The progressive self-image of modern-day “diversity” displays a remarkable case of amnesia. One is struck by how editorial spin today simply recycles past crises, such as the “reset” efforts of pagan Rome in the time of the late-4th century St. Ambrose. Or by the way modern identity politics actually mimics the contradictions of sectarian Islam as carried forward from the 7th century.
Today we have such novelties as a ghost-writer archbishop who cobbles verbatim his own writings (with nary a footnote) into the final and confusing version of a recent exhortation issued by the head of the universal Church. Of this archbishop it is said that he is uniquely skilled in reconciling discordant positions into higher insights—either enlarging or breaking the first principle of human reasoning: the principle of non-contradiction.
In earlier times we might find ourselves standing alongside the Roman civil servant-turned Catholic bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Much like our own times, the fading empire surrounded him and his flock, inside his Milan cathedral, with the demand that the Church contradict itself by tolerantly opening its doors for use by Arian heretics. Christianity also was to shoehorn itself into a pantheon of restored pagan niches—all to resuscitate the multicultural uniformity of pre-Christian cosmopolitanism. Today’s New World Order is not so new after all. Formative of future history, the barricaded Ambrose and the laity were steadfast, and created for the first time a clear line between the irreducible domains of Church and State. (Today, however, clarity is often shunned and sacrificed to ambiguous footnotes).
Then comes the collage religiosity of monotheistic, big-tent Islam. The text of the Qur’an (unlike the Gospel) explicitly prescribes both peace and jihadist conquest. Tolerance comes, but only after submission. The 12th-century Al-Ghazali explained the notion that even philosophical and theological truths can legitimately contradict one another—in the same way, he said, that a horse’s back hoof may (or may not) fall into the same print as the front hoof. Today, in the Church, do we now hear a modern-day echo in the notion that doctrinal truth can be divorced from pastoral exceptions (just as under secular law physician-assisted suicide is an “exemption” from homicide laws)?
With the secular State separated—and fully divorced—from any truths higher than itself, a residual veneer of “tolerance” still mimics the lost reality. The periodization of history and the myth of Progress block our view of recurrent and deeper “types” at any point in history, reflective of our constant human nature. As such a type, consider first the primitive exposure of unwanted children to the elements; and then consider the United States Supreme Court and its refusal (Roe v Wade, 1973) to even “speculate” against what is now the metastasized throw-away culture of abortion. Consider, too, the most recent (and Islam-like!) fatwa to redefine “marriage” itself (Obergefell v Hodges, 2016) as a minority residue within a “tolerant,” brave-new-world of gender theory.
In pagan and pre-Christian Rome, the litmus test for conformity with the zeitgeist was a pinch of ash tossed by Christians before a pagan idol; today in the post-Christian West it’s a dab of frosting on a compulsory “gay marriage” wedding cake.
Is there anything new under the sun? Or is there anything even real? What if the Evangelists for the incarnate Son of God are actually to be taken seriously? Is there, just this once, a transcendent and real unity that is gifted and ignited from above, as at Pentecost? Are the first apostles and then the apostolic succession, and even the non-ordained laity truly “sent” on a lasting mission to leaven the world? As the layman G.K. Chesterton could still say, in The Everlasting Man, only a century ago: “[the bishops as runners] have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witnesses….we might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old.”
Pope Francis, in his prayer intention for this month of May, identifies “Evangelization as the Mission of the Laity—That the lay faithful may fulfill their specific mission, by responding with creativity to the challenges that they face the world today.”
Such brevity is welcome; however, “creativity” alone can be mistaken by some as code language for forgetting much else, and then for even substituting our creative and calculated “decisions” in place of better-grounded moral judgments. It was only twenty-five years ago that we heard from St. John Paul II that “the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 52, emphasis added). And that the Church’s pastors duty to “insist(ing) that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected” (n. 113, italics in the original). Maybe even consistency between still-received doctrine and pastoral practice?
Blessed Isaac of Stella also points to an enduring reality that is both vertical and intergenerational: “The Son of God is one with God by nature; the Son of Man is one with him in his person; we, his body, are one with him sacramentally.” And from the Son himself, when he actually walked with us, the Evangelist St. John records the same: “Father, I desire that as you and I are one, so they may be one with us.”
Given this lasting Encounter, at the center of all human history, do the laity now notice when they find themselves members of a Church too often reduced to a clerical chessboard? Chilean-gate, civil remarriage-gate, Letter-gate, and now, with Communion for spouses in split marriages: Germany-gate. But what’s the fuss, the Eucharist is just a tribal and congregational symbol anyway. Right? The ghost of Martin Luther is reset into the 21st century.
How might real human “creativity” remain centered on the interior life even as it leavens the world, steadfast in morality, and remembering of who we really are? For the “field hospital” Church, who are the gatekeepers? Are they careerist spin doctors perhaps attired in a few cardinal-red surgery gowns, and only too eager to tag remembered truth as untutored “dissent” coming from an isolated and disposable “minority”? Stack the deck and take a vote; is this the new—and ever old—“paradigm shift”?
What would be the future for such a surely hypothetical, secular/Fabian strand of “gradualism” once we no longer do or clearly remember what we believe but believe only what we do? Is the Eucharistic Church to remain a hierarchical communion (Lumen Gentium, Ch. 3, Prefatory Note), or more of a Roman-style pantheon of national conferences of bishops, or maybe only a schismatic and flat “congregational theocracy” more like Islam? The “smell of the sheep” is one thing; the smell of wolves in sheep’s clothing would be another.
In conclusion: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8).