The truth about our present crisis: Providence then and now
Lamentations is a separate book in the Bible attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, which laments Israel’s lot after the Jewish people were taken captive to Babylon, beginning in 597 BC. But reading it today is like reading a reflection on the fate of the Catholic Church since (at least) the mid-twentieth century. We are blasted by this recognition in the very first verse:
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How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave. [Lam 1:1]
We would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to lament ourselves that this application of the text is so distressingly apt.
Delving just a little deeper, of course, we can see that the text applies in one way or another to the Church in every age, for she is always sorely beset by the sins of her members. But most of us think in terms of the history of the West, in which the Church gradually rose to a kind of greatness “among the nations”, only to lose this worldly recognition gradually over the past half-millennium, until the twentieth-century, when it became very clear that a secularized West increasingly looked on the Church as nothing less than an abomination. She who was a princess among the provinces is now indeed regarded as the slave of the whole world!
But, you see, it is all because so many of the Church’s members act the part.
How Providence works
Reading the Book of Lamentations teaches us one of the primary ways in which Providence works. God can bring it about that any person or group should experience any kind of good—or any kind of evil—in order that this person or group should have the maximum opportunity to turn to the Lord and be saved. But there is an inescapable connection (in fact, a real identity) between succumbing to worldly temptations and drifting away from God. This does not work precisely the same way in individuals as in institutions, communities, nations and civilizations, which nearly always include both good and evil members. But as societies decline spiritually, spiritual rebellion and a corresponding spiritual desolation increase. It goes without saying that this is especially true of the Church herself.
The initial method of God’s Providence takes the form of the unmerited gift, beginning with the gift of life, received first in Eden, but received as a good by each of us even now. God intends this to blossom fully into eternal salvation, for all those who accept His gifts. On this read Romans 8:28-30, the famous passage which begins “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” But the second method of Divine Providence, and certainly the most jarring, is to allow those who turn their backs on God to experience hardships, including spiritual deprivations. Moreover, as sin multiplies, its effects spill over not only into all of our relationships but into the entire natural world, until our condition in this world becomes one of reproach and desolation.
Jerusalem sinned grievously;
therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
yea, she herself groans
and turns her face away. [Lam 1:8]
What we are witnessing today is the Providential law of spiritual dissolution as applied to the effectiveness, reputation and public standing of the Church:
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.” [Lam 1:12]
I think we can see the point. Our days are not like the days of the world’s hostility when the Church was young, where despite inevitable trials, she grew steadily stronger as the sufferings occasioned by the intentional fidelity of her members bore their rich Providential fruit. Rather, our days are like those of the Babylonian Exile, where the Church suffers a steady loss of favor and respect as so many Catholics commit adultery with the world. God allows a consequential growth in suffering as the evil multiplies, so that the Church herself reaps what her members as a whole have sown. Embracing the world, the Church’s members embrace the desolation of life without God, which sours everything even for those who remain faithful (who retain their unshakeable trust in Him).
“For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate;
for the enemy has prevailed.” [Lam 1:16]
The downward spiral of infidelity
In understanding the books of the Old Testament, we must often remember that the Jews typically did not distinguish as we do between God’s active and His permissive will. Scripture refers frequently to the evils the Lord inflicts on His people as a punishment, and the sacred authors are right to do so, given that all things are encompassed by God’s will, and nothing comes to pass without at least the will of God’s consent. We too need to be more mindful of suffering and even evil as being fully encompassed by God’s will, for if God did not permit the evil, the evil could not “happen” (or, more accurately, there could be no deprivation of the corresponding good). But God does permissively will the evils that befall us, especially so that we gain experience of the nature of evil as a withdrawal of a due good—or, to put it more strongly, the loss of a particular grace.
Granted, we can trace these connections in different ways at different times, but anyone who understands the modern history of the Church knows that the contemporary crisis of Catholicism, and the corresponding hostility of the West to any authentic Catholic Faith, grew out of massive infidelities in matters of worldly comfort and worldly ideas among Catholic bishops, clergy, religious and an increasingly lay professoriate beginning at least in the first half of the twentieth-century. In Western nations, the Church had become accustomed to being a major “player” in national culture (inherited historically from her dominant role in worldly affairs in much earlier periods), and so by the twentieth century it had become increasingly easy to identify Catholicism with an expanding acceptance of dominant cultural trends, at first patriotic and in some ways naturally virtuous in the war years. Even as a boy in America, I noticed how closely so many Church leaders mirrored the predominant attitudes of the 1950s, only to swap these almost instantly for the dominant attitudes of the 1960s and beyond.
It has always been a huge point of frustration for me that so many deeply committed Catholics continue to blame the Second Vatican Council for the current weakness of the Church, as if this problem were invented in 1962. This is so historically clueless that the mind boggles. Never mind, in this context, that the text of the documents cannot support such a view. My point is that the apparently sudden widely visible shifts in both Western culture and the Church in the 1960s were simply the fruit of a long process of secularization which had already deeply penetrated the Church owing to clerical, religious, professorial and even a general lay imitation of a worldly culture from which so many already took their cues. Truly, in the midst of this secular “coming of age” it is astonishing to see the Conciliar documents so rich and so remarkably free from error—a tribute to the protection of the Holy Spirit. But by the mid-60s, the rot had spread widely enough that it became possible throughout the Church to publicly proclaim and celebrate a cultural conformity which had been developing already for decades—or, in a more deeply historical sense, for centuries.
I will give just one example from the United States. Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the man who rapidly secularized the University of Notre Dame so that it could take its place among the perceived great universities in the changing cultural landscape, became an instructor there in 1945, the head of the Theology department in 1948, the Executive Vice President in 1949, and President in 1952. In other words his ascendancy and transformative plans were well established before the Council and before the visible explosion of what we might call “sexual secularity” in the mid-1960s. Moreover, Hesburgh had already exploited his growing bonds to the dominant secular culture. He began serving on prominent governmental commissions and the boards of wealthy private foundations in 1955. Despite many real vestiges of Catholicism, he was the very model of a Catholic leader who had “made good”.
The point here is that while the Church had played a formative role in Western culture for centuries, in the early-modern period she began to lose cultural status, and over several hundred years she became steadily less formative and more prone to imitate the dominant cultural trends in the West as these slowly lost their Christian center. By the twentieth-century the Catholic capital was largely spent. What followed was the story of my own generation. It began with our parents rebounding from World War II with a greater emphasis on prosperity and cultural acceptance for their families; this was followed by a general unconsciousness of (or at best bewilderment at) their children’s loss of faith while attending colleges and universities, whether Catholic or not; and so my generation—whether priestly, religious, or lay—had by the time it came of age already been carefully taught to be something less than Catholic: “Catholic ignorant”, “Catholic ambivalent”, or “Catholic hostile”.
The Providential way back up
The second law of Providence (following upon the law of the gift) is that we reap what we sow. In the twentieth-century, with rapidly increasing speed decade by decade, things became exactly what Jeremiah lamented:
Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
that are false and misleading. [Lam 2:14]
The kings of the earth did not believe,
nor any of the inhabitants of the world,
that foe or enemy could enter
the gates of Jerusalem.
This was for the sins of her prophets
and the iniquities of her priests. [Lam 4:12-13]
Is this not where we find ourselves today in the West? We are often in exile within the Church herself, and certainly the Church herself, despite a spiritual fruitfulness that cannot be neutered, still struggles mightily to take advantage of the path of authentic renewal. How clear is that path to those who, under the lash of spiritual suffering, have become more rather than less faithful as they have passed from the twentieth century to the twenty-first! Thus have we fully and inescapably arrived at the desolation in which we find ourselves today.
This is Divine Providence at work—the Providence of gifts rejected and therefore withheld—and we cannot find a different kind of Providence by merely reverting to external forms recovered from the illusory calm before the storm of the sixties. I say nothing against infusing previous forms with a new spirit, but forms are not proof against decline: It was under the appearance of many fine external forms and arrangements that the majority of Catholic leaders had already become culture-bound, such that, acting almost as one, they came to discard not only the bathwater but the Baby Himself.
So here we all are, experiencing the inescapable Providence of spiritual suffering. We must take our consolation where we can find it, in imitation of the Crucified. No wonder Jeremiah complained:
“You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,
killing without pity;
you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
so that no prayer can pass through.
You have made us scum and garbage
among the peoples. [Lam 3:43-45]
Having highlighted these sobering truths, I will close with one simple thought: Among those who recognize what is really happening today and why, there is tremendous grace in this Providential suffering, and therefore immense spiritual power. Our response to it must be nothing like rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic, as if we can make all things right again by a few outward changes. Our response must be a contagious sacrificial love, offered daily as a prayer of the heart:
But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old.... [Lam 5:19-21]
Again, this is Providence we are discussing. There are a dozen reforms I myself want to see made immediately, and certainly we must do our best to make every form of spiritual progress as a Church. But my point here is that this is God’s plan that we are experiencing. It is supposed to teach us that we need more than our own goals, our own plans and our own efforts. We cannot through our own rectitude earn a shift in the Providential winds; we must above all trust God Himself to act when the time is ripe. While we are certainly right to humble ourselves and work in accordance with God’s particular will for each of us, we are even more right to recognize our total dependence on Jesus Christ, to embrace our own Providential suffering, and to offer it as a Divine consolation back to Him.
Our suffering may well make us angrier or more self-righteous, or even prompt in us a thousand strategies and plans. But only if we also learn to accept God’s Providence with gratitude and joy, for its graces of repentance and sacrifice, will the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be pleased.
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Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Feb. 28, 2022 7:58 PM ET USA
You're so right that we Catholics, cleric and lay, were identifying with worldly mores (including the Pill)pre-Vatican II. I am 81 & blessed to attend a church which offers both forms done "rubrically", which gives us all at least a chance to be reverent. But we could lose it--or blow it. My confessor (55yo & devoted to the fullness of devotion he finds in the TLM) echoes your advice.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Feb. 26, 2022 5:40 AM ET USA
A well-reasoned analysis of our current plight in a Church that cowers before secular governments, secular trends, and secular ethics alien to God's active will. Our laity and clerics alike either out of ignorance or lack of proper formation in righteousness both cower before and embrace as their personal morality the destruction of innocent human life, extortion of their perceived inferiors, the pride of life, and hatred of the standards established by God and known through the natural law.