A True Antagonist for a Broken World: Faith in a Secular Age

How can we fight when it seems as if the very body of Christ seems to be tied down and rent apart not only by a hostile secular world but by her own weakness?

(Image: Manu Schwendener | Unsplash.com)

I’m often asked by friends or by people who know that I teach Catholic Studies what I think is going on with the Catholic Church. It’s a long story and has changed. You have perhaps seen the Far Side cartoon about the four basic personality types? In one frame a woman sees a glass and says, “The glass is half full!” In another frame a man says, “The glass is half empty.” In the third frame a bespectacled man strokes his chin as he says, “Half full. No! Wait! Half empty! . . No, half. . .What was the question?” And in the fourth frame a large bald man with a large wisp of hair flying on top has his fists on his hips as he declares, “Hey! I ordered a cheeseburger!”

Glass half full? Or half empty?

When I came into the Church over twenty years ago, I thought not only that the Catholic Church’s claims were true, but that the Church was advancing. Under Pope John Paul and then Pope Benedict, I thought that the Church was making headway in restoring herself after the disastrous post-Vatican II era. The sophistication and sincere faith of the leaders of the Church; the talent and energy of a great many other Catholic converts who had converted before me and after me. The prominent place of Catholic Social Teaching as an inspiration for Catholic political thinkers across the spectrum, here in America and elsewhere; the numbers of young people inspired to seek out the fullness of faith: all these things and more made me think that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, whom the American Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis thought the most important convert since Newman, was right. We were entering into a “Catholic moment” in which the number of conversions of those from all different backgrounds and social positions would transform the Church, especially in America, making her truly seem the great antagonist to the growing secularism. One convert sociologist wrote an article in a now-defunct ecumenical magazine about the imminent end of Protestantism, since the Catholic Church’s claims about her identity were now being heard. The Church was uniting Christians to fight the big fights.

The glass, I thought, was indeed half-full and filling.

The two decades since have altered that bright vision. Not that some parts of it weren’t true, but it was complicated. There were those converts and those young JPII generation priests and seminarians. There were a number of great initiatives in Catholic publishing and media. There were movements to recover the liturgical, musical, artistic, and literary heritage of the Church. There were new movements, both religious orders and lay ecclesial movements, as well as educational movements that brought to new life the idea of a university that Blessed Newman so desired, in which the mind as well as the heart were developed in tandem. I count both new schools and universities, as well as new movements to integrate knowledge in Catholic Studies departments in both Catholic and non-Catholic institutions, as gains.

Yet much of the institutional rot in the Catholic Church was to be exposed in the form of sexual scandals. And the weight of several generations of poor formation and poor hiring decisions in many Catholic schools proved to be difficult to lift, even by the dedicated young “JP II Generation.” Though there have still been many converts, some of them very high-profile, they have not been enough to offset the great numbers of Catholics who have, quite often, simply drifted away. In 2009 Pew Research reported in a study titled “Faith in Flux” that Catholics over the last decades had suffered the biggest losses in terms of religious identity among major religious groups, with polling showing that the main reason they had left the Church was moral and religious beliefs. For every convert the Church has gained, it has lost more than six Catholics from her ranks.

I often found myself looking like the man in the frame who couldn’t tell whether the glass was half full or half empty.

The leadership of Pope Francis was heralded initially as the thing that was to change that dynamic. He was, I and many others hoped, going to be pastoral in a way that brought home the spiritual and intellectual patrimony of the Church, and especially of the two previous intellectual popes, to the masses. His pontificate, however, has been ceaseless controversy. And no matter what one thinks of the man’s motives or actions, he has not been successful in stemming the tide that seemed to be sweeping Catholic faith away. Though some people initially referred to a “Francis effect” that would bring back the lost and inspire the young, that has not been born out in any real way. Though Pope Francis has largely maintained favorability ratings in polling, this has not translated into any real gains in participation in the life of the Church; indeed the Church’s losses have accelerated and ground that was gained has begun to be lost again. Worldwide, after a 34-year period of largely steady, if not spectacular, growth in the number of major seminarians, the numbers have gone down every year since 2012 and numbers for men and women religious have decreased even more precipitously. In the US, Pew Research reported earlier this year that since 2012, even self-reported Mass attendance for American Catholics has decreased from 41% to 38%. And among those who are practicing, Pope Francis has been less the sign of unity than the constant point of contention for those in the Church because of the ambiguity and even danger of his documents and actions, even more so as we start up another round of revelations about priestly misdeeds and episcopal failures.

Not only has the Church been weakened, but culture has moved from a position of vaguely cultural Christianity, or at least a tolerance for Christianity, to a sense that serious Christianity, especially Catholicism, is something not quite ok and possibly villainous to have in public. Sure, prayers in your home are allowed, but there have to be fights, long, expensive, and arduous fights in the political and legal arenas, to practice faith in any serious way corporately and publicly.

In short, I think I, like many people now see the glass as half-empty and draining.

“Therefore, I will trust Him…”

Does this sound like a glum assessment? I suppose it does. The Church, the one true Ark, as Newman would say, is the one he describes as the great Antagonist to our broken world, and yet the Church as a whole seems like more and more like the original Ark of Noah—if it weren’t for the storm outside we couldn’t stand the stench inside. Or, in another version of the old joke, full of clean and unclean beasts. And though we have the divine promises for it, in the midst of the storms it can feel as if we are going to capsize—or at the very least that we are wandering far off our course. But this is where I think Blessed John Henry Newman meets us right where we need to be met, for his own life of faith was one of feeling lost and bewildered, of fighting battles that seemed ever to be lost, of seeing that the ways of Providence are mysterious and even frustrating.

Think first of his first stanza of the Pillar of the Cloud:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I think the feeling of an encircling gloom in the midst of the break-up and dissolution of what many people have called “Christendom” is pervasive. But Newman’s perspective was always that in the midst of trouble, the connection between “My Maker and I” was unbroken. God spoke to him through his conscience, just as he speaks to us, assuring us not only of his justice but also of his promise of mercy to us. Our task is one of taking one step at a time and following our conscience. In the midst of his great crisis over whether he should leave the Anglican Church and become a Catholic he determined, as he said in his Apologia, “to do simply what we think right day by day” (151). The same is true even for people already Catholic. Faith in a secular age can be muddled, but the same rules apply to us as they have to every believer from Abraham down to you and me. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” For Newman the faith that works is an obedient faith that follows what the Church has laid down definitively, what in our conscience Christ wants us do here and now, and brings clarity to our minds, eventually.

Of course some might object that the kind of big-picture clarity is not necessarily guaranteed to us, even about our own lives. I think Newman would ultimately agree with this. When he tells us about the light that obedience brings, it is only ultimately a light shining on our own consciences and telling us what we ought do. It is no guarantee that we will have success nor that we will understand what God is up to in seemingly inspiring us with tasks and then letting us fail. Newman’s famous devotion begins with an act of faith in God’s plan for his life, a plan that is part of God’s big-picture plan not merely for him or his country but for the world.

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

So far so good, right. But Newman himself sees the glumness that can taint even a life of obedience. And yet, that is what faith is about. The devotion continues:

Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

This was no mere pious rhetoric for a meditation. It was something that Newman had to act out in his own life, quite often beginning projects—ventures of faith, he would call them—that seemed to have come from God, but which often ended up being unfinished, usually because interrupted, masterpieces. Think of Newman’s work founding the Catholic University in Ireland. It was a work perfect for the man who always said that “Education is my line.” It had the backing of both the Pope and, he thought, the Irish bishops. It was a country with lots of faith and little opportunity—perfect for advancing the cause of the faith. And yet though it bore a number of fruits, most notably his great work The Idea of a University, the institutional tree was destined not to survive. As he noted afterward, the very trust he had in the wisdom of popes had been damaged, “for from the event I am led to think it not rash to say that I knew as much about Ireland as he did.”

So, too, with other plans. Reflecting in a letter on his three failed attempts to set up an Oratory in Oxford in order to minister to university students, an attempt blocked by the bishops and pope, he observed:

I am of opinion that the Bishops see only one side of things, and I have a mission, as far as my own internal feelings go, against evils which I see. On the other hand, I have always preached that things which are really useful, still are done, according to God’s will, at one time, and not at another—and that, if you attempt at a wrong time, what in itself is right, you perhaps become a heretic or schismatic. What I aim at may be real and good, but it may be God’s will it should be done a hundred years later. . . . When I am gone it will be seen perhaps that persons stopped me from doing a work which I might have done. God overrules all things. Of course it is discouraging to be out of joint with the time, and to be snubbed and stopped as soon as I act.

Those who proposed really useful things not in God’s time became schismatics or heretics, he said. And he didn’t want that. For Newman, the difficulties in the Church, the unwisdom of bishops, popes, and others, did not justify losing one’s love for the body of Christ.

Nor did the hostility of a secular age.

An awful, but necessary, clarity

Indeed, Newman was well aware of the growing secular storm—what he called infidelity—that was threatening the Church. It was why he was so interested in ministry to university students, for it was in the universities that the clouds were gathering. It was also not something that surprised him exactly. To be deep in history is not only to cease to be Protestant, as he said in his Essay on Development. But to be deep in history is also to cease thinking we will ever arrive at a golden age of peace this side of the river Jordan. Writing to his friend Lord Emly about the perilous state of the Church and world in 1877, Newman observed that “the Church has ever seemed dying, and has been especially bad (to appearance) every 300 years.” He recounts the days when the Roman empire was against it as a whole. “Well,” he says, “they triumphed, against all human calculation.” The whole history of Christianity, he observes, is a “succession of fresh and fresh trials—never the same twice. We can only say, ‘The Lord that delivered me from the lion and the bear, he will deliver me from the Philistine.’ But we cannot anticipate the exact shape the next conflict will take.” Even if we are fully aware that Christian history will always present us trials, when they arrive we will be left saying, “Hey, I ordered a cheeseburger!”

If today seems completely unlike a cheeseburger, an unprecedented crisis, that is because, in one sense it is. But we always have our duty to do what is right today, a duty that will always include defense and probing into the faith in new intellectual and cultural situations. Because of that duty, Newman spent much of his life trying to build up the spiritual and intellectual armaments of the Church with his explanations of why Christian faith is reasonable, why Catholic teaching expresses that faith accurately despite the winding ways of doctrinal development, and why it is that we should seek the fullness of faith not only intellectually but in the very marrow of our lives.

Our duties are in one sense, therefore, always the same: to try to see God’s providence, what he calls “the one momentous doctrine entering my reasoning,” as best we can, even if it does not provide us more than “the one step enough for me.” And then act.

Newman himself feared the unknown aspect of the secular age; he feared the result of people abandoning faith in large numbers. Like Nietzsche, I believe, he saw that the natural law, indelible as it is in the conscience, was a weak vessel when large numbers of people believe that God is dead. And yet, he also saw that with the changes in state and society that there was clarity. An awful clarity, but a necessary one.

In the world of Christendom, it is true, many Christian cultural assumptions were broadly taken for granted in the public, but that did not mean that they were embraced with any divine faith. In the Middle Ages so beloved of many Catholics, Newman argued in his essay “A Form of Infidelity of the Day,”

unbelief necessarily made its advances under the language and guise of faith; whereas in the present, when universal toleration prevails, and it is open to assail revealed truth (whether Scripture or Tradition, the Fathers or the ‘Sense of the faithful’), unbelief in consequence throws off the mask, and takes up a position over against us in citadels of its own, and confronts us in the broad light and with a direct assault.

Better to face unbelief in daylight than be tricked by religious-sounding lies. And it’s not clear that the situation of Christendom was ultimately more advantageous for salvation of souls. Newman responded to those who lamented the lack of a Catholic state in England that “I am not sure that it would not be better for the Catholic religion everywhere, if it had no very different status from that which it has in England. There is so much corruption, so much deadness, so much hypocrisy, so much infidelity, when a dogmatic religion is imposed on a nation by law, that I like freedom better.Indeed, he observed of the fears that people had concerning a united Italy with no papal states that, “If the vagaries of Protestantism and infidelity have free course in Italy, I shall not feel sure that fewer souls out of the whole nation go to heaven, (putting aside infants)—than went under the state of things which proceeded those profanities.”

Too often what we fear and dislike is our own position in an openly hostile and secular world. And yet this is the reality that Christ promised us: If the world hates us, we must remember that it hated Christ first (John 15:18).

The Church rises again

But what of the chaos in the Church? How can we fight when it seems as if the very body of Christ seems to be tied down and rent apart not only by a hostile secular world but by her own weakness? I think here, too, Newman speaks to us. That battle in the first ages of the Church that Newman referred to in his letter to Lord Emly—the one against the Roman Empire? It was fought not in some serene setting where all was clear and peaceful in the Church, but in the midst of the chaotic Arian crisis. A crisis of titanic proportions involving the central question of the faith—who is Jesus? It was not settled by the Council of Nicea in 325, but continued to rage such that forty years later St. Jerome could write a letter in which he lamented, concerning the Council of Rimini in 359, that “The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian.”

We look back on that age of the Fathers as golden, but it sure seemed dismal to St. Jerome. In his first book, on the Arian crisis, Newman himself observed that there seemed to be a sort of “suspension of the Magisterium” during that whole time. And so it was as the fourth century rolled into the fifth. St. John Chrysostom, to whom is famously attributed the line that the road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts, actually wrote in his homily on Acts 1:12, “I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish.” So for the other saints. As Newman observed in the same letter to Lord Emly, “Would not the prospect of the future look as terrible to St. Augustine or St. Leo (humanly) as it does to our generation?”

In short, the Church’s institutional health does not necessarily mean that God is not still using her to be an antagonist to the broken world. In the beginning of the Church’s life we find one of the twelve betrayed him, one denied him, and nine others ran away. It may indeed be the case that though we’ve ordered a cheeseburger, God himself has a tendency to order a glass half-full and draining so that he can again bring good out of evil and strength out of a weakness that looks to all the world like death. “[S]uch has been the slumber and such the restoration of the Church,” Newman wrote in the Essay on Development. “She pauses in her course, and almost suspends her functions; she rises again, and she is herself once more; all things are in their place and ready for action. Doctrine is where it was, and usage, and precedence, and principle, and policy; there may be changes, but they are consolidations or adaptations; all is unequivocal and determinate, with an identity which there is no disputing.”

(This essay is a revised form of a lecture given to the Twin Cities Newman on Tap group celebrating Newman’s Feast Day on October 9, 2018.)

About David Paul Deavel 21 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

2 Comments

  1. “For every convert the Church has gained, it has lost more than six Catholics from her ranks.”

    The converts simply converted from one heretical sect to another while the “Catholics” that left were either Catholic in name only or realized the Church was no longer Catholic but simply another heretical sect.

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