My Theology of Hopelessness

I can’t help but read our political and cultural situation as quite hopeless, and yet, according to Chesterton, that very fact should paradoxically lead to a revival of hope

Walker Percy wrote back in 1971 that  “our beloved old U.S.A. is in a bad way.” His novel Love in the Ruins is a quite prophetic novel, much of which is coming true in our time. Percy’s chief character turned to drink, as did Percy himself partially, to face his catastrophe. We need a stronger remedy for what threatens our sanity these days, hope. Especially when we come across rantings like this:

Moments like this one can perpetuate abortion stigma and signify to viewers that there’s something inherently bad about abortion. … But Rhimes should be lauded for showing the decision to have an abortion as empowered, positive and life altering. (Renee Bracey Sherman, pro-abortion activist)

Sad, sad sad. I would rather say that quotes like the above tend to make me feel not “empowered and positive” but utterly “powerless” and “despondent” and more convinced than ever that the situation in our western culture is ever more hopeless! I constantly ask myself, “why do I do this to myself?” That is, why do I bother reading this kind of garbage written by poorly educated, ideologically driven products of educational institutions in this dying contemporary culture, when I know it’s just going to upset me and deepen the sense of hopelessness that shadows me these days. That quote comes from an inane comment regarding a pro-abortion episode of a TV program produced by a certain Shonda Rhimes. It even ridiculed the fact that the abortion episode carried a content disclaimer. Sherman, a pro-abortion activist, was terribly upset by the disclaimer because it might suggest to viewers that there is actually something wrong or distasteful about killing one’s unborn baby. Hopeless.

Well, before I could sink into deeper despondency, I was given a big lift by a priest friend, with whom I frequently share my despondency and such quotes as this, which sharing may drive us both to either drink or pray.  He helped me out by humorously quoting G. K. Chesterton’s great bit of wisdom: “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.” Now that truly did lift me up, and it even suggested to me a title perhaps for a new book I’ve been working on. I now think I may name it “Theology of Hopelessness” as a kind of counter point to Jürgen Moltmann’s famous tome on Eschatology.

Of course, Chesterton was not speaking about absolute hopelessness, since he was profoundly  Christian, and he had many other positive things to say about hope in his abundant writing on this subject. No, he was talking about hopelessness in reference to this world, to the situation of this world, which in relationship to the next world is always going to be seen as rather hopeless. Chesterton was deeply convinced of the truth of Original Sin and the damage it does to this world, regardless of the age or culture. If we allow ourselves to focus too much on the project of improving this world as if we could restore it to a paradisiacal condition, that project is truly hopeless, and we are bound to feel desolate and even paralyzed by fear.

In that regard, I recall a bit of practical advice from a very worldly soldier in Band of Brothers that perhaps has some application here. A hard-nosed veteran Sergeant tells a kid paralyzed by fear the secret of courage in especially hopeless situations. He says “you hid because you think there’s still hope… but the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead.” Only then could he act as a true soldier with courage. That’s pretty fair worldly wisdom, and we despondency prone Christians could learn something useful from it with regards to the true virtue of hope, as Chesterton understood it.

Now, I refuse to deceive myself into thinking that things are not really as bad as they seem in western societies, and in certain parts of the Church, both in Europe and in much of North and South America. Western culture and western societies are now in demographic suicide mode as well as cultural suicide mode. And, unfortunately, with the ascendancy of radical Islamic movements, even within the European continent – and now here in America on a smaller scale – there simply is not sufficient time to reverse the hopeless cultural and civilizational situation.

Why not? Because even if Europeans were to undergo a massive reconversion and re-evangelization, the demographic decline simply cannot be reversed for generations; and by then the Muslims will almost certainly be in control there. If there’s any ground for temporal hope left in Europe, it would have to be that somehow a majority of Muslims would be converted by a small but regenerated Christian population. But there is no sign of any large reconversion of Christians anywhere on the horizon. So, hopeless.

In our own American situation, there are also firm grounds for hopelessness. Our culture and our American way of governance are clearly in a free fall of decline. True, unlike in much of Europe, there are still many believing Christians here, but unfortunately they are quite divided religiously and politically, and thus increasingly powerless. In addition, the public and private educational institutions providing the future generations are largely in the hands of academic propagandists and ideologues, and little remains of a truly Catholic counter balance in the Church’s own institutions, either in North or South America, and especially in the power centers of these continents. So, hopeless.

So I personally can’t help but read our political and cultural situation as quite hopeless, at least from a purely rational point of view, and yet, according to Chesterton, that very fact should paradoxically lead to a revival of hope. The great man was always so paradoxical! Note, I have not said that the situation of the Church herself is hopeless, because there we are dealing with truly supernatural promises and wildcards like grace, revealed truth, the Holy Spirit, the Kingship of Christ. Who can ever say for sure what God’s own plans are – perhaps his plan for bringing order out of this chaos, or perhaps his plan for allowing this chaos to be a means of purification of the people of God, as it always has been. We just don’t know. What we do know is that he definitely does have an infallible plan which will bring ultimate victory, beyond this world and its history, and that plan is the basis of our unyielding hope as Christians.

Indeed, just the other day, on the memorial of the Vietnamese martyrs of the 19th century, I was reading a letter written by St. Andrew Dung-Lac from prison; he was living through just such a hopeless and horrific situation himself with other Christians. He wrote from his imprisonment, “But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone — Christ is with me.” That’s the faith of the Church and the hope of Christians in every place and time whose situation seems hopeless. It is the deep faith of Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down my soul, why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise him still, my savior and my God.”

Just such hopeless situations as ours will lead true believers to turn to the only true source of theological hope, our Savior and God, Jesus Christ. It was true 3000 years ago, it was true 2000 years ago, and true through the Christian ages. It was true for St. Andrew Dung-Lac and for G. K. Chesterton. It has to be true for us. We will not yield to despondency, nor to our enemies.

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About Fr. Mark A. Pilon 0 Articles
Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary, a former contributing editor of Triumph magazine, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at