Renewal in secular cultures: The need to distinguish between sheep and goats
Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to effect a widely effective renewal within the Church in our time? After all, individual Catholics too numerous to count have made this their top priority since the mid-1960s. The Church herself, in the whole process of calling, holding and implementing the Second Vatican Council, has committed herself again and again to the same largely thankless effort for roughly the same period of time. Yet over this span of 50 to 60 years, relatively little has been accomplished.
Lest the reader smell a doomsayer here (or, still worse, a pessimist), let me emphasize from the first that, yes, the Church is perpetually in need of spiritual renewal (just as you and I are). And, no, I am not arguing that nothing has been accomplished. And yet, throughout the West, the following things remain true:
- Most Catholic colleges and universities, and a great many Catholic high schools, remain unrenewed;
- Many Catholic religious communities and associations remain unreformed;
- Most dioceses continue to be bogged down by secular values among powerful groups of both laity and priests; and
- The Church’s largest charitable agencies are notoriously at odds with Catholic teaching on the most important “love and care” issues of our time.
Again, the question is: Why?
In the past, a recognition of the virtue of religion
We sense the answer to this question, I think, when we sense the difference between garden variety worldliness and modern secularism. Christians are always afflicted by worldliness. This is no surprise, for we are called to live in the world, and we lack spiritual discipline. But in most periods of history, worldliness existed against a backdrop of belief in God and at least some sensitivity to the dangers of straying too far from God’s demands—however they were perceived or known.
This backdrop is constantly visible, for example, in the Old Testament. In that period, each people had its own god with its own demands, and no matter how common it was to skate on thin religious ice, there was a felt need to set things to rights now and then, to do whatever was necessary to get on the Almighty’s good side. To think otherwise was to court destruction. Of course the Jews had a tough time of this compared with their neighbors, for Judaism was essentially moral. The fearful issue was not so much failing to engage in the proper ritual sacrifices as failing to live the moral life demanded by the LORD.
In any case: Before, during and after Old Testament times, including the Greco-Roman world and the first seventeen hundred years of the Christian era, a modern time traveler would be hard pressed to find a culture that had not been formed with a keen awareness of the importance of some god or gods, or at least some traditional piety, against whom (or which) it was considered horrific to offend. Even if this piety was too often honored in the breach, human cultures typically encapsulated and fostered an interest in God and in what we can only call the virtue of religion.
Now, a recognition of the virtue of irreligion
The rise of secularism (not mere worldliness, but the secular as an “ism”) has turned all this on its head. Our contemporary culture inculcates not only worldliness but the positive justification of worldly desires and the strict limitation of human horizons to the desires and goals of this world. Secularism enshrines a pointed denial of God and, therefore, an insistence on the irrelevance of religion, because secularism “knows” religion is by definition false and, therefore, both irrelevant and damaging.
Under the pressure of this dominant secularism, therefore, the ultimate horizon of God and religious duty has disappeared. Those who wish to maintain some sense of spiritual comfort must resort to redefining the truths they formerly lived by as “traditions” (small “t”), which ought to be welcomed along with all other human traditions—distinctive but never contradictory. One recalls, for example, the Jesuit mantra of educating in the “Jesuit tradition” rather than in the Catholic Faith.
In yesterday’s news story about the Dominican school in California which has dropped its Catholic status, you will see the same quasi-redemptive emphasis on “traditions” (in a context of rabid multi-culturalism). But you will find nothing at all about the mind’s conformity to reality, that is, nothing at all about truth. Or you can look at the rising acceptance of gender ideology throughout the West. The most important statistic is that only 51% of American Catholics who were polled still agree that gender is naturally assigned at birth (an odd and inaccurate way to phrase it, but you get the point).
Part of the problem is that the term “Catholic” includes all those who claim the religious affiliation of “Catholic” no matter how little they accept that faith or practice that religion. We also know that weekly Mass attendance, and especially attendance more frequent than weekly, correlates strongly with truly Catholic answers to poll questions. But the problem remains: We operate in a Church which is riddled, from the top down, with people who call themselves “Catholic” but essentially choose secularism as their default orientation. For them, Catholicism exists primarily to provide a sense of quasi-spiritual comfort, or to enable them to retain their places as spiritual professionals (which with the right spin can be a very cushy job). But note: Where religious teaching conflicts with secular ideology, that teaching is not to be honored in the breach as in past ages. No: It is to be changed.
The biggest problem ever
Authentic renewal is actually possible among those who respect religion enough to care what a particular religion teaches or a particular reform movement demands. This requires either a random interest in religion (much as someone might be interested in automobiles or ballet), or a commitment to genuinely understanding reality (knowing truth), or a desire to please God or “the gods”. But authentic renewal is not possible among those who assume that God is either a myth or a benign figure who always agrees with whatever those who reject Him already know to be right and good; nor among people whose interest in religion is restricted to a desire for comfort, self-justification or social interaction.
This is the unique challenge presented by secularism and it is a particular problem for the Catholic Church for two key reasons: (1) The Church, insofar as she is engaged in authentic renewal, cannot constantly redefine her teachings to correspond with the latest new-found “knowledge” of secular societies; and (2) The Church cannot summarily exclude the masses of ordinary secularized “Christians” who persist in identifying themselves as Catholics, or participating at least occasionally in her liturgies, or claiming membership in her failed religious communities (or even tenure in her nominal universities).
Ordinarily, of course, societies that are committed to values other than Catholic values have persecuted the Church both directly and harshly. In this light we see the great difficulty posed by the indirect persecution—I mean the marginalization of Catholic orthodoxy—in modern cultures characterized by a generalized secularism, and in Catholics who identify with the values of these cultures. Consider how important this is: Under direct persecution of “Catholicism” and of “Catholics”, those who are weak gradually abandon the name “Catholic”. They stop identifying as “Catholics” when they respond to polls. They do not natter on about the changes that will soon be made in the Catholic institutions to which they have been committed only on their own terms.
Under such circumstances, when the name “Catholic” is seldom used by those who lack faith, the Church grows strong more easily because she no longer has to accommodate the secularists within. But in our situation today, she is faced with this accommodation at every turn. To put the matter bluntly, easily half of those who claim the mantle of renewal are secularists. What this means is simple: Within the Catholic Church as she exists in societies characterized by secularism, authentic renewal is always and everywhere met with obstruction and redefinition, in myriad ways that would not be tolerated in any other organization of any kind.
In fact, such obstruction and redefinition could not be tolerated in any other organization without destroying it. To reword a famous observation by Hilaire Belloc, it may be taken as a proof of the Divine character of the Church that it can tolerate so much interior human obstruction without ceasing to be the Body and Bride of Christ.
Nonetheless, the secularism of modern Western culture presents a unique and daunting challenge to the Church for the simple reason that this secularism makes it all but impossible for anyone in the Church, from top to bottom, to engage in renewal efforts which penetrate far enough to become dominant.
I admit again that there has been some progress—indeed, very important progress—over the past two or three generations. But a thorough and effective renewal of the Church—in a time when the word “renewal” is on every tongue for wildly conflicting reasons—will not become possible until the Church finds some way consistent with her mission to distinguish more clearly between the sheep and the goats within. And this, surely, will require some form of repossession of the Catholic name.
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