Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Only the living swim upstream

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 01, 2023

I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s statement in The Everlasting Man: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” I also recently learned of a snippet from T. S. Eliot’s play, The Family Reunion, which he wrote in verse:

In a world of fugitives,
The person taking the opposite direction
Will appear to run away.

We live now in a secular age which is so diametrically opposed to the faith and ministry of the Catholic Church that we need quotations like this to encourage us. There are, of course, instances when either the dominant culture, or at least a strong majority of people, favors something good. After all, no human culture favors only bad things. As finite creatures who apprehend the good by our very nature, we are not only error-prone but also essentially incapable of mistaking all good for evil, or all evil for good. Moreover, without recognizing at least some goods, we cannot even begin to construct the arguments needed to justify our chosen evils.

Indeed, since rationalization itself depends on at least a limited apprehension of reality, it reinforces the same point: In an intellective being, the only alternative to at least some significant apprehension of reality is insanity. In the end, therefore, the human person is always faced with a choice in the midst of the flow of the human culture in which he finds himself: He can drift downstream with the prevailing cultural current…or he can prove he is alive by swimming against it.

But to recognize this choice is to raise a significant question.

What can the just do?

Verse 3 in Psalm 11 is chilling: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Western culture, as it developed after the coming of Christ, eventually benefited for many centuries from foundational Catholic elements which sustained certain broad spiritual perceptions and commitments over a long period of time. For perhaps a thousand years roughly in the middle of the period since Christ’s birth Christianity was historically dominant in the West. This was a socio-political result of Constantine’s establishment of Catholicism as the Imperial religion, which was gradually followed by widespread conversion among the various tribes which came into this now-Christian orbit.

One does not wish to denigrate the grace that was evident in the Catholic cultural explosion in the West, but it is also true that the culture formed during the medieval and early modern period was not faithfully Catholic in all its leading habits and ideas, nor in its shaping of political and class power, nor even in its ecclesiastical resonance among the clergy, whether high or low. What Western culture did have across those centuries, however, was a significant linkage with the spiritual and intellectual framework of Catholicism, along with a necessary respect for the influence of the Church’s higher ministers. When serious conflicts arose, this respect was often enough honored in the breach, but both the spiritual prestige and the earthly power of the Church were facts of life which could not, in this culture, be safely and consistently ignored. Ecclesiastical disapproval could too easily be translated into political and economic punishment.

There were many benefits to the development of such a culture, but it ought to go without saying that inconvenient Catholic elements were often quietly ignored or betrayed for worldly reasons by both clerical and lay practitioners. There was, in other words, plenty of corruption, then as now, though it sometimes took different outward forms. But perhaps the greatest cultural shift between that time and our own is that while worldly success then depended in part on at least the pretense of Catholic conviction, now it depends far more often on the formal rejection of Catholic conviction. This is not just one more minor factor. But it would be a mistake to think this was a simple transition from a pure to a corrupt culture. The mixture of good and evil in thirteenth-century Europe looked and felt different in some ways from the mixture of good and evil in the West now, but it was still a very volatile mixture indeed.

The important point is that we are not measuring—and, indeed, we have no way of measuring—the impact of this overall worldly influence on authentic spiritual growth, on union with God here and hereafter. To express this mathematically, we have no way of knowing if a higher percentage of souls in Europe were saved in the decade between, say, 1320 and 1330 (when to be culture-bound meant to acknowledge the authority of the Church) than will be saved in the decade between 2020 and 2030 (when to be culture-bound means to deny that authority). Our job is not to get inside God’s head, but to do the work God calls us to do, not in someone else’s lifetime, but in our own.

In this context, the question at hand—“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”—primarily expresses a bewilderment about how we can be effective in the re-evangelization of a culture after the old standard Catholic cultural mechanisms have been stripped away and cast aside. The answer, of course, is that the new evangelization must more often be ecclesiastically personal than culturally institutional. I am not sure we should exactly draw solace from the undoubted cultural fact that Catholicism has been receding in the West now for at least 500 years, but it remains a cultural fact, so it is hard to describe our situation as altogether “new”.

That is why not a few learned and serious Catholics welcome intellectually the demise of the Catholic counter-reformation culture which they believe sought more to circle the wagons than to convert the Indians. The leading idea now is the idea of a New Evangelization. But that’s an almost imperceptible movement so far. “Churchiness”, which persisted as a cultural feature in Europe and the Americas in various forms through the post-war 1950s, has now all but disappeared. We are wise to recognize that this final stage of the Catholic collapse in these regions is more cultural than spiritual, since the spiritual collapse must have largely preceded it. In at least a great many respects, what has been so rapidly dismantled was already largely an empty cultural shell.

Appearances, in other words, can be very deceiving. We never see exactly what God sees, which is precisely why we turn to prayer in deciding what we should do.

No longer aliens?

It seems that those who are most concerned about this loss of cultural clout are the bishops, priests and religious who are determined to maintain their public prominence by piggy-backing on whatever dubious popular causes invite them to prove their zeal. We might well disparage this response as an expression not of Catholic faith but of Catholic professionalism. It is, to be perfectly honest, an extraordinarily medieval sin. It explains why we hear so much from ecclesiastical leaders about the importance of embracing everything from the latest environmental alarms to the latest gender theories. Think about it: There are still far too many Catholic leaders, both clerical and lay, who are primarily concerned with maintaining their positions in what we might call the “Christendom” mode of influence—in which Churchmen were social, economic, political and cultural “players”.

There is nothing wrong with this mode that isn’t wrong with any mode in which power and influence can become ends in themselves, but its flaws are on display today in all those who, in order to retain some vestige of their former cultural approbation, are willing not only to sin (which, since Adam, is never original) but to redefine the teachings of Christ and the Church. This is clearly scandalous, for when cultural favor is not conferred in gratitude for fidelity to Christ, Christians are required to subordinate worldly influence to fidelity, displaying not the cravenness but the courage of Catholic conviction. For this reason, as many others have observed, we must all now embrace the “apostolic” mode.

Since so many are “in the Catholic game” to recover an otherwise lost worldly status, we must beware lest we suffer the same fate. Yes, rejection by the dominant culture is, naturally speaking, unpleasant. But the appropriate response to such worldly alienation is not to forget or change the Gospel, but to discern more clearly our need for the Gospel’s detachment from the world, in favor of a deepening communion with Christ in the Church.

To put this more succinctly, we need to understand that the only alienation worth worrying about is alienation from our Heavenly Father. Do we not, after all, “have access in one Spirit to the Father” precisely so that we are in reality “no longer strangers and aliens”? Is this not precisely the vital point made by St. Paul?

…but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. [Eph 2:8-22]

This is the direct opposite of alienation, and the antidote to all worldly concern about alienation. We should notice that it was precisely when Paul was imprisoned that he wrote this to the Church in Ephesus. It was as “a prisoner for the Lord”, without any hope of worldly influence, that he insisted on our unity in Christ alone:

[Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. [Eph 5:11-15]

Against the flow

We are called, in other words, first and foremost to be fruitful members of the Church by our holiness. But holiness is not passive. It includes each one’s discernment of his or her own vocation and attentiveness to what Our Lord calls him or her to do more specifically within that vocation. Our current trials are not even fruitfully defined as a “culture war”, as if our success can be determined only by a broad cultural approbation—as if we should be, once again, known as “players” in the world where Christ and His followers are constantly crucified. The only question is how faithfully we carry our crosses as we serve the souls whom our respective vocations make it our business to serve.

Nor are we to serve only in safely material ways. Our service must always encompass the spiritual; it must convey, if only through some sign or gesture, its deepest reality. For is it not always a gift from Christ through His Church?

If the meaning of the Gospel has to be “adapted” to suit the sensibilities of those with whom we share it, then it has ceased to be the Gospel—and we are floating downstream. If we refuse to bear witness to Christ crucified in our own place and our own vocation, are we not on track to sell our souls for the approval of the world? That market is found only downstream. But if we can both acknowledge our own sinfulness and sacrifice a little of our own cultural comfort, we will find that we can also call and inspire others to give up something of their comfort, including their own sinfulness, for Christ.

Each must do this in his own way, but perhaps more courageously and strenuously than before. It may not be a dramatic change. It must be quietly discerned in prayer. But it arises from the solid conviction that we live and move and have our being not in the world but only in Christ (Acts 17:28). So let us forget the lost cultural foundations, remember our vocations, and live a little more in Christ today, tomorrow and the day after that—if only dip by shuddering dip and stroke by tenacious stroke. For in the world, this always means swimming upstream.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Sep. 07, 2023 6:32 AM ET USA

    "not to forget or change the Gospel" put me in mind of Jesus's teaching on the salt that has lost its savor. Jesus knew the salt was being adulterated with fraudulent substances to steal from people. The true salt in the bag was still good, but nearly impossible to taste, to find. Discarding it then was the only sensible thing to do. Serving it proudly to guests would be Alice in Wonderland insanity. Yet there it is, have as much as you like.