These doctrines are declared to be “truths” revealed by “God.”

But I claim the battle ground has shifted. These doctrines are no longer promoted because they are “true,” nor even because they mystify the faithful. The doctrines are clung to because they are “Catholic” and the Catholic “brand” sells. The hierarchy owns the corporation, and the corporation needs those doctrines for its identity. Up-scale families want to send their kids to private “Catholic” schools. The preservation of “tradition” now means things cannot be allowed to change not because they are eternally true, but because they are the essence of the Catholic corporate “brand.”

The hierarchy’s decision to recuperate legitimacy in the form of corporate success through “product identity” and the “branding” that it requires, promises to compound the intransigence against doctrinal reform exponentially. Catholic doctrine is central to its “branding.” There is nothing that symbolizes Catholicism and sets it apart from all other institutions more than the three doctrines just mentioned above. Imagine a Catholic Church without a pope! The papacy is an essential symbol for the corporate Catholic “brand.” If our morally discredited Church with its baggage of destructive, erroneous and irrelevant doctrines continues to survive, it will be thanks to its corporate success in marketing its “product line” and the “branding” that accompanies it. “Branding” by the very nature of what it is designed to do, will reinforce the resistance to doctrinal change; for if Catholic doctrine is allowed to change, the Church will no longer be recognizable as Catholic. Once ethnic community is supplanted by mass impersonal entities like the transnational ecclesiastical corporation, branding recognition is indispensable to survival.


“Loss of recognition” is disastrous for the mass organization. It was the “mistake” made at Vatican II and it helps explain the confusion among the ordinary Catholic people precipitating a devastating fifty-year conservative backlash led by, but by no means limited to, the hierarchy. It affected many areas of Church life, but let’s just look at one: the Eucharist.

For many Catholics in 1965, changing the way they related to the Eucharist changed the Church beyond recognition. That generation is almost gone, but many of us remember the bewilderment that people of our parents’ age went through when it was announced that the worship of the Eucharistic host was no longer the point of the mass. They were told the mass is to be understood as a symbolic meal evoking love of neighbor … after having been taught all their lives that what distinguished Catholics from Protestants was that the mass brought “God” to earth; we had “God” in the tabernacle, they didn’t. The “real presence” was the centerpiece of counter-reforma­tion Catholicism. Vatican II, by emphasizing the symbolic value of the Eucharistic bread and changing the focus of the mass from “God” to the human community, overturned all that. It had the practical effect of diminishing the importance of the real presence and ending Catholicism’s insistence on its radical superiority over Protestantism. It simultaneously undermined other associated doctrines like the ex opere operato (automatic) function of sacramental ritual and the absolutely indispensable role of the priestly sigillum (“indelible seal”) with its magical power to transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. All that changed.

Consider the devastating effect of announcing the primacy of symbolism: If the mass were truly more than a symbol, then the symbolism should have remained secondary to the literal, factual reality of the real presence, because “reality” trumps all ancillary factors. But if the symbolic is validly given highest priority then you really don’t need a priest, anyone can make and recognize a symbol. How is this different from what the Protes­tants have been saying? What started out as a necessary course correction for a doctrine that had yawed too far in the direction of scientific fact, turned out to completely upend the Catholic worldview as it then existed precisely because the entire interconnected worldview had been taken as scientific fact.

So the Catholic Church lost its uniqueness in the eyes of its own people. The view being encouraged by the Council tended to put Catholicism on the same level as other Christian religions, no better, no worse, to be judged by fidelity to the gospel not by its magical powers. Despite the ensuing conservative backlash, there really was no going back. The cat was out of the bag. The sacraments are symbols, not vending machines. The Roman Catholic priest was no longer a mystical Merlin bringing Christ back to earth in the mass which was also supposed to sustain his life of celibate “holiness.” Celibacy lost its mystique. The ideological source of Catholic exceptionalism was swept away and the Church stood naked before the world … the victim of centuries of self-delusion, painted into a corner by its own insistence that its doctrines were scientific fact and its priests performed miracles. Catholics’ supreme self-confidence collapsed because their divinized self-image evaporated. Such catastrophic loss of self-esteem could never be reversed.


Or could it? I believe recourse to corporate success as compensation for that loss was predictable for an organization that had inherited a massive infrastructure of property: land, buildings, schools, hospitals … and a tradition of service. Indeed, the Church’s identity as a “service provider” in education was already well established. Once all that infrastruc­ture was stripped of its self-involved religious meaning what was left was its value to larger society, hence the pursuit of recog­nition as a corporation that provides “quality” education and other services.

The Church does not use its doctrines, like the “real presence” for their truth value any longer but only for their “branding” power. The truth value of the “real presence” had already been devalued by Vatican II. The Church can no longer return to that worldview. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is symbolic; its “reality,” i.e., its sacramental efficacy, derives from its symbolism, not the other way around. The “spirit” of Jesus becomes present in the community of love evoked by the symbolic meal of sharing. The power of symbols is the new paradigm that rules this sea-change in Catholic self-definition and ritual practice. Doctrine, as usual, lags behind prayer-life and needs to catch-up. Catholicism must begin reformulating (or repudiating) doctrines — like the “real presence” — that had originally been falsely articulated in terms of magic words and scientific “fact” and restate them as necessary to accommodate their reality as symbol.

But if the Church becomes captive to the siren call of the marketplace, and refuses to allow its ancient formulations to change because it is now committed to preserve the purity of its “brand,” it continues proclaiming doctrines known to be false or falsely stated, and now without even the excuse that it believes them. This would explain the Brooklyn bishop’s lack of concern that 200,000 Catholics had left his Church. He isn’t a monster; like the rest of us he simply no longer believes that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

This is the dilemma facing the present pope. He cannot absent himself from these developments. Catholic doctrine is burdened with the delusions of millennia. Ignoring doctrine will not make it go away; that is the greatest delusion of all. Doing nothing is itself a choice to continue the mystifications of the past, and no one is fooled by them any longer.

The money changers are starting to take over the temple. It was something that Jesus could not ignore and would not tolerate. It’s what got him killed. The bishops are turning their churches into business corporations right before Francis’ eyes, and their doctrinal conservatism is cynical and insincere in service to it. This is all happening on his watch. It is time to ask the hard question: is Francis’ “benign neglect” passively complicit with this development? I am inclined to say that even granting him the benefit of my doubt, it is still a cop-out … it avoids accepting responsibility for what the Church has done with what it calls the “truth.”


The Church has always claimed it was the guardian of the “truth” and the “truth” was the basis of its claims to power. Throughout its history, no matter how venal and morally corrupt its leadership, no matter how it compromised with wealth and power, no matter how it betrayed the widow and the orphan, it has never wavered on what it insisted was the “truth” that grounded its right to rule. For the pope to dismiss that “truth” now as an irrelevant “obsession” and not own up to the damage it has caused, is grossly irresponsible.

The “truth” was used to justify genocidal crusades launched by direct papal initiative against Islam and dissident “heretical” Christians. The “truth” mattered so much that the Church was willing to encourage Christians to kill people in its defense and in its promotion. And in the matter of the Jews, beginning with the gospels themselves the Church’s version of the “truth” provided the rationale for Jew-hatred that has lasted throughout Christian history. Christian rhetoric about the “truth” of divine providence drove the Christian population of Europe to conclude that only the physical elimination of the Jewish people who denied the “truth” of the divinity of Christ and the necessity of baptism for “salvation” would guarantee that natural disasters would not be visited upon them by “God” in punishment for the presence of Jews in their midst. Every outbreak of plague brought pogroms of slaughter to the Jews.

The virulent anti-Judaic attitudes that seethed beneath the surface in all the countries of Europe in the years leading up to the Nazi holocaust insured that what was happening at Auschwitz and Buchenwald would be ignored if not tacitly approved, and we know now that the Vatican itself was part of that “passive complicity.” The holocaust was the “final solution” prepared for by two thousand years of Christian “truth.” To treat the doctrinal complex that comprises Christian “truth” now as of no relevance is a betrayal of integrity of monstrous proportions. There is no impunity for genocidal Pinochets and Milosevics and the machete-killers of Ruanda. There is no “statute of limitations.” The Church must account for its claim to be custodian of a “truth” that precipitated so much horror. To walk away in silence when you have finally come to know that your “truth” was all along nothing but a self-serving delusion that harbored a psychopathic murderous paranoia toward others, is a crime against humanity in a class by itself.

Tribal “Catholicism” is on the way out. It is disappearing because tribal identity is disappearing in a globalized world … I say, good riddance. People can find other ways to protect their cultural heritage. But there is a new monstrosity coming to birth in its wake, a globalized Church with a new identity: the corporate commercial enterprise, supine before the forces of the market which would make us all commodities to be bought and sold. We don’t need this Church either. When will we learn? Roman Imperial Christianity made Jesus “God” and chained him to its program of conquest and control; it created a machinery that, even as things changed, has functioned, inerrantly, for that same purpose ever since.

If we are to liberate ourselves from its grip, we will have to liberate Jesus along with us.


[1]John AllenVatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012

[2] From Interview w/ Antonio Spadaro pub in America Sept.30, 2013



Morality in a Material Universe (part three)

(This is the final installment of an essay posted in three parts.   The two previous parts are below this.  It’s been divided  for readability.  Those interested in looking at the whole piece will find it as a “page” with the same title in the sidebar to the right below the books.)

Morality has always been associated with a sense of the sacred.  In our tradition the sacred has  been equated to “spirit” but, we must acknowledge, more fundamentally to existence.  It’s because spirit was considered the origin and goal of existence that we somehow believed matter to be the source of the immoral.

All that has changed.  In a material universe, existence is matter’s energy.  We experience it internally as our drive to survive.  It is the source and foundation of our sense of the sacred and from there, morality.  Morality is what respects, protects and enhances existence.  That is no less true in our evolving universe of matter than it was in a universe that we once thought was created by “Intelligent Design.”

Jesus’ message of the dignity and autonomy of the human being coincides with this view of things to a remarkable degree. 


In a universe planned by a rational “God,” as we once imagined it, whether created directly by fiat or indirectly through evolution, what things are had to be personally intended.  It was “God” who “willed” their nature, and also, therefore, the way they should act.  It’s no surprise, then, that even though human morality was known to have social benefit, it was embraced primarily as an element of the human individual’s (and the tribe’s) relationship with “God.”  It became part of the “matter” of the sacred contract between “God” and his people, under the purview of religion.  Ritual and morality together were taken as the visible display before the world of the honor that this particular people had for their “God,” and it became the condition for “God’s” benevolent providence in return.  Obedience to the divine person who “saved” and protected the tribe was a sacred responsibility of the individual.  The violation of morality was only indirectly considered a crime against the welfare of the community; it threatened the community because it was, first of all, a “sin” against the “God” by whose favor it thrived.

In the universe as we now know it to be, however, created by the survival struggles of matter, the divine principle — archē, LIFE — is resident in matter as its existential energy.  It is the very drive to survive that is the locus of the “sacred.”  It is where LIFE takes on flesh and displays itself.  The “sense of the sacred” — i.e., that humans cherish what provides and supports their existence — derives directly from the conatus, the force of LIFE immanent, distributively, in every particle of matter and gathered, exponentially intensified and ultimately “personified,” in each complex organism made of it.  Thus in our material universe the only “will” that such a “God” could possibly have, if one were to insist on the use of those terms and categories, is that organisms do what is necessary to survive.  To survive is the only “natural law.”  In such a universe no one, except the seriously insane, has any trouble discerning and implementing natural law.

It is immediately clear, however, that we are speaking metaphorically.  For neither “law” nor “com­mand­ment” are any longer relevant terms for responsible human action, for “obedience” is not a possible valence between LIFE and the human beings who bear it.  LIFE is immanent in matter: it is not other than the organism it enlivens and it is not conditioned on behavior.  LIFE comes free and, self-destructive behavior aside, no amount of “immoral” behavior will cause it to withdraw.  Because it is not a rational “other” it is not “personal” in any ordinary sense of the term.  Therefore “obedience,” in a material universe, is no longer a literal religious category because it does not correspond to the nature of the relationship between LIFE — the divine principle — and man.  This is a sea change in the fundamental understanding of our relationship to “God,” ourselves, society and the environmental matrix in which we are nested.  If the divine principle is not-other-than-myself it makes no demands that are not already my own and no “obedience” is possible.  Obedience can only be a metaphor.

For those who have been accustomed by their tradition to literally identify obedience to a divine person as a “sacred” act whose performance made one sacred, such a change can be more than challenging, it can be immobilizing.  It seems to imply the elimination of the very possibiity of connecting to the “sacred” at all.  It is not easy to “think outside the box” when it comes to personal relationship, and it is the “personal” aspect that is under threat here.  One obeys a maximally superior person.  Trying to imagine a relationship to “God” that is NOT characterized by obedience bypasses the very categories with which we define ourselves as human: we are human because we are persons and we cannot imagine relating to “God” otherwiseSo to change the basic structure of our moral obligations threatens our understanding of who we are.

If “tradition” and “what we are used to” were the only considerations here, there would be little hesitation about what we would prefer.  But, fortunately or unfortunately, besides being “persons” we have a connatural relationship to impersonal truth; it comes with the organism.  It was “selected” because it helped us survive.  We are drawn to conform our minds to it no matter what our personal preferences.  The “truth” in this case is that science belies the possibility of conceiving “God” as a person who rationally “chooses” to create the universe, either proximately through a direct command as creationists believe, or remotely through the use of evolution as a “shaping tool” designed to accomplish “his” “will.”  Science has discovered that there is no rational plan discernible in either the emergence of pre-life physical / chemical combinations or living organic genotypes through­out cosmic history.  The same holds true for “providence:” there is no rational plan in the ongoing management of the events in the cosmos.  Everything that occurs outside of conscious choice is the result of the power of material energy exclusively driven and steered by its hunger and ability to exist — the energy resident in matter.  The violent interaction of pre-living aggregates of matter, as in earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados and other natural occurrences, are random.  They are not planned and cannot be prevented.  They are not the result of providence.

This turbulent “drive and ability to exist” also seethes and roils at the core of the human organism.  It is where LIFE and the human being are more than in direct contact, it is where they are one.  We call it, following Spinoza, the conatus:  the palpable, irrepressible force of life, the instinct for self preservation expressed and on display in the human organism feeding, protecting and reproducing itself.  The conatus of the rational individual is thus the ultimate source and ground of individual autonomy, the social imperative and the sense of the sacred.  If there is any relationship that is “sacred” in our material universe it is right here in the conatus, “where the rubber meets the road,” where LIFE takes on flesh and displays itself for all to see.


In marked contrast, in the traditional “spiritual” universe that we imagined was created and run by a divine “Mind,” the instinct for self-preservation and self-en­hance­ment, far from being the sacred meeting place of LIFE and man, was mistrusted and disesteemed, along with its derivatives: the drive to survive, consume and reproduce.  We have been slowly emerging from these cultural prejudices over the last centuries, but they had been firmly in place for two millennia and still exercise a profound influence on the imagery that dominates our thinking.  In many cases the moral behavior once mandated by them has been transcended in practice but the theoretical rationale for the change lags behind leaving the moral agent unsure and unintegrated.  Without a guiding idea of how to interpret these instincts and use them constructively in society, the corresponding behavior often suffers from excess, sometimes in one direction, sometimes another.

This forces the community to assess the relative value of the various behavioral “experiments” under way, and over time and by consensus new codified norms of behavior begin to congeal.  But the “muddling through” remains a problematic procedure for those who were accustomed to commandments that come down from on high which one “obeys.”  The new understanding of the sacred nexus of “God and man” in the conatus, however, provides exactly the moral clarification that makes “muddling through” more than acceptable, it makes it an act of creative responsibility and collaboration with LIFE.  The sense of the sacred, derived from the “divine-human” conatus, brings its centered and mindful energies to bear on the human decision-making process.  It allows for the broadening of the power of discernment and identifies its ultimate goals as more than just the xenophobic protection of the individual and its local tribe.

“Obedience,” the traditional practice, represented a deflective appropriation of responsibility.  By that I mean the one who obeys is necessarily choosing to behave in accordance with someone else’s appreciation of what morality demands.  The one who obeys acts responsibly precisely by deferring to another’s view of responsible behavior.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it implies the inability of the obeying subjects to make their own moral evaluation appropriate to the situation.  It is good for children to obey, and they know it.

In an ideal scenario, where there is no lack of knowledge and information on the part of the one following orders, obedience presumes only a lack of perspective.  The “general” person, allegedly in a “position” to see the whole situation in a way that the “private” person cannot, gives the orders to which the other submits.  This example makes no adverse judgment on the moral capacity of any individual because the commander-obeyer relationship is entirely due to the range of vision provided by “position.”  When the “positions” are reversed the erstwhile inferior will have the wider range of vision and therefore will give orders as appropriately as the former superior.  This presumes the positions are reversible.

But the indentification of responsibility with obedience alone, as is the case in a “God-comman­ded” morality exclusively administered by a hierarchy, contemplates a permanent state of moral myopia and impotence.  The “positions” are never reversed.  If the only way someone can be said to be acting responsibly is that they obey, it implies that they are intrinsically incapable of discernibng and/or implementing moral behavior.  Such a person is not expected to ever achieve full human autonomy.

In a universe where “God’s” agents command, everyone, regardless of perspective, obeys.  Contrarywise, in our material universe, where there are no “divine commandments” because “God” did not plan the structure of human nature, everyone, regardless of the lack of “position,” is called upon to collaborate in discerning, through the process of trial and error, what works for the well-being of the com­munity.  The claim of “private” persons that they were only carrying out the orders of the “generals” no longer serves to exonerate immoral behavior.  “War” as the state sanctioned mass killing of those who are officially declared to be “enemies,” can no longer be justified on the sole basis of “obed­i­ence” to legitimate authority.  The trial and error results of millennia of human experience indicates a growing consensus across the globe: war is immoral.  War has been delegitimized by the common consent of the human family.  That it has not been codified is simply the baleful effect of the irresponsibility of the entrenched ruling class.  In the long run universal consensus will rule.  This is the way morality evolves and comes to be codified a material universe.  We live in such a universe, and the autonomous responsibilities of each and all to collaborate in community survival are finally coming to be acknowledged.  It is the ground of a community comprised of free individuals.  “Democracy” and other forms of true social cooperation are impossible without it.


It is interesting in this regard that not only did Jesus’ moral preaching bypass any reference to “obedience” as the essence of the sacred relationship, but he himself conspicuouly sought out the companionship of those reputed to be the disobedient:  sinners, prostitutes, lepers and other maimed individuals who bore their malady as a sure sign of “sin.”  (“Lord, who sinned, this man or his fathers, that he should have been born blind?” Jn 9:1).  Jesus’ earliest followers, those who offered the first interpretations of his significance, declared that the derogation of the supreme place of “law” in deciding right behavior and a right relationship to “God” was an essential element in his message.  Jesus appealed to the spontaneous sense of “humanity” within people.  “Humanity” transcended “law” and was to be used to discern right behavior.

Why did he do that?  Consider the dynamic that is set in motion for those considered “disobedient”: they have lost all outside reference that would give their behavior sacred status and sanctifying power.  To connect with the sacred now they have nothing but themselves.  Perhaps this is why Jesus found “sinners” so special: having despaired of any hope for justification from outside they were ripe for the discovery he was trying to elicit with his message: that the sacred is already present at the core of our being.  They were no longer distracted by the illusion of a sky-hook; they were thrown back on their own center as the only possible source of the sacred.  That’s exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate.  That turn inward produces a different kind of person, with a different kind of sanity, a different kind of spirituality, a different kind of community and a different kind of morality — one born of the autonomous appropriation of collaborative responsibility.  It is a vision of humanness grounded in the recognition that we are, as the emergent display of the living “God,” ourselves the source of the sacred.  That, I contend, is the core of Jesus’ message.  The sacred is embedded in our organismic humanity.

In a material universe the point from which esse radiates has shifted from outside this world and outside the body to the organismic center, the conatus.  This shift corresponds directly to where we believe the divine principle — the archē, source of existence — resides.  It is not in another world populated by immortal spirits; it is immanent in this material world as the existential energy of matter itself.  The fact that in our material universe the sacred is identified with the autonomous discernment and responsible implementation of morality does not militate in any way against the uninterrupted categorical supremacy of “the sacred.”  It simply finds its source in a different place: right here in this world of matter activated at the intensity level of the human conatus itself.

What originally seemed like a sea-change turns out to be nothing of the sort, for we have learned that imputing the norms of morality to the will of a rational “God” was all along a metaphoric projection of the biblical authors.  “God” never issued any commandments.  Those claims were poetic hyperbole.  The result of this awareness is that our autonomous “muddling through” can now be valued for what it is:  the creative collaboration with LIFE, not the disregard for “divine commandments” that never existed.  By not having “someone to obey” we do not abandon our spontaneous instinct to surrender to something greater than ourselves, we pursue that goal now through our partnership with others in the discernment and implementation of what is good for our community and we surrender, we commit ourselves to that service.  Thus morality in a material universe is sacred from start to finish: from its origins in the LIFE-energized conatus to the autonomous efforts to preserve and enhance the community as the guarantor of personal survival. 

Tony Equale , March 2014

Morality in a Material Universe (part two)

This second installment examines some of the implications of using an evolutionary perspective as the theoretical foundation for determining moral norms.  It builds on part one posted last week and begins observing how morality has in fact  evolved and, looking to the future, what this evolution means for human behavior.  The keynote is human autonomy.  “Natural law” of all kinds, idealistic and naturalistic, alienates us from embracing our authorship and responsibility for our behavior and the society it will create.


I am trying to establish the physical / metaphysical ground for how we should think about morality.  It is admittedly a speculative discussion but it has some immediate practical implications.

The first is that morality is a collective human responsibility, both in its design and its implementation.  It does not come down to us from “God,” the State, or the State’s “Church.”  Morality is the collective “survival strategy” of a self-conscious human community; the ultimate accountability belongs to the whole community.  State and Church are subordinate instruments that the community has created to carry out its designs.  Clarifying these relationships eliminates any temptation to abdicate our responsibility to some “sacred authority.”  Morality is what we want it to be; it will shape the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of persons we become.  Morality is human purpose in action at the deepest, most creative level.

The second is that the process of “muddling through” or “trial and error” continues to be the principal method by which society determines acceptable behavior.  The popularity of TV shows like “Judge Judy” and the many reality talk shows and soap operas are evidence of the public’s perennial fascination with the process of deciding what is right and wrong in situations that never existed before.

There is no area more illustrative of this evolving process than western sexual mores.  That the taboos and restrictions to sexual activity had all along been determined by “what worked” is confirmed by the sea change in sexual morality that has occurred in the last century ushered in by the availability of the means of avoiding pregnancy.  Once it became possible for sexual relations to serve as a vehicle of intense interpersonal familiarity without having children, sexual mores began to change.  “Having children” no longer defined “family” and therefore non-reproduc­tive sexual relationships, including people of the same gender, or the elderly (a laughable event a generation ago), became workable realities.  It is interesting in this regard that “non-repro­duc­tive” religious communities, like convents and monasteries which had always existed alongside the conventional family, did so on the condition that sexual expression be sublimated or repressed in service to “higher” goals.  These communities provided an alternative “family” for many who did not want to make their life’s work the rearing of children in a conventional husband-wife relationship.  Disconnecting sexuality from reproduction severed its iron link to the conventional family, and combined with a new awareness of the “spiritual” dimension in sexual expression, terminated the mystique of virginity as the high road to Christian perfection.  Together they conspired to bring about the sudden disappearance of these communities.

In hindsight it is now apparent that the “purpose” of human sexuality as “reproduction of the species” had all along been a narrowly  physiological definition of a pervasive human energy that took many forms beyond the specifically genital and reproductive.  Freud saw sexuality intimately linked to the life-force itself, which he called eros.  Spinoza called it conatus, and I contend it is the source of our sense of the sacred.  Freud claimed that the creative employment of sexual energy was the very driving force in the construction of not only Western culture but of human civilization itself.  Our “muddling through” since the end of the 19th century has resulted in a broad consensus: far from being specific to reproduction, sexual energy is seen as the general élan that pervades all of human life and is responsible for social bonding and creative achievement of all kinds.  This explains why sexual expression outside of the confines of the reproductive relationship (but not outside interpersonal responsibility) is no longer seen as damaging to social and individual well-being.  Even the pope seems to be tolerant of co-habitation. What is considered “moral” in this regard has changed significantly even during the lifetime of many of us.  Morality is the pragmatist’s quintessential case in point:  moral “truth” is what is determined — by consensus and over time — to work for human life in society, on this earth, in this universe.

Will future developments prove some of these these changes to have been premature, taken on too little evidence, insufficient data?  Perhaps.  But then they will be reassessed and adjusted.  Herbert Marcuse’s rejection of “repressive desublimation” in One Dimensional Man was an attempt at exactly such an adjustment.  It confirms the thesis: it is the accumulation of collective experience over time that determines moral norms.  Morality is community wisdom.  Any imposition of moral norms — codification — is understood to be ultimately tentative, not final, relative to current understanding, not absolute.  Morally normative behavior will evolve as long as humans are material organisms that survive socially in a material universe.

I am not talking about some new way to determine moral absolutes.  I am saying there are no moral absolutes.  “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is currently contradicted by war, pre-emp­tive assassination, “collateral damage,” self-de­fense, capital punishment, the decision to withdraw life support from those who cannot live on their own, medical triage and therapeutic abortion, among others — all considered legitimate exceptions.  160 million people died in wars in the 20th century.  This number of people killed intentionally by other people sanctioned by the highest (reigious) authorities belies any claim that the commandment not to kill is an absolute that derives from “human nature.”  Killing is no more “unnatural” than altruism.  We are all capable of either.  Both are human choices.  The rejection of killing is a moral goal we have set for ourselves to guarantee social harmony … and it is obviously far from being realized.  The general mandate to avoid killing human beings is solidly in place, but it must be acknowledged that it is relative, not absolute, and therefore more of the nature of a guiding ideal than a commandment from “God” or derived from the predispositions of the human organism — and exactly the same can be said for altruism.

Natural Law?

Our tradition claims that “God” issued ten commandments which we are internally obligated to obey because they allegedly correspond to the “purpose” embedded in human nature and so they reflect “natural law.”  We were taught that other requirements are not “natural” but are rather conventional, arbitrary, imposed by society; they are laws, like traffic regulations, whose coercive power derives primarily from social agreement and fear of sanctions and not from any internal compulsion to obey.

One would think “natural law” would be internally compelling; that’s what “natural” means.  Augustine thought so too, and when he was faced with the fact that we regularly flout the “commandments” he concluded that human nature must have been corrupted.  The reasoned principles of morality should have been as clear and effortless as eating a good meal; but we find them difficult to discern and even more difficult to put into practice.  Augustine built an entire world-view on the presumption that we humans were corrupt from birth and morally impotent; we needed the miraculous intervention of “God” just to lead a moral life.  His mistake was thinking moral norms were “natural law,” instead of what they are: the counsels of the community.  He did not understand that our bodies were structured by evolution, not by “God,” and our morals, ideals projected by long experience, consensus and choice.  What is natural to humankind, as to all forms of life, is not some rational “law” but survival and the enhancement of life.  Augustine was scandalized by desire and selfishness because he did not know, as we do, that we are organic xenophobic survivors in a material world who have embarked on an “unnatural” adventure in empathy, altruism and rationality by our own choice.  Morality is what we want, not what “nature” wants; morality is a struggle for us precisely because it is not “natural.”  But the choice is ours, and we have to assert our rights of ownership.

These two ways of looking at things — that they come from “Mind” or matter — differ as night from day.  The behavior in each case may look the same from the outside, but the self-under­stan­ding, the autonomy, the responsibility, the social collaboration, and most importantly the self-esteem and empowerment, are not.  Self-esteem and empowerment, to my mind, correspond to the core of Jesus’ message: the sacred value and autonomous responsibility of the ordinary human being.  His message undermined the terror tactics employed by the Roman Empire to control its conquests; it’s the reason they killed him.  Augustine’s vision, quite the opposite, generates alienation, isolation, self-loathing and dependency … and from there fear and obeisance before dehumanizing power.  This is not insignificant.  The very structure of our morality should integrate with our sanity and “spiritual” growth … to treat them as separate is to compartmentalize the human being.  The rationalized morality of our tradition has been taken as an isolated quasi-legal phenomenon — a matter of individual “crime and punishment” — when it should be integral to an evolving personal maturity-in-society.  Our ideals were used as “laws” imposed by “God” from without, not goals set by us, and they splintered us interiorly and condemned us.

It’s time we abandoned this antiquated thinking and put it in the museums where it belongs.  We need to encourage behavior that guarantees the sustainability of the human family nested in its fragile planet home.  This will entail a number of modifications to traditional morality.

 Morality is intrinsically social and ecological

Principal among them is the obligation to embrace our collective responsibility.  Morality is not a private matter between the “soul” and “God.”  The welfare of society as a whole, necessarily including its environmental matrix without which it cannot survive, is the focus of morality.  That means that social and ecological justice is not some optional preference over and above one’s “normal” obligations.  It is not the hobby of political junkies with the freedom to select from a range of dubious “values” some of which are crassly individualistic denials of social responsibility.  The “ten commandments” have often been cited in support of these individualistic attitudes.  But the ten commandments are the primitive moral achievements of an ancient agricultural people.  They are not sufficient for us today.  Granted they are implicitly social because they address how individuals are to treat one another but they omit any positive requirements for social living and environmental responsibility.  Moral obligation goes well beyond the classic ten commandments and their direct implications.

Another modification is the acknowledgement that morality is relative to circumstances.  Moral norms function as guides and ideals and not as absolutes.  It is a “situation ethics.”  Does that open the door to moral mayhem?  Not at all.  We are not dealing with some new phenomenon here; I contend that people have always “muddled through;” it was never true that we applied absolute norms; that was a manipulative fiction.  Absolutes were the abstractions of the intellectual elite that followed logically from creationist essentialist premises, but even in that world­view they were never applied as such in practice; they were a bludgeon which the authorities kept on hand for “crowd control;” they function as ideals not as absolutes when they are used for conscientious discernment.

People are naturally moral because they are programmed to find and do “what works” in society; it’s the way they survive.  If they seem to flout the moral code it is because as it is currently articulated it does not correspond to their fundamental needs as human beings or it is being imposed in a social context where survival requires they do things that otherwise they would not.  Natural law is a fallacy; there is no such thing.  The value of having moral norms is that they encourage seekers to look for answers to their unique situation in certain directions that the com­mu­nity has already explored and recommends; but these recommendations are not immutable.  Over time, the community discovers and decides what does and what doesn’t achieve that goal for all concerned.  But in all cases the goals and the decisions are ours.

Morality in a Material Universe (part one)

(This is the first installment of an essay that will be posted in three parts.  It’s been divided  for readability.  Those interested in looking at the whole piece will find it as a “page” with the same title in the sidebar to the right below the books.)

 Morality, like language, is a living thing.  And like all living things it evolves. The changes that occur in that evolution will be deep or superficial, rapid or slow, depending on variables that influence the process.  One of those variables, similar to a grammar scheme for a language, is codification and its rational justification.

In both language and morality, the influence of codification is artificial, unnatural, imposed from without on a living process by a relatively arbitrary rationalization.  It is a theoretical construct designed, after the fact, to make it all “make sense;” the overall intent is to insure that things do not change. 

But change breaks through those barriers as it must because morality evolves, and it results in an irreconcilable antinomy between practice and theory.  New behavior no longer “makes sense” by the accepted standards and tends to be considered immoral.  The following essay is an attempt to elucidate the traditional rational ground that once justified our western “Judaeo-Christian” moral inheritance and guaranteed its immutability.  I want to understand why it no longer makes sense and ask how we should respond. 

Hopefully, understanding the living process of moral evolution will make it possible for us to integrate with it as creative and responsible participants.


In a universe constructed by “Spirit,” reality is the product of “Mind” and rationality is the key to understanding it.  What things do is determined by what they are, and what things are was conceived in advance by the “Mind” that designed and gave them their “purpose.”  So by knowing what something was — how it was structured — one could discern its purpose and how it should act.  The procedure for arriving at conclusions about human morality — how we should act — was, broadly speaking, deductive; it is what the philosophers call a priori: you reason from a known prior premise (human nature) to a posterior conclusion (right human behavior).

In a universe constructed by matter, on the other hand, reality is the result of the trial and error meanderings of an irrepressible energy to exist.  What things are is determined by what has been able to survive by interacting successfully with its material environment.  In a material universe the survival activity of entities determines their structure, not the other way around.  Matter has only one goal and therefore there is only one “purpose” common to all things: to exist.  Unlike a universe of spirit, what things are (their nature) is determined by what they do that works.  By examining the way something survives, therefore, one is able to determine why it developed the structure that it has.  And that structure has no other purpose than to serve as a platform for the continuation of the behavior that works.  The method of discerning the relationship between nature and action in this case is inductive … and the procedures are called a posteriori: human behavior shaped and therefore explains the human body and mind and the communities that sustain them.

The “purpose” of existence is to exist — to survive.  The natural selection that produced living things of all kinds was driven exclusively by their ability to exist.  Once human beings came along, however, the game changed.  The emergence of language in community required larger brain power.  Humankind’s imagination, exponentially expanded over that of other animals and colletively employed, became its principal tool of survival.  Humans understand the sequential nature of time; they can anticipate future events and make plans together accordingly.  Hence “purpose” became the key to human behavior and explains the phenomenal success of the species which now dominates the planet.  With humans purpose was introduced into the universe for the first time.

Purpose is natural to human behavior, so it is natural that humans would project purpose onto the the very process of evolutionary emergence itself.  In the West we have traditionally believed a “Mind” like ours made everything, and like our minds it did what it did for a purpose.

We have learned, however, that what made everything was not “Mind” but rather an irrepressible energy to exist, esse.  What evolved from esse was a function of esse; by surviving, it would slowly develop those structures that would allow it to do what was necessary to continue to be-here, to survive.

This means that it was human behavior in society that slowly sculpted the hominid body and its psychic characteristics out of the granite potential of our simian ancestors; it was not the other way around.  Human social behavior is morality; hence we say that it was our moral choices beginning in the distant past that shaped what we are.  Humans are moral beings because they decided long ago that for human society to survive, sustain its individual members and thrive, “moral” behavior was demanded.  Our life in society made us “human.”

This was not an instantaneous process.  These constructions have taken place over eons of geologic time and they are obviously still a work in progress.  The first species of homo, homo erectus, a direct ancestor of homo sapiens, emerged from the australopithecines 2.4 million years ago and human behavior in society has been evolving ever since, refining itself by prioritizing the choices that work to protect and enhance human-life-in-society.  Our body and mind was given its current size, shape, physical features and psychic predispositions by that process.  Many of our special characteristics, like the physical forms of our genders and our sense of the sacred come from there.  Everything we are is a combination of our organic inheritance and human choice in society.

The “selections” made in this regard were not exclusively empathic.  The absence of any subspecies of homo other than ours suggests that our brains were originally xenophobic — pro­grammed for the visceral rejection of others, hominid or not, that did not share our identity.  It was the way we survived; it worked for us and so xenophobia was “selected.”  It’s no surprise, then, that beginning in the 16th century these same brains slaughtered, brutalized, enslaved, and exploited dark-skinned “heathen”peoples all over the globe creating inequities that are with us still; it confirms the survival etiology of our organic structures.  If our morality now condemns such practices, it is because they are no longer seen as conducive to collective survival; but in the 1500’s no amount of “deduction from Natural Law” or Catholic belief and practice had any deterrent effect on the baptized “conquerors” of New Spain and the colonizers that came after them.  Even after the issue was publicly debated by Catholic theologians before Phillip II in the 1540’s, the practice of encomienda, “christianizing slavery,” was upheld as “moral.”  So much for the rational deduction of morality from the principles of natural law.

Morality is what works for us

I am talking about the fundamental direction that development takes in a material universe; development does not come rationally reasoned from the top down, it goes non-rationally from the bottom up.  What works, survives, whether it makes sense or not; that’s how things evolve.  And the structural variations that work better will endure and eventually displace the others leaving a trail of what may appear to be rationally designed modifications.

I am trying to enunciate the general principles of organic construction and therefore a way of understanding the character of the entities that have evolved in our universe of matter, and that includes us.  Evolution explains reality at all times and at all levels of development.  It is as true for us today as it was 2.4 million years ago.  Behavior that guarantees survival determines genetics; and genetics establishes the parameters of potential future behavior — in the case of humans, it determines the possible moral choices in the struggles of societal survival still to come.  While there is always a mutual causality between choice and genetics, successful survival behavior remains the heuristic priority.  That means that purpose and choice, albeit highly conditioned and certainly not in the short run, guide the process.

A moral code is the pragmatic result of human beings “muddling through” life-in-society and, over time, deciding together what works and what doesn’t work.  The biblical code that we inherited — do not kill, do not steal, do not covet your neighbors wife or goods, do not lie, respect your parents — was the result of that same process of trial and error coming to conclusions of increasing consensus among the individuals of our social /cultural continuum.  The “ten” commandments were a compendium of what was working when Exodus was redacted in the 6th century bce.  “God” did not promulgate them.  “God” was called on to justify and sacralize the existing social order and its self-understanding.  And it is important to emphasize, “religion,” the fear and exclusive worship of the tribe’s “gods,” was an integral part of it.  It should not surprise us that it still is.  In the ancient past we survived by clan and tribe; we are predisposed to protect and advance them.  Universalism is the growing effect of gloablization, not its cause.

Morality is not a matter of rational principles inferred by analyzing “human nature” and determining its “purpose.”  There is no “natural law,” and the only purpose of human life, as for all life, is to exist.  How existence can be achieved and enhanced for all in the huge complex societies that we have developed to protect ourselves from the elements and from the natural selfishness common to all organisms, is our morality.  It is a human project.  Morality is what we have decided is the “right” way to live, and as time goes by our organisms are shaped by our decisions.  If human survival has moved from tribe to global civilization, our bodies and instincts as yet have not.  In time they will.

Parenthetically: just as there is no “natural law” embedded in human nature by a rational “God” that must be obeyed, so too there is no “natural law” of the jungle implanted by evolution to which we must surrender.  I am not calling for a Nietzschean return to primal forces — the substitution of one “natural law” for another.  I am saying there is no natural “law” of any kind; we create the law we want to live by and, in the long run, we create ourselves.

We are organically conditioned by the past choices our species has made, but only relatively.  Selected predispositions like xenophobia that served survival in the past will become meaningless in time because as our collectivities expand and overlap the “tribe” will become all-inclu­sive.  We already see that process under way.  If the growing global vision of ethnic inclusiveness survives, in time the organic substrate will catch up and xenophobia will be “de-selected.”  It will take a very long time, but it will happen.

Morality is only secondarily what we should do, primarily it is who we want to be, and tribal religion has, up to now, always been the principal tool for articulating and implementing it.  It seems likely that that will also change and I believe we are seeing it beginning right before our eyes: tribal religion is being replaced by a universal vision of right behavior.  This evolving process holds true in all areas.  We can also anticipate a change in the secondary sex characteristics of the human genders; if present trends are any indication of what the future holds, la différence will eventually disappear.  As they did in the past, over time our choices will shape our bodies and our minds.   That’s the way things work in a material universe.