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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