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First the diagnosis, then the cure

If the world is to be re-located, the questions that rip man asunder or anesthetize the soul must be answered in every diocese, in every parish, in every Catholic educational institution.

(Image: Jeremy Perkins/Unsplash.com)

Fewer Catholics are attending Mass. Fewer Catholics accept the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist, about the sanctity of unborn life, about the Christian’s responsibility to the poor and suffering, about marriage, about Jesus as the only way to abundant life. This is old news.

The reasons offered for this phenomenon are numerous: the Enlightenment provoked a long descent into materialism and nihilism; Vatican II was ill-advised; the “spirit” of Vatican II hijacked the Church in the wake of the Council; socialism or communism or capitalism or the clergy abuse scandal is the culprit. More old news.

Materialism—the universe and man are merely matter and energy, there is no God or eternal soul. Nihilism—moral choices are evolutionary or sociological or psychological phenomena. Call these “isms” whatever you want; atheism and relativism; skepticism and hedonism. Philosophical precision is less important than the practical consequences of people adopting these perspectives. Few today who are informed and live by materialism and/or nihilism know what these words mean, though they think and act according to these creeds when their choices are guided by a conviction that we’re only atoms, or ergs in a cosmic force (like the Star Wars Force), when accomplishing anything good is just a man-made enterprise, when how they feel about something determines how they act. To see what materialism and nihilism look like on a national scale, see modern China, except there “virtue’ is determined by the regime.

Materialism and nihilism have been around since before the time of Christ. There isn’t a period in recorded history when these perspectives did not have their champions. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age dispersed these perspectives more widely, but not until the twentieth century did materialism and nihilism begin to dominate societies around the world.

I’m composing a fictional story featuring a spirited fifth century B.C. debate between a pagan Greek and a Jew. The subject of the debate is the evil that often proceeds from rebellious angelic and human freedom, a freedom ultimately connected, or so says the Jew, to God’s unfathomable love for man. Without such radical freedom, so argues the Jew to the incredulous pagan, there is no larger life for man beyond the grave.

The unbridled evil of the twentieth century—two world wars, 100 million men, women, and children killed or willfully murdered, subsequent wars, billions of survivors battered—unleashed what might be called an existential dislocation. After the wars, the survivors conversed, studied, worked, laughed, smoked and imbibed, reproduced, as if things were back to normal. But of course things were never back to normal, and society is still dislocated, as if the post-world-wars’ barn door was opened wide to rampaging materialism and nihilism. The devil couldn’t have delivered a better one-two punch.

There have always been wars, vicious invaders and rulers, plagues, and other miseries that challenged faith, but never on such a scale, never with such global connectedness, and never accompanied by so many materialist and nihilist voices.

In the second half of the twentieth century, few priests and bishops realized that many believers were questioning the meaning of everything they’d once believed. “Does life mean anything?” “What’s right and wrong?” “Where was God?” “Why did God allow this to happen?” “Is man nothing more than an animal?” “Of what use is religion?” “Has science proven that God doesn’t exist?” In the aftermath of these wars, most kept going to church, but not as before. Priests and ministers didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, the spiritual dislocation, and those in the pews were hesitant to admit this spiritual wound to others. But it was there, like a cancer, and they either cut it out and treated it for the rest of their lives, or they let it metastasize and went through the motions, buying into day-to-day materialism and nihilism—Pilate’s “What is truth?”

Memorizing the things one must believe and keeping a checklist of things one must do to get to heaven did not come close to addressing the existential dislocation provoked by those wars and the increasingly louder appeals of materialism and nihilism. Bringing things “up-to-date” in the Church didn’t address those questions either. What was needed were answers that made sense to women and men in the pews, answers that would re-locate their spiritual and moral universes in a meaningful way. Answers to the existential questions those two horrendous wars and aggressive materialism and nihilism had loosed.

Some artists in the culture at large tried, but they were a small minority in a throng of materialistic and nihilistic art, and the Church sadly ceded this ground as well.

Just because World War I and World War II have passed into history, because Auschwitz and Hiroshima have passed into history, doesn’t mean the existential dislocation has gone away. The dislocation has been passed down from generation to generation in materialism and nihilism—the sperm and the egg—that informs autocratic regimes and democracies alike. And for all their professed allegiance to Allah, the Taliban, ISIS, and like Islamic movements think and act as extreme materialists and nihilists.

The drumbeat message of the popular culture and its Machiavellis is deeply rooted in materialism and nihilism—children are threats to the environment, religious faith is incompatible with science, recreational sex is healthy when participants are willing or properly compensated, devoted mothers and fathers aren’t essential. Pushing back piecemeal, as the Church has been doing, issue by issue, isn’t enough, not by a long stretch. What’s needed is clearer articulation of what materialism and nihilism entail, how those creeds diminish man, and how authentic Christianity answers the questions posed by the soul-rattling events in the twentieth century.

Perhaps the reason that famed psychology professor Jordan Peterson attracts so many to his talks and books is because he takes on the questions that existential dislocation prompt, and the corresponding emptiness in people that materialism and nihilism cannot assuage.

The Church is in a life and death struggle with materialism and nihilism. There is no accommodating these world views within authentic Christianity. “Does life mean anything?” “What’s right and wrong?” “Where was God?” “Why did God allow this to happen” “Is man nothing more than an animal?” “Of what use is religion?” “Has science proven that God doesn’t exist?” If the world is to be re-located, the questions that rip man asunder or anesthetize the soul must be answered in every diocese, in every parish, in every Catholic educational institution, drawing on articulate lay experts when clergy aren’t up to the task. Evangelization in the twenty-first century has to start here.


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About Thomas M. Doran 69 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.

19 Comments

  1. Included in a recent article (mine: theimaginativeconservative.org, August 5), I propose five possible nuggets/citations for Doran’s superbly diagnosed “existential dislocation.” From across the board—an atheist, then a scientist, then an historian, then a theologian, and then a pope:

    FIRST, as for nihilism—-from the atheist journalist Ariani Fallaci, this:
    “Christianity truly is an irresistible provocation [….] Life always resurrects, Life is eternal …That most seduces even me. Because in it I see the rejection of Death, the refusal of Death, the apotheosis of Life which can be evil: yes. Which is also evil, which eats itself. But its alternative is NOTHINGNESS (italics). And let’s face it: such is the principle which leads and feeds our civilization” (“The Force of Reason,” 2004).

    SECOND, as for the atomic bomb—-from its inventor, J. Robert Oppenheimer, this:
    “These two ways of thinking, the way of time and history and the way of eternity and of timelessness, are both part of man’s effort to comprehend the world in which he lives. NEITHER IS COMPREHENDED IN THE OTHER NOR REDUCIBLE TO IT. They are, as we have learned to say in physics, complementary views, each supplementing the other, neither telling the whole story” (“Science and the Common Understanding,” 1953).

    THIRD, as for doctrinal expansiveness (not narrowness)—-from historian Charles Norris Cochrane, this:
    “Trinitarian Christianity presents itself, NOT as a dogma [read Arianism, Deism, Consciousness and its legion ideologies], but as the rejection of dogma, not as the assertion but rather as the denial of anthropomorphism and myth, and it calls for a final and conclusive expulsion of these elements from the description of ULTIMATE REALITY (caps added) as the preliminary to a starkly realistic account of the nature of man” (“Christianity and Classical Culture,” 1974).

    FOURTH, as for “proofs”—-from Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, this:
    “Christianity’s claim to be true cannot correspond to the standard of certainty posed by modern science, because THE FORM OF VERIFICATION HERE IS OF A QUITE DIFFERENT KIND (caps added) from the realm of testing by experiment—pledging one’s life for this—is of a quite different kind. The saints, who have undergone the experiment, can stand as guarantors of its truth, but the possibility of disregarding this strong evidence remains” (“Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions,” 2003).

    FIFTH, as for our singular Faith—-from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, this:
    “The responses of the Old Testament and a fortiori of Islam (which remains essentially in the enclosure of the religion of Israel) are incapable of giving a satisfactory answer to the question of why Yahweh, why Allah, created a world of which he did not have need in order to be God. Only the FACT is affirmed in the two religions, NOT THE WHY. The Christian response is contained in these two fundamental dogmas: that of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation” (“My Work in Retrospect,” 1993).

  2. Let us admit that the condemned heresy of Modernism is the whole problem. From the Council of St. John XXlll, the “Fullness of the Doctrine of the Faith must always be preserved.” St. John Paul the Great emphasized the grand importance repeatedly, “The fullness of the Dogma of the Faith must be taught in its fullness and entirety and not in a diluted form.” But what exactly happened is that the Teachings of Christ through His Church were outright condemned in the name of the “Spirit of Vatican ll.” They ended what by God’s command was to be taught. I was a once Catechism teacher who was condemned. At a faculty meeting the head of the Cathecitical Department told me that I was not to teach about Our Lady, nor of the Pope, no purgatory and certainly no hell, nothing about Indulgences. In other words, I was not to teach the Catholic Faith. And now the question, “What happened”?. C’mon, you, Modernists destroyed the Faith and now you wonder what happened???

  3. “The Church is in a life and death struggle with materialism and nihilism.”

    I wish I could believe this but I don’t. Father James Altman preached Sunday after Sunday in a way that denounced the evils of our day so well-chronicled here. And what did his Woke bishop do? Silenced him. The Church has become a co-conspirator with the work of Satan.

  4. Thomas does a great job at taking the problem we’ve already read (and heard) in tons of articles, blogs, YouTube videos, letters, etc., and reassembling it in artistic fashion only to leave us with the same problem. This is part of the problem: We’re good at recognizing the problem (well, about half the Church is anyway), but not good at articulating and outlining actual steps that need to be taken to solve the problem. This is more than “clearer articulation of what materialism and nihilism entail, how those creeds diminish man, and how authentic Christianity answers the questions posed by the soul-rattling events in the twentieth century,” as Thomas proposes. Sure, this is one of the goals (although not written as a SMART goal) to include in a broad range of SMART goals. And, no, I’m not in a position to design a practical plan for moving the Church forward and upward as this should come from the Pope and bishops (although I’m happy to assist). And therein lies the real issue that keeps us on this merry-go-round of constant defining and redefining the problems in the Church (again, never truly defining the problem by approaching this in a practical problem-solving manner) – those leading the Church have failed to lead, have failed to approach these problems in the Church in a practical, problem-solving manner (guided by Christ through the Holy Spirit) instead of a political one (guided by modernist ideology and selfish ambition). And instead of assuming their role in true leadership, they pass it off on laity – “You all go and evangelize; we’re too busy playing politics (among other things not worth mentioning).”

    There are passages of Scripture in the first three chapters of Revelation where Jesus Himself speaks to churches that have failed – much like the Church of today – and he warns them that He will come and judge them and remove their lampstand. He was speaking, by the way, to the bishops of those churches who represent the members. The churches are rebuked by Jesus for “loss of first love”; “false teaching”; “lack of discernment and toleration of heresy”; “dead works”; and being “spiritually blind, bankrupt, naked, lukewarm”. Pretty much describes what we see today. And the solution, according to Jesus Himself: “remember, repent, do the works done AT FIRST; be faithful unto death; repent; hold fast and keep Christ’s works till the end, keep the Word and repent, hold fast what you have, buy gold, white garments, and salve from Christ, and be zealous and repent.” The common theme is obvious – REPENT. Here we have problems, consequences, and solutions. This is the starting point for good problem-solving processes to begin. And there are plenty of books on problem-solving that have been used in the corporate world for decades, which might be a good place to start.

    • Might we propose–that if handled deftly and by the clergy first–clear witnessing and teaching on “Eucharistic coherence” can have a radiance transforming all else of what ails us. This is more than a program or mere “goal” of project-church. (If this were not so, why would it be opposed by the termites nested in high places?)

      True, doing the right thing in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, often can only aggravate current damages. But on this point–the Read Presence as the sacramental center of the Church–the necessary and very opportune time is always now.

  5. Evangelizing, and anything else will have to wait until lockdown is over.

    That is where it is necessary for the church to start, decouple from the modern world as fully as possible.
    Until then be ruled by it.

  6. “There is no accommodating these world views within authentic Christianity.”
    Well said, the plain truth with blistering clarity.
    One is left with the question as to why the episcopate which, from its heights to its depths, is unable/unwilling to accept this fact and disengage from its lip lock with the practical atheism presently masquerading as “theology.”
    I am left to believe that we are besieged with a protracted adolescent ecclesial culture in a desperate enterprise for affirmation, currency and relevancy at any cost. Presently the world does not hold the Church in contempt because of its conformity to its Master, but mournfully because of its gratuitous pathetic pandering. Would that it be that John 15:18-19 had more that some whispering echo in the current savagery we shoulder in both Church and society.

  7. If we are in a “life and death struggle”, and we are, then maybe we should be focused on winning it. The best way to win is to go on the offensive. Take St Paul’s advice, stop reacting and start attacking.

  8. Evangelization must include, IMHO, renewal of the OTHER Sacrament/Vocation at the service of Communion and thus the Christian family. St. John Paul calls for as much (Familiaris consortio, nos. 65, 70-71). Everything else, like most “faith formation,” is remedial work at best, a waste of time at worst, rescuing parents from the sacred promises they made at their child/ren’s baptism and from their own ongoing growth in holiness as “pastors” of their domestic church. As the Council taught, the domestic church constitutes the Church-in-miniature with its own mission (Familiaris consortio, no. 17 – 64). Its health and holiness is indispensable and is organic to the Body of Christ. Begin with improved and evangelizing marriage preparation, commensurate with the dignity, mission, and divine imprint. The Church would not knowingly ordain a man to Orders with the level of faith or understanding of the call and mission of Orders, which we tolerate in too many engaged couples, thus laying a shaky foundation for the conjugal sacrament that re-presents the Church to itself.

  9. Great article! Thanks for this.

    “Does life mean anything?” “What’s right and wrong?” “Where was God?” “Why did God allow this to happen” “Is man nothing more than an animal?” “Of what use is religion?” “Has science proven that God doesn’t exist?”

    All these questions are fair game where there is human freedom. It falls on all Catholics to provide convincing answers and deliver them authentically in the cultural parlance of our time. This means as individuals we must learn to articulate faith with reason and through art. We’ve obviously done a pretty crappy job as of late. It’s never too late!

    • Agree twice with Jack Gist: Great article, and “we [individual Christians] must learn to articulate faith with reason and through art.” As one of those individuals, I know that I am abundantly blessed with voices speaking truth, other Christians whom I trust, appearing in print on CWR (Jack Gist among them!), on the radio (Drew Mariani, Patrick Madrid, Cale Clarke and others), and in many beautiful books (I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Spitzer, SJ). We have princes of the Church like Cardinals Sarah and Burke whom I consider geniuses and great leaders. IMO, we have fully enough intellectual, and of course, spiritual, support for us to join the battle against Modernism and Nihilism. St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us! OLPH, pray for us!

  10. I would suggest that perhaps part of problem is that the Church no longer teaches and perhaps no longer believes that God punishes even the worst of evil. But if there is no punishment, exactly what do we mean by mercy?

    • Mark, I certainly agree with you. St. John says in scripture, “We all know this, God rewards every good and punishes every sin”. After Vatican ll liberals claimed that “God does not punish sin” and that it was declared by the Council. Then they would go on making lame jokes about the Church’s past on calling for penance. Among the teachings of the Church, penance for the remission of sins was strongly taught. Fridays as days of penance, Lent, Advent, the obtaining of Indulgences from the spiritual treasury of the Church, and a host of other ways to satisfy God’s Justice. Today we don’t hear anything about satisfying God’s Justice for our sins. This has caused the most devastating damage to the Church. Vatican ll didn’t condemn that God punishes sin but then it didn’t really speak of it either. So the result is that Catholics live with the punishment of their sins looming over them with them having no knowledge that God’s wrath awaits them. Was this the direct cause of Vatican ll or that of the spirit of Vatican ll? Nevertheless, this is causing supreme damage to the Church. Many have now gone to eternal punishment all because the Modernist heretics took over the Church and changed all Divine teachings.

  11. Materialism, Nihilism have as their origin the collapse of certitude. Certitude, defined by Aquinas as apprehension of first principles, when subject and predicate are apprehended in one act of knowing. Self-evident as such indisputable. At this moment in history appeal to rational argument will be met with opposed convictions that there are no universal first principles rather reasonable options. Argument can be made based on universal principles of right and wrong that all except the irrational acknowledge. From that entree is the best approach in this writer’s conviction, that of the Apostle to philosophy in general. Following Paul’s disappointing experience with philosophers at the Areopagus he left for Corinth now making his primary evangelical appeal “Christ and him crucified’. Hard truth. Skeptics, atheists if they will respond favorably, will to truth that strikes to the depths of the soul.

  12. Dear Mr.Doran,

    One comment I would like to add to your piece: I do not believe the successful treatment will come from dioceses, parishes and schools. The sprigs of hope are in organic, peripheral, and informal communities that are forming within the Church and even with those formally outside the Church. It is under the radar and I believe will surprise many of our leaders in years to come. The good pastors will find them and at some point help them,but rearranging mission statements and programs within existing structures that are seriously diminished, will have little or no impact. Fidelity will require great creativity, boldness and action from groups of friends and families, not formalized organizations. This is a positive view, not a denunciation of the status quo. Like Mr. Covey says, the public victories will come from many private ones over time.
    Thank you for engaging us as I think of how relevant Mary’s Magnificat is on this day and at this time.

    Dan Hoffman

  13. Christ created the Church to change the world. We must stay away from politics, politicians, and our manmade government(golden calf). The Church must stand on it’s own two feet.

  14. Excellent thought article on our Church today. What we need is a “new” St. John the Evangelist, a person or people (plural) who would make straight the way of the Lord. A person who identifies the emptiness of hearts and souls that exist because of our world’s materialism and nihilism. We need people to clearly, concisely put in front of our worlds’ people that their hearts and souls are in fact empty, daily, regularly. We need to identify those who have taken over and “dumped” the Judeo-Christian foundations and allowed our culture and those who seem to claim the title of “Masters of Culture”, re-define morals, ethic, RIGHT and TRUTH. First step is to admit that there is nothing in this world that will satisfy our hearts and souls; second is to want to find that which will and third to identify that what will fill the void is God, His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

  15. The diagnosis is simple. Francis is a heretic. And those who follow him are at least material heretics.

    Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell wouldn’t prevail against His Church. There is only one conclusion.

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