Architects of the Culture of Death: Introduction


Every building has an architect, someone who conceives the image of the edifice before it is built.

If an entire culture is something constructed by human beings, then it also is based upon a particular design. Of course, in contrast to a single building, a culture is an ongoing work of far greater complexity and subtlety, and since the work stretches from decades into centuries, it has more than one architect. The many architects of a single, identifiable culture are those whose contributions to the overall plan are consistent with the original image.

An important example, of course, is Christian culture. The great image is, ultimately, given in the Person of Jesus Christ, understood as fully divine and fully human, and in the consequent doctrines that illuminate, legitimately develop, and safeguard this image. Christian culture, then, if it is truly Christian, will be built, both in its larger structure and in its finer details, according to this image.

The architects of Christian culture are nearly uncountable -- the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Paul, St. Isidore, St. Cyprian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Leo, St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, and on through the rest of the saints; the bishops, who sat patiently and prayerfully through councils; the popes, who directed the Church through continual turbulence; the founders of religious orders; the eminent theologians; the great religious artists; the great religious writers, composers, and builders of churches; the great Christian lawmakers. All contributed to the ongoing effort to build and rebuild Christian culture.

Again, at the heart of this ongoing enterprise of culture building was the central guiding image of God become man, suffering and dying for each and every human soul, because each and every human being is made in the image of God and therefore of infinite worth in the eyes of the Creator. This God had purposely created the universe and given humanity an exalted place within it. But human rebellion unseated humanity from its rightful place, and the cure offered by God was effected through the mysterious drama of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. All true architects of Christian culture built according to the image of this great drama.

It is precisely because of the infinite value of each human person, as revealed especially in the great drama of Jesus Christ, that truly Christian culture must be a Culture of Life, a culture that sees the protection of persons and their moral, intellectual, and spiritual development as the defining goals of society. Whatever contradicts these goals can have no place in the Culture of Life.

Thus, in the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), one of the earliest non-New Testament documents that has survived, we find a stark choice given those who would consider becoming Christians. The Didache was an initiation manual for converts, telling them what Christian holiness demanded and, consequently, what they must leave behind from the pagan culture. Its first words are, "There are two ways [or roads], one of life and one of death, but there is a great difference between the two ways." Significantly, we find the following prohibitions among its admonitions:

You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not corrupt boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not use magic. You shall not administer drugs [referring not only to "magic" potions, but especially to contraceptives/abortifacients]. You shall not slaughter a child in abortion, nor slay a begotten one. You shall not desire the goods of others.

Looking over this list, it becomes quite clear that many of the pagan practices of Rome -- the very ones that the first converts to Christianity were called to reject as leading to the way of death -- have somehow, twenty centuries later, become part of contemporary culture again. Homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, interest in the occult, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide -- we have embraced all of them and even added incest and bestiality to the list.

Looking over this list, it becomes quite clear that many of the pagan practices of Rome -- the very ones that the first converts to Christianity were called to reject as leading to the way of death -- have somehow, twenty centuries later, become part of contemporary culture again.

What accounts for the historical return to such dark pagan moral practices after so many centuries of Christian culture? The answer is the rise of a new image of humanity, a new kind of paganism, with its own particular architects, who self-consciously built a new culture within the existing culture of Christianity, which they sought to destroy and displace. Those who built according to this image are the architects of the Culture of Death.

As the reader will soon find out, these architects reject the central image of Christianity and replace it with a new image, one in which humanity is the unintended result of blind, natural forces rather than a creation of God in his own image and, consequently, one in which human beings are purely material creatures cast into existence by indifferent nature and forced to define salvation for themselves. The new doctrine of salvation is, to say the least, multifaceted -- salvation by the expression of naked instinct, by sexual indulgence, by bloody proletarian revolution, by raw acts of the will, by population control, by contraception, by scientism, by eugenics, and on and on.

What all share, however, is a common rejection of the great image of Christianity and hence a common rejection of human beings as persons, that is, rational creatures who are made in the image of God, who are a unity of immortal, rational soul and body. Indeed, we could well define modernity as the ongoing depersonalization of humanity, the attempt to reduce human beings to the subhuman, not only according to some abstract definition but also in regard to every aspect of our humanity. The origin of life has become depersonalized by the ever expanding technological displacement of natural procreation by unnatural, mechanical methods of conception. Sexuality, thus torn from its proper expression as the unitive and procreative consummation of marriage, has been reduced to pleasure seeking, where other persons and even oneself become mere objects or occasions of pleasure. Death, too, has been depersonalized, as the clamor for euthanasia makes clear that all too many regard the humane treatment of human beings to be equivalent to the humane treatment of animals, so that it becomes an equivalent act of mercy to "put down" the elderly and suffering human beings in the same way and for the same reason that we put down elderly and suffering pets.

But as will become apparent by reading the architects included in this volume, the reduction of human beings to something less than persons -- to the status of mere animals and even lower, to mere fortuitous chemical combinations -- is accompanied, ironically, by a Promethean exaltation of human beings as self-made gods. We have, in depersonalizing ourselves, oddly enough, become our own idolaters. We can make sense of this seeming irony by realizing that the root of depersonalization is actually the rejection of the Person of all persons, God. Thus, atheism leads directly to depersonalization. Having stripped the universe of its Creator and human beings of the source of their humanity, we then imagine ourselves to be the only source of order, the most godlike beings in a godless cosmos, and hence the only thing worthy of worship and obedience. So it is that the rejection of the will of the Divine ultimately leads to the divinization of our own will.

This confusion of creator with creature causes a darkening of the intellect that brings about a consequent darkening of the will -- such is the central point of John Paul II's great encyclical Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life). In this encyclical, the Holy Father introduces the important distinction between the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death.

In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the "culture of life" and the "culture of death," we ... have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism.

For John Paul II, this eclipse is best understood as a "sad vicious circle", wherein the rejection of God causes an immediate "tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life; [and] in turn, the systematic violation of the moral law, especially in the serious matter of respect for human life and its dignity, produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God's living and saving presence". One is reminded of the Augustinian dictum that sin is the punishment for sin.

As recent developments in medical technology make clear, in rejecting God, we have not rejected the functions properly attributed to God, but merely taken them as our own. It is now we who define good and evil; we who define birth, life, and death; and we who shall create ourselves according to the image we happen to desire. The first tablet of our self-delivered Decalogue declares that we shall have no other gods besides ourselves, and the second, as a consequence, declares that each must love his own will above all else.

It is this sad and vicious circle, this self-willed eclipse of the true sense of God and man, that defines the Culture of Death. The rejection of Christianity (and hence its moral dictates), coupled with the desire to define our own destiny (and hence define good and evil ourselves), has resulted in the powerful secularized culture that dominates both Europe and America today, a culture that currently embraces sexual libertinism, homosexual acts, contraception, and abortion not only in law, but also in literature, music, art, and drama.

Having stripped the universe of its Creator and human beings of the source of their humanity, we then imagine ourselves to be the only source of order, the most godlike beings in a godless cosmos, and hence the only thing worthy of worship and obedience. So it is that the rejection of the will of the Divine ultimately leads to the divinization of our own will.

But again, the Culture of Death did not just suddenly happen, arising from nowhere and seizing us unwilling and unaware. Such an immense and fundamental change could not have come about without a host of architects of the Culture of Death working over a long period of time, ceaselessly planning, tearing down, and rebuilding every part, level, and facet of the culture. If we had limitless space and time, as well as energy and resolve, we could provide a multivolume compendium of such architects, stretching all the way back to the roots of secularism in the Renaissance and beyond that, to the materialist cosmologies of the ancient Greeks, which were revived in the Renaissance to lend intellectual support to modern secularism. Having done this, we could then canvass the very latest news reports and provide an in-depth account of the most current assaults on humanity.

Since we are limited by space and time, however, we have narrowed our focus to some of the most influential architects of the last two centuries and have done so for two reasons. On the one hand, there are many fine treatments of the more distant origins of secularism, but these often leave us with the impression that we are the hapless victims of the sins of ancestors, remote in place and time. On the other hand, too many accounts of our contemporary moral malaise give the impression that everything was fine until the rebellions of the 1960s, or the invention of television or of the pill, or the advent of Roe v. Wade, or the entry of women into the workforce, and so on. In focusing on the last two centuries, we hope to connect the more distant sources of secularism to the most recent manifestations, thereby filling the gap and showing the continuity.

In manifesting the evil defining and fueling the Culture of Death, we have chosen to present biographies of persons, rather than accounts of ideas. We do this for several important reasons. To begin with, for most readers, biographies are inherently more interesting. But even more important, biographies make clear that ideas have consequences only because they are created, embraced, and lived out in persons. That is why we wrote a book entitled Architects of the Culture of Death, not Architecture of the Culture of Death. As will become clear quite quickly, the slow but sure construction of the Culture of Death depended on actual individuals making real choices according to particular malformed notions of God and human nature. The malformation was often caused in part by a twisted home life, a twisted view of nature, twisted sexual desires, twisted good intentions, or twisted utopian visions. Yet, in each biography, we also see real persons really choosing (to return to the Didache), standing poised between the "two ways, one of life and one of death", and then, most unfortunately, taking the latter road.

For this same reason, we have chosen figures who contribute on both the most abstruse theoretical level and on the most mundane practical level, for without both visionary architects dreaming up schemes and very practical architects laying down the actual structures, great cultural shifts cannot occur.

The good news, in regard to these last points, is this: the Culture of Life depends, for its ultimate victory, on persons making actual choices, choices carried out according to definite plans, choices made real by concrete actions. On each of us rests this grave responsibility, to choose this day whom and what we shall serve, either to act as architects and slaves of the relentless construction of the Culture of Death or to become architects and willing workers rebuilding the Culture of Life on every level.

An obvious cure for the Culture of Death's incessant depersonalization is the regeneration of the proper understanding of human beings as persons. To act as persons, we must understand ourselves and others as persons. Pope John Paul II's emphasis on Personalism awakens us to this fundamental reality, a reality hidden from us all too long by the reigning reductionist views of the culture. In Personalism, the focus is on the human being understood as both a unique individual and a responsible member of society, and so it avoids the simplistic casting of human beings as either isolated individuals or faceless members of mass society. At the same time, Personalism inveighs against reducing the human being to a lower being (such as a brute or, even lower than that, to a mere complex chemical structure) and also against the elevation of human beings to self-creators. It criticizes such views, but does not do so by flatly rejecting the various modern philosophies from which they arose. As John Paul II has noted on many occasions, the Personalist school of philosophy enables us to take legitimate insights from diverse strands of modern philosophy, purify and transform them, and use them to understand more clearly and more deeply the inherent dignity and distinctiveness of human beings as persons. Yet, even while critically appropriating modern insights, the Personalism of John Paul II is entirely consistent with the metaphysics and morality of St. Thomas, even if some of the terminology might differ. In particular, we note that in Thomism, the focus is likewise on the true and distinct nature of the human being, but as it is manifested in the natural law, the law of human nature, which is itself a reflection of the eternal law.

With good reason, therefore, we have chosen the philosophical context of evaluation and critique of our various architects to be, largely, the metaphysics and natural law reasoning of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Personalism of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). Both Thomism and Personalism coincide to reinforce the distinct and dignified nature of human beings, though from slightly different angles of emphasis. We believe these slightly different angles -- to borrow from optics -- help to give us a more three-dimensional picture.

Both Thomism and Personalism coincide to reinforce the distinct and dignified nature of human beings, though from slightly different angles of emphasis. We believe these slightly different angles -- to borrow from optics -- help to give us a more three-dimensional picture.

We have grouped individual architects according to their most decisive contributions to the Culture of Death. These are reasonably distinct categories, although five general themes recur throughout our study: militant atheism, the isolation of the will from the consequences of its choices, an absolutization of freedom, an obsession with sex, and a loss of a sense a human dignity. The seven categories are as follows: (1) The Will Worshippers: Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand; (2) The Eugenic Evolutionists: Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Ernst Haeckel; (3) The Secular Utopianists: Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, and Judith Jarvis Thomson; (4) The Atheistic Existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Elisabeth Badinter; (5) The Pleasure Seekers: Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and Helen Gurley Brown; (6) The Sex Planners: Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, Clarence Gamble, and Alan Guttmacher; and (7) The Death Peddlers: Derek Humphrey, Jack Kevorkian, and Peter Singer.

Individually these categories touch the heart of each figure's main contribution to the Culture of Death; collectively they well represent the spectrum of their contributions to it: the act of the will in rebellion against God (The Will Worshippers); the conviction that human nature is not created by God, but is a mere accident of nature that may be purged, pruned, and transformed by our own efforts (The Eugenic Evolutionists); the attempt to set up an earthly paradise through force (The Secular Utopianists); the denial that human existence has any God-intended meaning (The Atheistic Existentialists); the redefinition of the meaning of human life in terms of sexual pleasure (The Pleasure Seekers); the grandiose project to enlist government coercion in redefining and manipulating sexuality and family (The Sex Planners); and the attempt to define the limits of meaningful life and the time and terms of death (The Death Peddlers).

We can see, in this spectrum, a movement from the will's self-elevation (which is the beginning of all human rebellion against God) to the consequent loss or diminishment of the understanding of human nature. Following this rebellion and fall, we desire both to become gods ourselves even while we reject God and then, in our self-elevation, ironically attempt to reduce ourselves to mere pleasure-seeking creatures, who, when deprived of pleasure by age, sickness, or boredom, are fit only for self-extinction by either our own hands or the hands of others. As John Paul II noted, it is a sad and vicious circle indeed.

When we fit all these pieces together, all these aspects of the Culture of Death, we can see that what may have first appeared to be a single moral issue -- for example, abortion -- is actually an integral piece of the whole complex edifice of the Culture of Death. In order to reinstate the truly moral position in each of the morally troubled areas plaguing our society, then, we will need to reinstate the entire Culture of Life. It is a daunting task, but to reiterate the very first words that the Holy Father said to us when he began his pontificate, "Be not afraid!"



Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker. "Architects of the Culture of Death: Introduction." (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004): 13-23.

Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press.

Ignatius Insight conducted the following interview with the authors:

Deadly Architects: An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker, authors of Architects of the Culture of Death


Donald De Marco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He also continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Acadmy for Life. Donanld DeMarco has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald De Marco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA). He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker writes regularly for a variety of journals, including Catholic World Report, New Oxford Review, and Crisis Magazine, and is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Register. He has published three books, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2002), The Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem Books, 2003), and Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius, 2004). He is currently working on another book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called The Meaning-full Universe. He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.

Copyright © 2004 Ignatius Press

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