Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Who Is the Enemy? A Growing Emphasis on Changing Ourselves

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 29, 2014

Those who have followed the history of the Church over the past 50 years, and have also followed my own writing, will have noticed some significant shifts. When I began to develop a sense of Catholic mission in the 1960s, this mission was shaped by the widespread failure of the hierarchy of the Church to maintain a strong Catholic identity in the face of a rapidly secularizing culture. But as I grow well into my seventh decade, I find my mission shaped increasingly by the pressing need for holiness among all the Church’s members.

As Western culture rapidly abandoned public Christian values in the 1960s, the Catholic intellectual establishment revealed its hidden fascination with Modernism, and bishops and priests throughout the West readily adopted new secular habits of thought. Fidelity to the teachings of the Church was abandoned virtually overnight. It seems that Pope John XXIII’s prescient convocation of the Second Vatican Council came too late to effect the renewal that is only now hitting stride fifty years later, the renewal which might have enabled the Church to rise above the mid-to-late twentieth-century deluge. Instead, Catholic identity was washed away across the board: Dioceses and parishes; seminaries and universities; religious orders; Catholic social services.

The overwhelming complacency of the leaders of the Church in the West made them easy to shift, just as soon as the larger culture no longer paid lip service to Christian values. It was in exactly this atmosphere that little Jeff Mirus, just off to college the year after the Council closed, read the documents of Vatican II for the first time, was deeply inspired, and saw much of the Church swept away before it even had a chance to respond. Indeed, emerging from a respectful 1950s culture into the libertine secularist maelstrom of the 1960s, Church leaders could not divest themselves too quickly of Catholic beliefs and traditional practices in an effort to retain their “relevance” to the new status quo.

But the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. Just as the Council was calling for the full-fledged participation of the laity in the life of the Church, including their active involvement in her mission by virtue of their baptism, the failure of the hierarchy left that mission to the laity by default. Too many, of course, followed their pastors in their own complacency, like lambs to the slaughter. Nonetheless, the most vigorous defense of the Catholic faith, and the strongest calls for authentic renewal in diocesan and parish life, religious communities, and the university came from a growing body of lay leaders who had finally found their proper voice.

It seems that the Holy Spirit, through the Council documents themselves, had given Magisterial definition to the apostolate of the laity in the nick of time. Thus it was that from 1965 to roughly 1995 the target of genuine renewal was easily defined. The wholesale downgrading and even abandonment of the teachings of the Church, usually under the guise of Modernist culture-speak, rapidly eroded the very understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic. Priority one was the fight for orthodoxy against the clerical Catholic intelligentsia. We had seen the enemy, and it was them.

The Changing Battlefield

But Catholic perceptions began (or should have begun) to change at least by the 1990s. By the end of the decade following the 1985 Synod of Bishops, at which Pope John Paul II formally launched what has often been called the battle for Vatican II, it became clear that the episcopate was gradually improving throughout the West. By the early 2000s, the trend was impossible to miss. It was at last becoming difficult to find a bishop who was not openly committed to orthodoxy, and many bishops also began to distinguish Catholic social teaching from an excessive reliance on the State. Dioceses, seminaries and priestly leadership improved dramatically. While Catholic social services, Catholic universities, and some religious orders were definitely lagging, it became clear that the institutional structures of the Church were becoming healthy again. Popes began to call for a New Evangelization; bishops and priests began to echo the call.

Oddly enough, this tended to divide the laity into three groups. There are those who continue to drift but can be expected to feel increasing pressure to take their faith more seriously. There are those who, having so sadly learned to distrust the hierarchy of the Church, are convinced that they must continue to hold out against any authority which does not say exactly what they want to hear. And there are those—and I am one of them—who have gradually realized that the game has changed. Even with the continuing recalcitrance of the universities, the crisis of fidelity among the Catholic leadership is no longer the primary impediment to the Church’s mission.

When I say that the game has changed, I am quite serious. There is a tremendous difference between reform-minded laity targeting their bishops to make them Catholic again and a keen sense that bishops, priests and laity are all imperfect and must all work together to become holy. This difference demands a major shift in tactics, including the adoption of a posture that is more cooperative than oppositional. I grant that my sense of this shift may be partly a function of age and (I hope) increasing spiritual maturity. I see more clearly with each passing year that without personal holiness in the heart of the Church even the noblest of ends are impossible to attain. But I am also convinced that there really has been a visible and important change—albeit gradual and ongoing—in the situation of the Church between, say, 1975 and 2005.

This conviction is reflected on by a changing mix of pointed commentaries, especially in my own writings. What good will it do my readers if I write only against topics, persons and institutions we love to hate? Instead, I have begun—part of the time—to emphasize that we are all frequently our own obstacles to renewal, our own obstacles to evangelization, our own obstacles to a healthier culture. So I try at times to diagnose our own failings, the ones to which we are so often blind. I realize that this rubs against the grain, and I hope my readers can get used to it.

There are still many battles to be fought ad extra, against ideas and movements and even people beyond the borders of our own personalities. But nobody is exempt from the need for renewal. In deepest communion with our brothers and sisters in the Church, we very much need to realize that the target is not so simple any longer. In ways that are at least sometimes worth noting, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Dutch01 - Feb. 01, 2014 8:02 AM ET USA

    Hear, Hear Jeff - quite so!

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Feb. 01, 2014 6:53 AM ET USA

    Good article. Some random thoughts. Holiness is where it's at. But rarely heard about at Mass. Social Justice issues key interest of Bishops. Bishops Conference has become overly political. Women tend to run nearly everything in parishes. Catholics generally just like everyone else. Not good. Great direction from John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Pope Francis is confusing to me. I like what Michael Voris is doing with his

  • Posted by: Petronius - Jan. 30, 2014 11:19 AM ET USA


  • Posted by: JessicaFanaro - Jan. 30, 2014 9:29 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus. I'm young, but have a great love of traditional things, particularly the old Mass, and find it easy to nitpick at the Novus Ordo that we attend. This commentary was perfect timing for me, as I have been trying to look at the good things at our local parish, instead of just the annoying ones. God bless!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 29, 2014 10:31 PM ET USA

    "When I say that the game has changed, I am quite serious. There is a tremendous difference between reform-minded laity targeting their bishops to make them Catholic again & a keen sense that bishops, priests and laity are all imperfect and must all work together to become holy."Very moving but hardly accurate so far as past outcomes. The Fr Fugee incident in Newark NJ is of recent memory.The Atchbshp, grossly incompetent & bizarrely an author of the Dallas Charter, the retreats of Fr R Rohr etc

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 29, 2014 9:15 PM ET USA

    "We have seen the enemy and it is us." Hmm. Perhaps the greatest unifying force behind a recent nod towards orthodoxy among the episcopate is the external threat of the secularist intelligentsia who are intent on bringing down all who stand for moral absolutes, be they legislators, churchmen, or mere Catholics. Catholic hospitals, crisis pregnancy centers, adoption agencies, et al. are coerced into closing by extra-legislative acts of the intelligentsia. Yes, the enemy is us, but not us alone.