Evangelization and conversion: The keys to civic virtue
I understand that we need to pay attention to electoral politics right now in the United States. Catholics should take advantage of the political process to shape society to better take advantage of the grace of God. A caveat would be that it is not effective to waste effort on enormous boulders which cannot be budged. But those with more political acumen than I will have a better grasp of the art of the possible. So I am not going to say anything about the upcoming elections. Besides, I already voted in advance of election day by visiting our town hall.
But two things conspired today to place my focus on the contemporary Church’s failure to engage modern culture effectively, precisely because she places too much emphasis on the socio-political domain. The first was a brief email discussion with Thomas Mirus on the advantages of confessional states (his interview with Thomas Pink on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Immortali Dei, which addresses related issues, has just been released). The second was my completion of the first half of Ralph Martin’s new book, A Church in Crisis. This first half covers his masterful review of the crisis. (I will have more to say about the book when I’ve read the second part, which covers “Pathways Forward”.)
What has become very clear to me is that the modern Church currently tries to shape society primarily by emphasizing what she finds good in the dominant secular culture, and making common cause with the world on those points. This has been a strong trend among Catholic intellectuals since the rise of Modernism, and I suspect it often signals a lack of real conviction concerning the truths of the Faith. But it also reflects the growing “horizontalism” of Western culture generally. There may be many reasons for this, one of which is the unprecedented material comfort of the modern West, which paradoxically shifts our focus more to material, earthly realities.
The trend is particularly acute today. Under Pope Francis, clerics who take this approach are rapidly promoted, and the pontifical academies have been made over to proceed along these lines. The notion of being “counter cultural” has largely disappeared, almost as if it has been discredited. Instead, we find the Church at the highest levels downplaying the radical detachment from this world which lies at the core of Christ’s message, in favor of “immanentizing the eschaton”—that is, acting as if Christ’s sacrifice and our redemption are oriented primarily toward a calm and pleasant earthly existence.
What Christian progress means
The problem is that, as far as Christ and Christianity are concerned, fundamental human progress—whether for our earthly sojourn or our supernatural destiny—simply cannot be made without a radical conversion to Jesus Christ (the word “radical” means “at the root”). For this reason, all human progress is illusory unless it is motivated by and oriented toward Jesus Christ. In other words, it will never work for the Church simply to piggyback onto the causes in which the dominant secular culture already believes.
To take one example, the Church’s goal must never be to make ecological progress in human terms. The Church’s goal is to convert people to Jesus Christ. In that process, they will live in radically different ways, ways that produce many ecological, socio-economic and political benefits for human society as a whole, as well as supernatural benefits. But as soon as the worldly advantages become the goal, we are all deceived into thinking this is a matter of human progress, and so we are doomed to failure. Unless we remain focused on Divine progress, so to speak, these things do not matter to the Church at all.
Now, to utter a “hard word”, this is just as true of pro-life concerns as environmental concerns. There is a Christian pro-life mission and there is a Christian ecological mission (to take but two examples). One is rooted in God’s commands against murder and in favor of loving our neighbors as ourselves. The other is rooted in the stewardship over the earth that God entrusted to man from the very beginning and, again, in His command to love our neighbor. But as long as either case is advanced in human terms, as a program compatible with the goods preferred by the dominant Godless culture, any sort of Christian success is impossible.
The difference between these two sample causes is that one is unpopular and the other is popular in current worldly terms. Thus it usually takes Christ and courage to be pro-life and it usually means de-emphasizing Christ and courage to be pro-environment. But the path to success in both policy areas is, in the end, completely the same: Christian conversion. Without conversion, the unpopular cause will never be won at all, and the popular cause will never be placed on a footing other than human comfort, fear, self-righteousness, greed and, above all, convenience.
Without conversion, the human community will always be left with grave evils because they are popular at the moment, along with some natural goods which happen to be popular in some way and in some circles for a brief and largely accidental period of time. These goods are pursued for largely selfish reasons (again, including transitory fears), and they do not penetrate to the level of a fundamental shift in our horizons, a fundamental reorientation of our lives to Jesus Christ. Any advantages will be fleeting; any benefits will quickly sour into new abuses.
To refer back to the factors which triggered this essay: Without conversion it is fruitless to speak of the possibilities of a confessional state. Similarly, without conversion it is impossible to chart a “way forward” for the Church herself. Without conversion, the word “progress” has no lasting meaning at all.
The only “progress” Jesus Christ cares about is our progress as children of God—progress at the root of each person’s life and love. When we are configured to Christ, everything else follows, whether quickly or slowly, as we strive to actualize that reconfiguration ever more fully in every facet of our lives. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Our Lord said, “and everything else will be added unto you” (Mt 6:33). One of the points which led to His admonition was this: “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the span of his life?” (6:27). This question applies equally to everything else about which we may be anxious, no matter how good and worthy it might be in this world.
For this reason, the only sensible course for even the “modern” Church is to preach Jesus and Him crucified—to identify clearly the source of our conviction, no matter how “divisive” that may be, and to insist on that preaching and teaching which is the very Word of Life. I do not mean, of course, that we do not need to practice what we preach. But one cannot share the gift of Christ only through beneficial actions. The reasons we act as we do, and the ultimate reality that informs these reasons, must be clearly proclaimed as well. This is what it means to change radically and to promote radical change in others.
St. Peter said:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…. [1 Pet 3:113-18]
Rest assured that Peter did not say, “Preach always; when necessary, use words”, and neither, as far as we know, did Saint Francis of Assisi. This popular expression can remind us not to preach an empty Gospel, but it is more often used today to prevent the Gospel from being preached at all.
As long as the Church and huge numbers of Catholics pretend they can effect change by latching on to whatever causes enjoy sufficient popularity to enable us to appear to be “on the right side of history”, we are doomed to failure even if we win occasional socio-political, economic or environmental battles (or perhaps just limit the damage). The same is true for those who seek even good things only on the basis of existing common ground, without preaching Jesus Christ, who alone can fundamentally change hearts. The Church serves the human community first and foremost by announcing Jesus Christ, and never by hiding her light under a bushel (Mt 5:15). The Church serves the human community not by arguing that she agrees with all that is good and gracious in human wisdom, but by testifying to the gift of God given to us in Christ.
In other words, the Church serves the human community by fulfilling her supernatural mission, by evangelizing and making converts, who will then transform society through normal social processes, whenever transformation is possible. This is how Christianity transformed Europe over a period of a thousand years, and the converse is how Christianity has “progressively” lost Europe over a period of 500 years and more.
Without this radical configuration to Christ, articulated clearly in both words and deeds, the Church can neither save souls nor reshape the world. Without absolute clarity about this configuration to Christ, articulated in words and deeds, the Church has no mission to undertake and no gospel to preach. Better to admit our fear and cry to God for help than to achieve worldly acceptance by redefining the mission—that is, by redefining or refusing to preach the Gospel. Even for ourselves personally, it is far better to be an open Christian and fail in this world—which is a very common pattern of supernatural success—than to be a fake or closet Christian and succeed in this world—which is a very common pattern of supernatural failure.
This is why forthright Christianity and authentic Catholic renewal are always the first priority. There is no hope for success for us, for our children, for our schools and community organizations, for our towns and cities, for our states and nations—no hope for success without conversion, courageous Christianity, and renewal of the Church. And there will be no renewal until the Church at every level is willing to engage people once again with Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with God the Father, with Heaven, with eternal life, and with what it takes to live in the active presence of all these realities. But such things will be in our minds and on our lips only if they are already cherished in our hearts.
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