Second meaning: that which suggests progress
Analyzing the meaning of the word “modern” more profoundly, we see that it is sometimes used to signify something else, so that by “modern” is understood that which is contrary to what existed in the past. So, whatever begins now is modern. In this sense, all things, at every moment, are ceasing to be modern, and other modern things are appearing. Yesterday, the day before yesterday, a year ago, the “modern” treatment for child paralysis was one; today, that treatment is archaic, since we have discovered another, better, more efficacious treatment, so that what was done before is consigned to the history of medicine. That old form of treatment is part of a dead past, for a new fact has now appeared.
In this sense, our era, which is so enthralled with novelty, boasts that it is modern. It boasts of a large number of things that did not exist in the past, and which confer to our era a mark of superiority over the past.
We can say, therefore, that the word “modern” is imbibed with a certain concept of progress; and we understand by progress, in this case, an improvement towards a specific, ideal condition for mankind. By “modern” is meant a march forward, an improvement, progress.
Progress and calamities – At the same time, however, our vocabulary has been humbled. While recognizing that all new technological improvements are modern, we are also obliged to speak of the modern scourges, the modern panics, to recognize that all this technology, which is the glory of modernity, brings with it terrifying dreads, even the perspective of annihilation of the modern world with the hydrogen bomb.
It is said that when Einstein was asked if he knew with what weapons the World War III would be waged, he quipped: “I don’t know how the Third World War will be fought, but the Fourth will be with bow and arrow.” Mankind would regress so much during the Third World War, that the Fourth World War would be fought with bow and arrow. These are the perspectives for this dubious modernity, in the age of technology.
If on the one hand technology brings many worries — and Pope Pius XII emphasized in one speech how much technology, which in itself is good and praiseworthy, unfortunately has contributed to brutalize men, to form a materialistic society, to deform social life, since man, not knowing how to direct and govern technology, became enslaved to it — if it is true that technology has brutalized mankind so much, on the other hand, it has improved man’s lot in the material sense of the word.
Third meaning: that which agrees with the Revolution
The word “modern” has yet another subtler meaning, much more profound, and this is the meaning that I will analyze now.
Nobody today will say that a country that had separation of Church and State modernized itself by returning to the union of both; but many people will say that a country that had union of Church and State and separates the two has become modern.
Nobody will say that to go from legalized divorce to the legal recognition of the indissolubility of marriage is modernization; but many people believe that to go from the legal recognition of the indissolubility of marriage to a regime of legalized divorce is modern.
Nobody will say that to preserve the elites, to concern oneself with maintaining the social hierarchy, to labor at preserving the habits, customs, and institutions that establish the indispensable hierarchy, which should exist in every society, is a typically modern concern. On the contrary, it will be said that this is outdated, and that the modern spirit is more inclined to dismantle all social and political barriers, towards a complete equality that finds its full realization in communism, the regime of economic equality.
Secularism, egalitarianism, sensuality – We have then a definition of modernity that is different from the previous ones, but which dwells, so to speak, within them. This definition suggests a modernity in light of which people understand that everything secularist, everything egalitarian, everything that allows man’s instincts free reign is truly modern.
This concept of modern really exists and we can see it work. It can be observed in contemporary life. It constantly transforms itself. We see customs changing all the time. We see an institution that takes on a new aspect. We see another institution that dies in order to give place to something new. Observing these changes, one perceives that in their totality —maybe to be generous and prudent, it is better to say in their near totality— the transformations that occurred represented a progress of either the notion of equality, or the principle of secularism, or of sensuality.
In domestic life, for example, we see the boundaries which set apart and should set apart parents from children weaken at every moment; the authority of the husband is weakened at every moment; the liberty of the children increases at every moment. And why does it increase? Is it so that the children will fulfill their duties better? Is it so that they can be more chaste? More diligent? Or, on the contrary, does their liberty increase so that they are freer to do what they please, to sink into unchaste and dishonest diversions, to satisfy their thirst for pleasure, to break the “fetters” of the indispensable obedience which should link children to their parents in a family?
Look at the relations between social classes. Fashions change constantly and tend to level and make equal the classes. At every moment manners change, so as to lower the respect of younger for older, men for women, women for men, children for their parents, and students for their teachers.
Everywhere we see a diminishing of the forces of authority, hierarchy, order, eroded by a gradual but profound and incessant movement, eroded by this overwhelming tendency to level all things, which ultimately finds its most complete expression in secularism. For man, having rejected every superiority on earth, ends up not wanting to accept one in Heaven. He does not want to know about God, and he organizes his life as if he did not believe in God.