Against Reality: Why our culture wars against the light, and why it will never win
You may find a bit of black humor in one of our editorial notes on the news, which explains that: (a) Pope Francis had to cancel a Lenten meeting with priests because he was not feeling well; but (b) He was able to resume his rounds later the same day to meet with the Global Catholic Climate Movement (see Pope’s ‘slight indisposition’). But what is not funny at all is that the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany has manufactured two new rights, not only the right to end your life at any time but the right to have help doing it.
The vagaries of paganism are strange and horrifying. Once we forget that we do not belong to ourselves, it becomes all too easy to protect legally every form of “self-determination”, including self-un-determination. Still, it is a strange exaltation of the individual human will that coerces the rest of us to play along. Clearly, the deeper purpose here is to destroy the rights of those who believe there is an objective difference between good and evil, and that nobody may be legally forced to cooperate in evil.
As we should have learned by now, evil is the ultimate source of all totalitarianisms. If we are committed to something that is wrong, we can brook no reasoned opposition. And if we are determined to press an evil course on society, we must make it illegal to refuse to cooperate in that evil. Our Lord captured this spirit precisely when He observed:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. [Jn 3:19-20]
You may ask how this applies. I answer that no one can remain comfortably in darkness unless he outlaws both the light and all who call attention to it. The modern enterprise, as we know it in the West today, is primarily concerned with eliminating the light and forcing those who bear witness to it to stop.
Denial of reality even in the Church
Serious Christians spend the bulk of their lives working at avoiding this contemporary tendency. It is the saga of personal Christian progress to uncover each habit, idea, judgment and aspiration which remains hidden within our own darkness because we have either forgotten or refused to subject it to the light of Christ. No wonder, then, that modern secular courts are ever inventing more reasons to restrict the speech and behavior of Christians, lest light be shed on the pagan darkness which offers cover to those who hate the light.
And what is darkness, after all, but an absence? In exactly the same way that evil is the absence of good, darkness is definitively the absence of light. To put the matter another way, darkness is blindness to reality—an inability, whether deliberate or not, to apprehend what is.
For this reason, one of the great tragedies of our era is that there is no consistent voice in favor of the light. A very few thinkers may arrive at a rational moral understanding, for by the spiritual nature of the intellect, each person has some capacity to participate in the light. But where we would hope to find a system which draws us toward the light—and by this “system”, I mean Christianity—what we find instead is a welter of denominations which embrace one form of darkness or another rather than examine their worldly assumptions; and even within our own Church, a welter of groups and persons, including far too many bishops and priests—in charge of parishes or even dioceses—who do exactly the same thing, in thrall to the approbation of a fallen world. Whenever we look around on any certain issue, clarity tends to flee.
While there is far more to Catholic renewal than ecclesiastical governance, it must clearly be the principal administrative work of Church renewal to insist on standards of understanding and behavior, drawn authoritatively from God through Divine Revelation, in order to purify Catholics at every level from the polluting dross of the dominant worldly culture. But precisely because these nominal Catholics, again at every level, hide from the light in order to indulge this or that temptation—even defending and insisting upon falsehood through the basest patterns of prevarication and obfuscation—we are left in many places with no large-scale and consistent witness to the light at all.
Try an experiment: Publicly insist on some point of Catholic teaching that is rejected in the larger society, and see how many priests, religious, bishops, and Catholic university professors come forward to insist that (a) you are wrong; or (b) you are insufficiently nuanced in the expression of your convictions; or (c) you are doing more harm than good by calling attention to the matter under current circumstances.
Now sometimes one of these objections may be true. I freely admit that I still occasionally insist on a point only to learn I am incorrect; or I offer advice only to learn I had presumed too much on my own limited understanding or experience. But when our “betters” would have us believe this is the case on every single question on which the clear and constant teaching of the Church appears to stand in opposition to the popular ideas of our own time—when, I say, such criticisms are all but perpetual—then we are generally under the assault, not of our own fallibility, but of darkness itself.
The great theologian Henri de Lubac, SJ (1896-1991) offered an important perspective on this problem. As an introduction to de Lubac, let me mention that he refused the offer of the Red Hat by Pope St. Paul VI because it would have required him to become a bishop, which de Lubac said would be “an abuse of an apostolic office”. But he was finally made a cardinal a year before his death by Pope St. John Paul II, who dispensed him from the episcopal requirement. Such was his character. Now, back in 1943, de Lubac wrote an article about the “spiritual warfare” that is (supposed to be) an integral aspect of Jesuit spirituality. He considered the problem in relationship to the defining crisis of modern Western civilization (which was not, for de Lubac, the military struggle in which the nations were then engaged).
De Lubac wrote that, in previous periods of her history, the Church had weathered a variety of partial assaults: For example, assaults against the historical basis for Christianity, against the possibility or knowability of transcendent reality, and against ecclesiastical influence in human affairs. But now, he said:
What is in the forefront, if not always in appearance at least in reality, is no longer a problem of the historical, metaphysical, political or social order. It is a spiritual problem. It is the total human problem.1
De Lubac later interpreted spiritual warfare in a more primary sense, in terms of the interior struggle within each human person for or against God. But for the modern cultural dimensions of this warfare, he described exactly the problem with which we struggle even more strenuously today—a fundamental and holistic spiritual problem which, again in its cultural dimensions, plagues the Church in her personnel, and therefore in her effectiveness.
Try as we might, authentic renewal within the Church right now is hampered at every turn by this broader cultural crisis, in which even the human grasp of the very nature of things is a casualty. More often than not, we cannot successfully address the pervasive problem of ecclesiastical ministers, professed religious, and academic theologians who oppose the Church’s teaching, who jockey for positions of influence in the larger culture, or who at least decline to preach and teach forthrightly whenever that means taking a counter-cultural position. Nor have we found a way to counter the public perception of Catholicism created by huge numbers of nominal Catholics who continually abuse the name, including answering every question wrong on every public poll.
We can trace similar problems through most of Church history but, in our time especially, there appears to be little relief from the incessant, debilitating scandal.
Keeping at it
Nonetheless, while we continue to beat our heads against that wall, we can still effect personal change, in ourselves and in others. I am currently reading John Gerard SJ’s Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, from the era of Elizabethan England. When Gerard was passing through Basle, Switzerland on the way back to England after being ordained (November 1588), his party was courteously shown around the city by a Lutheran who hailed originally from Lorraine. Surprised at the courtesy, Gerard asked him why he had left his old country and his old faith. The man answered that he could not live under Catholic rule.
At length I discovered that the man was a priest and had fled to Basle. He was living there with a woman who passed for his wife in the very house where we had lodged the night before, and was supporting himself and her by the practice of usury. Therefore I urged him earnestly to turn from the road to hell and set his feet again on the path to heaven. I begged him to provide for the woman, to lend out no more money at unlawful interest, and to work for his living or to support himself in some other honest way. In the end he promised to do as I advised. He gave me a letter to his bishop asking to be reconciled. As I passed through Lorraine I delivered the letter, and I can only hope that the poor man did not go back on his good purpose.2
Fortunately, we will not be judged by how effective the Church as a whole proved to be in the period in which we lived. The question of “effectiveness” is in any case hidden in Divine Providence. But we will be judged by what we do with the gifts God has given us through His Church, especially during those seasons when He seems to be away on other business. About darkness and light, then, it is just as St. Paul said:
[Y]ou know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [Rom 13:11-14; emphasis added]
And why must we do this? “That you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil 2:15-16). More challenging still, Paul says that to be such lights, we must “do all things without grumbling or complaining” (v. 14).
Ah, Christian happiness! As Mark Christopher Brandt said in a recent Catholic Culture Podcast3, this will cause many to regard us as silly and shallow people who have never suffered. But while many will derisively cover their eyes, some will be drawn to the light. They, in their turn, will become light to others. This is simply because the light really does shine in the darkness—and the darkness really cannot put it out (Jn 1:5).
1 In the essay “Spiritual Warfare” as quoted by Joseph S. Flipper in “Reading the Mystery of God: The Ignatian Roots of Henri de Lubac’s Understanding of Scripture”, Nicholas Healy & Matthew Levering, eds., Ressourcement after Vatican II: Essays in Honor of Joseph Fessio, SJ, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2019, p. 210.
2 The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2012, pp. 9-10.
3 Thomas V. Mirus, The Catholic Culture Podcast: Episode 68—What I learned from Making Music with Mark Christopher Brandt.
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Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Feb. 29, 2020 6:19 PM ET USA
Thanks for your habitual efforts to spread clarity. Like Newman, we must all strive not to sin against the light. I was reminded of the Victorian poem, “Say not the Struggle Naught Availeth”, & re-read it, but also found that its author followed Newman out of Anglicanism, but not into Catholicism. There were too many will-o-the-wisps then as now.
Posted by: wcbeckman5101 -
Feb. 28, 2020 11:03 PM ET USA
Excellent. Thank you.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Feb. 28, 2020 10:39 PM ET USA
"Still, it is a strange exaltation of the individual human will that coerces the rest of us to play along. Clearly, the deeper purpose here is to destroy the rights of those who believe there is an objective difference between good and evil, and that nobody may be legally forced to cooperate in evil." Consider a partial list of such coercions: making normative homosexual behavior, cohabitation, abortion, infanticide, use of contraceptives, redefinition of terms, proportionalism, consequentialism