Orwellian ideas that any Domer would do well to consider
Eric Blair was no Catholic. In fact, he volunteered to fight Catholics during the Spanish Civil War. Yet the radical socialist better known by his pen name, “George Orwell,” was also no moral relativist, and that makes him and his ideological successors (folks like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Corbyn could make decent claims to that distinction) much more interesting than the more respectable political and religious progressives who pay lip service to Catholic sensibilities today.
Here are three novels and two essays sprung from Orwell’s decidedly secular imagination, but which unintentionally illuminate some of the Catholic Church’s most vital wisdom for our present historical moment.
A staple of high school reading lists across the country, 1984 is an enduringly prescient satire of propaganda, government surveillance, and the military-industrial complex.
Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit magazine La civiltà Cattolica, attracted some critical attention on Twitter recently when he declared, in apparent reference to controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia, “2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5.” One would hope that the native Italian-speaker’s reference to climactic torture passages from Orwell’s most famous novel was unintentional. Those passages turn out to be quite relevant to contemporary issues in moral theology, though not in a way especially flattering to Fr. Spadaro’s position.
Spadaro and others, such as Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, argue that a more lax pastoral application of the Church’s sexual ethics is really a restoration of the “primacy of conscience” in the Catholic moral life. In their view, conscience—which seems to amount little more than subjective perceptions of one’s own guilt—can allow or even compel someone to act in direct contradiction to explicitly established Catholic moral doctrine. Conscience more authentically understood is precisely that faculty which allows Winston Smith, until broken down by sheer force, to recognize that two plus two always and everywhere equals four. The truth is true no matter who says it’s false.
As a dystopia, 1984 has some elements that have aged better than others. Orwell is perhaps too much of a romantic, for example, in imagining a future where love and sex are so inextricable that Big Brother insists on stamping out the latter to choke the former. As an analysis of how the powerful thrive on relativism, it has never been more relevant.
This allegory for the rise of Josef Stalin is sometimes criticized as just a little bit too transparent. Napoleon, the pig who represents Stalin, exiles an idealistic rival pig who is obviously Leon Trotsky, crassly plays off two other farm owners who are obvious ciphers for Hitler and Churchill, and even flips the loyalty of a soothsaying raven who could not be a more obvious metaphor for the Russian Orthodox Church. Subtle it is not.
The beauty of allegory, however, is that it identifies so clearly the most important encompassing truths to remember in looking at some major historical event. Animal Farm is all about how movements promising peace and freedom slowly turn back into whatever kind of oppression they originally set out to replace. Here we have the especially potent image of the pigs quietly adding weakening terms and conditions to the charter of freedoms that they paint on the side of a barn at the start of their revolution. “All animals are equal,” says the most memorable of these, “But some are more equal than others.”
Stalin and the Soviets are long gone, but in the decades since the end of the Cold War, we’ve seen a similarly structured erosion of freedom in the same Western societies that congratulate themselves for vanquishing twentieth-century totalitarianism. You have free speech but don’t offend anyone. You have freedom of religion but keep it to yourself. Americans have the good fortunate of vigorous constitutional protections for their rights, but more and more Europeans, Canadians, and Australians are looking from man to pig and pig to man and unable to tell the difference.
“Shooting an Elephant”
A fictionalized account of a young Orwell’s experience in the military police in Burma, this 1936 essay originally published in the magazine New Writing sets out to present a critique of how the British Empire oppresses both the white man and the colonized. The story it presents is so simple that the very title should be preceded with a spoiler alert: a rampaging elephant gores an Indian man, and a British officer must then kill the elephant in order to present himself as a man of serious authority.
Today, “Shooting an Elephant” makes a biting parable for the current state of democracy in the industrialized world. Shooting that elephant can be the equivalent of any tough-looking policy that craven politicians pursue in order to placate mob-like voters who they privately disdain. It’s a border wall, a religious test for immigrants, an assault weapons ban, the War on Drugs. Elephants get shot every day in democracies devoid of virtue.
“Politics and the English Language”
I first encountered this 1946 gem of an essay in my standard history methods class during my sophomore year at Notre Dame. Shockingly entertaining for such dry subject matter as usage and style in writing, “Politics and the English Language” carefully deconstructs the pretentious habits that supposedly serious writers are expected to adopt. Seventy years ago, Orwell was already wary of how the conventions meant to express studious neutrality in writing are really means of enforcing the dominant ideology of the day. It’s an invitation to much more critical reading of the implicit assumptions in how mainstream media frame the news. “Notre Dame refuses to distribute free condoms.” “Pope calls for mercy for women who have had abortions.”
If you have ever wanted to a carry a clicker to count how many things that one professor describes as “problematic” over the course of a single lecture, then this essay will help you articulate exactly why tics like that are so, well, problematic. It will also make you a better writer, so you will be able to crush that professor’s class even as he annoys you.
Orwell’s first novel is a forgotten must-read. Set in the same time and place that inspired “Shooting an Elephant,” Burmese Days introduces all of the themes and subjects that would come to define Orwell’s later, more imaginative body of work: abusive bureaucracy, elite self-delusion, class resentment. The indigenous people of the British Raj, one surmises, did a great deal to inspire the sheep of Animal Farm and the proles of 1984. With a villain straight out of Victor Hugo and an surprisingly astute dissection of racism when racism was considered the way of the future, Burmese Days will make engaging reading for anyone.
For the young, educated Catholic, however, Burmese Days is the ultimate literary companion for life in 2018. Its parts are images of how an empire fails to recognize its own moral destitution, perhaps how so many of us could never fathom Hillary Clinton losing an election to Donald Trump. Its whole is a sobering story of how masses and elites who still hate each other can conspire to crush those who refuse to play their game.
Jeffrey R. Gerlomes, Jr. graduated from Notre Dame in 2014 and is a good enough higher education analyst to tell you that a master’s degree is not a good investment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.