Tranquility in the Church is a rare and beautiful thing, with an emphasis on that word, “rare.” And this explains why two of my favorite saints are Francis of Assisi and Augustine of Hippo.
Both men lived at a time of conflict within the Church and turmoil in the surrounding culture. And neither man was weak or naïve. Francis was very far from the effeminate flower child of popular imagination. He was a formidable man and a demanding religious founder with an intense devotion to the Eucharist. And Augustine was a faithful shepherd to his people in a world of widespread heresy; a bishop not just with a great intellect, but also with the backbone to speak and fight for the truth. Which he did, vigorously, throughout his ministry.
And that brings us to a paradox. The Church is our Mater et Magistra, our mother and teacher, the source of our solace. She exists to transform the world through the proclamation of Jesus Christ. And history shows that, on the balance, she’s done a pretty good job of it. The Church is, and always has been, loaded with unknown, everyday saints, and a great many other good people trying to be saints. And yet, right alongside them in the Church is an energetic minority of frauds, hypocrites, and villains.
In the real world, the Church is peopled and led by human beings. And humans are creatures with flaws. And yet, here we are 20 centuries later, still yearning for something more than this world; still praising Jesus Christ; still believing in the Church and her mission. Something sustains and ennobles the Church over the terrain of hard centuries despite our best efforts at ruining her. And that “something” is a loving God who never abandons his bride.
So here’s the point: When we look to the future as Christians, there’s good news and bad news. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as a “fighting religion” for a reason. There’s evil in the world, and evil in our own hearts. The process of conversion involves unavoidable conflict. But the Gospel is good news. And in the end, the good news outweighs the bad. There are too many reasons for hope and confidence, too many sources of gratitude and joy, to ever justify despair. Reread the letters of St. Paul: Here’s a man who was rejected, beaten, jailed, and run out of town by angry mobs, again and again. But he never lost his confidence or joy because he knew and loved Jesus Christ. And with just those two weapons—the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ—he reset the course the world. That happened once. And it can happen again, starting with each of us.
Of course, the bad news is still bad. And bad news does serve a purpose. It’s medicinal, like a cold shower for drunks. It gets our attention. It suggests that maybe we need to sober up and start thinking and acting differently. We tend to associate the word “apocalypse” with disaster and suffering; the end of the world. But that’s not really accurate. Our English word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word apokalyptein, which means to uncover things that are concealed. An apocalypse shows us the truth. And Somebody famous once said that the truth will make us free; not necessarily comfortable, but free to change the way we think and act. So since we’re now living through a kind of “apocalypse,” we might profitably focus on three very simple items: first, where we are now as the Church in the United States; second, how and why we got here; and third—and more happily—what we can do about it.
So, regarding Item No. 1, where we are now: Most of us can already sense that the Church in this country now operates in a very complicated environment. Government is increasingly unfriendly. Much of the media establishment is hostile. The clergy abuse scandal hurt a lot of good people and damaged Church credibility. Catholic sexual morality—which undergirds the whole biblical understanding of who and what it means to be human—is often seen as a form of bigotry. Baptisms, sacramental marriages, and church attendance are generally down. As many as one in three priests nominated for the episcopate now decline the ministry because of the burdens and criticism that come with the job.
We’re living through a multi-generational sea change in beliefs and values. It has enormous momentum. It won’t be easily reversed. And it’s causing both ambiguity and division within Church leadership, and a sense of confusion and powerlessness among individual believers—or at least those believers who are paying attention. The country I grew up in no longer really exists. And there’s no quick-fix to the problems we behaved ourselves into. The Wall Street Journal published data just last week (March 27) showing a sharp decline in American attitudes toward religion, patriotism, community involvement, tolerance for other people’s opinions, and even having children.
So let’s move on to Item No. 2: how and why we got here. In the wake of the clergy abuse scandal, it’s tempting to blame our bishops for just about everything wrong with the Church. That would be convenient. It would also be wrong. I’ll say more about bishops shortly. In the meantime, we should realize that the main factors now rewiring our culture come from outside the Church. And they’re beyond any religious leader’s control.
I’m a father and grandfather. I’m as angry as everyone else about the clergy abuse scandal. I dealt with its human damage for more than half of my career as a diocesan staffer. But we’d be fools to think that weird and wicked sex is somehow uniquely Catholic. Because it’s very clearly not. We live in a hypersexualized society. It impacts everybody and everything. And the Church is not immune. We now have a culture as soaked in hardcore pornography as Rome was in the First Century A.D.
And while we’re on the subject of Rome, it’s the distinguished historian Tom Holland, not some right-wing alarmist, who draws parallels between the end of the Roman Republic and the declining health of today’s Western democracies. Whatever America once was, and to some extent still is, it’s also an empire with global interests, increasing class divisions, and a massive, obscene concentration of wealth in its leadership elites. Empires are big, and bigness is a problem. The machinery of empires is remote from the beliefs and concerns of the people they claim to serve. In practice, majority opinion doesn’t matter. Elite opinion does.
Given the last three years, that should be obvious.
There’s one more key external factor that shapes our current circumstances. The moveable-type press was invented to print the Bible. And it did that really well. Another thing it did really well was fuel the Reformation and 150 years of political turmoil in Europe before a new equilibrium was reached. That was the effect of just one technological advance. The tech world today is permanently fluid. The speed of today’s technological changes dwarfs anything in human experience. That creates emotional turbulence, and it has a nonstop, unsettling impact on society and on the individual human psyche. Simply to stay sane, we need to somehow restore a sense of permanence and transcendent meaning in minds that are baked to a crisp by information overload. And that seems like a natural task for the Church.
So why hasn’t the Church done better in her response? Lots of reasons. We might start by blaming two generations of bad catechesis since Vatican II. Or maybe the absence of beauty in our worship. When young people run to the old Latin Mass, two of the things they’re running away from are mediocrity and ugliness in mainstream Catholic liturgy and preaching. The point is, beauty inspires. The lack of it repels. And the Church, in too many of our parishes, has too little compelling beauty; too little reason to love her as a mother.
There are three other internal factors to quickly note in explaining our circumstances. The Church is a big ship. She turns slowly. That’s a strength, but also a weakness. She’s not structured to adapt rapidly to change. We American Catholics also cling to the delusion that the Church is a valued partner in addressing the nation’s issues of public concern. She should be; she once was; but increasingly she’s not. And finally, our Catholic parents and grandparents worked very hard for many decades to prove their patriotism, to join the American Dream, and to make a material success of their lives. And they succeeded. They succeeded so well that many of us today are indistinguishable from everyone else in our customs and moral convictions—including those people who reject everything about the religion we claim to follow.
To put it very simply: We’ve forgotten who we are; what our baptism means; what a genuinely Catholic life invites and requires.
At this point, some are no doubt wondering where the “good” news is. So let’s move along to Item No. 3: What we can do now; what we need to do now.
If we call ourselves Christians, we need to stop thinking and acting like embarrassed losers. Jesus Christ has already done the hard work. We Catholics seem to have a special charism for whining. We have a gift for defeating ourselves. Bad news is only deadly if we accept it as the last word. The one thing history proves, again and again, is that the Christian Church is very, very good at the long game. But she does need us to wake up and own our mission; own our discipleship.
And while we’re on the subject of history, we need to remember more of it. History is the memory of a people. A person without memory is a person without identity, and therefore without a purpose. The same applies to the Church. The Jewish people have survived centuries of persecution because they relentlessly remember who they are. But Americans are chronically bad at history because we don’t like it. We’re a novus ordo seclorum; a “new order of the ages.” We tend to see history as a burden; an obstacle to our ability to reinvent ourselves. For American Catholics, though, that attitude is toxic. As Catholics, we’re part of an on-going salvation story that goes back 2,000 years. And we need to treasure that. History always teaches us two vital things: humility, because we have a remarkable genius for screwing things up; and hope, because even at our worst, God never abandons his people.
As for our bishops: All of them have different skills, different personalities, and different diocesan situations: some urban, some rural; some financially sound, others poor and struggling. But they’re—not all, but dominantly—good men committed to their people. We need to love and respect our bishops, because the work they do is consuming and often thankless. That doesn’t preclude legitimate criticism of our leaders. Anger is not always a sin, and we have a duty to speak the truth. Christian fidelity and obedience are very different from servility. Any happily married couple can tell you that. My lovely bride of 52 years has no trouble helping me see my defects with exquisite clarity. But it’s hard to convert the guy next door, much less the world, if we’re busy demeaning the men who lead us.
Here’s another point: All Christian activism, projects, and ministries fail—inevitably fail—unless they’re rooted in contemplation. One of the priests I spoke with recently runs the parish restructuring effort for a major urban diocese in the east. It’s a job that pretty well duplicates the worst pains of purgatory. He deals with buildings, budgets, real estate, canon lawyers, civil lawyers, unhappy parishioners, and testy pastors nearly every day. I asked him which two things he would name to start a fundamental renewal in Catholic life. His answer—and he didn’t hesitate for a second—was personal confession and Eucharistic adoration. Both involve intimacy with the Lord, mostly in silence. Without that intimacy, everything else in Christian life is empty noise.
Here’s another point worth noting: I once asked Mike C., who’s a permanent deacon and a family friend, what he thought the Church would look like in 20 years. His answer was interesting. He said he didn’t know, and didn’t spend much time worrying about it. You see, Mike is an ex-cop; a former police lieutenant in a major eastern city. Every day for more than two decades he would show up at his desk, and ask himself—and I’m quoting him here—“What’s the mission? What’s my purpose? What can I learn from the past without repeating it? What can I do today to improve the future?”
We have limited influence on the future, which in any case doesn’t yet exist. But we have a lot of influence on the choices we make and the actions we take, here and now. “Now” matters. It matters because all the “nows” in a lifetime add up to the kind of people we become, and the kind of world we help to heal or degrade. Our power as individuals lies in what we do now; in our willingness to speak and live the truth today, now, whatever the cost. It lies in our refusal to cooperate with a culture of distortion and deceit—like the soul-murdering gender theory that’s being forced down our throats today.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve come across dozens of extraordinary Catholic men and women. Despite all of today’s anxiety about the future, the Church has a deep well of talent and apostolates that do astonishing work: the Augustine Institute, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Catholic Leadership Institute, the Leonine Forum, the Napa Institute, and so many others. And that’s a huge source of hope. The 10th century—the 900s A.D.—was one of the darkest periods in Christian history, filled with corruption and bad Church leaders; Pope John XII, to take just one example, was a murderer and a sex addict. But that same century was also the beginning of the great Cluniac renewal of the monasteries. And that led to a resurgence of Catholic piety and the great papal reforms of the 11th century. It’s always been so . . . and so it is now. God uses even our sins and failures as the soil to grow new life.
So here’s a parting thought. We have the command from Jesus himself to “make disciples of all nations,” to transform our culture with the integrity of our lives. And that reminds me of some words from my favorite Chinese theologian, Mao Zedong.
Yes, it’s true: Mao was a mass murderer and a hideous excuse for a human being. Nobody’s perfect. But even very wicked men can have very shrewd strategic minds. And given his behavior, it seems only right to steal from him. Mao wrote an essay in 1938 with the title “On Protracted War,” and in it he said, “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive.” I’ve never forgotten those words: People, not things, are decisive. Christians, as C.S. Lewis wrote, belong to a fighting religion; a religion engaged in a nonviolent struggle for the soul of the world. Our weapons are faith, hope and charity; justice, mercy, and courage. But all of those virtues are useless without the men and women to live and witness them . . . because people, not things, are decisive. That’s why each of us is so important.
The great Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once said that it’s “only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” He wrote those words in a letter from prison just months before he was hanged by the Third Reich. Gratitude is the beginning of joy, no matter what our circumstances. And of course, that’s at the very heart of Catholic Christian life. That’s what the word “eucharist” means. It comes from the Greek word eukharistia, which means thanksgiving. And for a Christian, “thanksgiving”—even on the most trying of days—is the true and fitting word to close on.
(Note: The above text is revised and adapted from remarks to a Desert Disciples gathering [April 5] and a Benedictine College lecture [March 24].)
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