Church history records the incessant fluctuations—the triumphs and setbacks, the flourishing and decay—of the Body of Christ. Throughout the past century, first in Europe and now in America, we have witnessed a cascade of alarming losses experienced by the Roman Catholic Church, the mainline Protestant denominations, and now many of the the hitherto robust evangelical American churches. A spate of recent treatises document and endeavor to explain what’s happened—primarily to the largest of these communions, the Catholic Church, but extending to others as well—and generally offering suggestions as to what’s to be done.
Among the most notable is The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, c. 2003) by David Carlin, a sociology and philosophy professor whose articles have appeared in publications as disparate as First Things and the New York Times. As a committed Catholic, he’s dismayed by what’s happened but feels impelled to deal honestly with it. Thus he argues: “The root problem is that the Catholic Church in the United States has largely ceased to be Catholic,” turning itself into a culturally-acceptable and innocuous “generic Christianity or Christianity-in-general” (#34 in Kindle)—one of many declining “denominations.” By discarding one “offensive” dogma after another, the Church now finds itself standing for nothing distinctively Catholic, softly proclaiming little more than “a gentle wish: ‘Can’t we all just be nice to one another?’” (#44).
Lacking a distinctive message, the Catholic Church has dramatically been imploding for 50 years. Easily accessible data reveal the startling decline of weekly church attendance (from around 75 percent in 1965 to 25 percent today), parochial schools (4.5 million grade-school students in 1965, 1.9 million in 2002), monastic communities, and priestly vocations (slipping from 49,000 in 1965 to 4,700 in 2002). Large numbers of professing Catholics no longer support traditional doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, Real Presence) or ethics (e.g. condemning of cohabitation, contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexuality). Should this trajectory continue, Carlin fears, the Church will simply wither away, along with mainline Protestant denominations she’s chosen to imitate.
The Catholic collapse resulted, Carlin thinks, when three currents converged “to produce the ‘perfect storm’”—1) implementing “the spirit of Vatican II;” 2) escaping the Catholic “ghetto;” and 3) the ‘60s’ cultural (i.e. sexual) revolution. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics moved within a Church unchanged for many centuries, but suddenly, in accord with its “spirit,” much in their “immutable” faith seemed up for grabs. The largely ethnic ghettos formed by turn-of-the-century Catholic immigrants, providing nurture and comfort, dissolved in the ‘60s as Catholics (graduating from elite universities and working in successful corporations) shed their Irish or Italian identities and defined themselves as fundamentally American. Their freedom to thrive as Americans was signaled by John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, a testament to their acceptance in this country as well as an opportunity to blend in with their fellow citizens. Then the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s—a sustained rebellion against authority of any sort— “blindsided” the Church.
Probing these phenomena for deeply philosophical perspectives, Carlin identifies the Cultural Relativism that “seduced a generation” as one of the primary reasons for the Catholic collapse. University students exposed to the anthropological works of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead came to believe cultures shape persons and different cultures prescribe and approve dramatically different, purely man-made moralities. What’s right within one culture might be considered wrong in another—and there’s no transcultural standard whereby behaviors can be condemned. Along with Cultural Relativism, Ethical Emotivism was widely embraced. Influential philosophers declared every one should simply follow his feelings, consulting his heart when making choices. More than a bumper sticker, “If it feels good, do it” became a prescription for morality! Finally, fearing to be identified as an illustration of The Authoritarian Personality (written by members of the Frankfurt School who had emigrated to the United States), many Catholics spurned conservative traditions and mouthed the “Question Authority!” mantra.
Such developments firmly established Secularism as “the dominant American paradigm” by 1970. Its “antinomian moral theory entailed a rejection of a long list of traditional religion-based moral rules” regarding sexual behavior and targeted the “family ideal as downright oppressive”—especially to women who needed to be freed from the shackles of patriarchy. Celebrating tolerance as its singular ideal, Secularism powerfully impacted all segments of American society, which quickly cast loose from its religious anchors. To Carlin, the 1962 Supreme Court’s Engle v. Vitale decision (banning prescribed prayers in the public schools) marks the triumph of a militantly secular movement in this nation. Gaining momentum, secularists worked to dismantle the traditional Judeo-Christian moral consensus which had shaped the country. Thus the prayer-ban Court decision was soon followed judicial edicts legalizing contraception, abortion, and (just recently) same-sex marriages. Morality to many Americans became mainly a matter of personal preferences—following what Carlin identifies as the “Personal Liberty Principle” (PLP).
Conservative (Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant, Traditional Catholic) Christians certainly rallied to oppose this anti-Christian secularist agenda, sparking the “culture war” that still divides America. But numbers of Liberal Christians in both mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic circles easily embraced it and precipitated thereby the radical decline in both numbers and doctrinal integrity they have suffered. Liberal churches, Carlin believes, will inevitably fade away. And conservative churches, to survive, must awaken to the the threats they face from today’s Secularism. It’s an enemy which must be clearly identified and vigorously resisted. Rather than adjust to the world, churches that survive must defy it, living in accord with Supernatural, rather than natural, standards.
Carlin’s treatise is remarkably clear and cogent. Though focused upon the Catholic Church, his analysis easily extends to all Christian churches. And while basically pessimistic, his counsels and suggestions are worth heeding.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One of the most widely discussed recent publications is Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (N.Y.: Penguin Random House, c. 2017). Over the decades, Dreher moved through Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism to finally join the Russian Orthodox Church. A respected journalist and unabashed believer, he writes sorrowfully, lamenting the catastrophic losses Christendom has recently experienced and believing that the “culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives” (p. 3). Consequently, a nihilistic secularism prevails. Not only have abortion, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage gained sanction, but today’s Millennials seem unusually disinterested in the Christian faith and have virtually no knowledge of its content. Philip Rieff’s telling insight—“The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling”—seems sadly confirmed. We face challenges comparable to those Christians such as St. Augustine faced as the Roman Empire collapsed during the fifth century.
Whereas Augustine faced Vandals literally battering down the walls of his city as he died in 430 A.D., we confront home-grown, anti-Christian barbarians produced by important historical developments: 1) the 14th century’s emergence of philosophical nominalism; 2) the 16th century’s Protestant-driven fragmentation of Christendom; 3) the acidic impact of the 18th century’s Enlightenment; 4) the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution; and 5) the 20th century’s Sexual Revolution. “Now we are on the far side of a Sexual Revolution that has been nothing short of catastrophic for Christianity. It struck near the core of biblical teaching onset and the human person and has demolished the fundamental Christian concept of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings. There can be no peace between Christianity and there Sexual Revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the Sexual Revolution advances, Christianity must retreat—and it has, faster than most people would have thought possible” (p. 202).
More profoundly, the Faith that fomented Western Civilization has been sidelined by a secular humanism that makes Man, not God, its ultimate concern. Thus Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, determined to forever establish abortion as a constitutionally guaranteed right in, declared, in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” A nation committed to such a precept will have little patience with orthodox Christians, and Dreher says: “The church, a community that authoritatively teaches and disciples its members, cannot withstand a revolution in which each member becomes, in effect, his own pope. Churches . . . that are nothing more than a loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own ‘truth,’ are no longer the church in any meaningful sense, because there is no shared belief” (p. 44).
The time has come, Dreher thinks, to radically separate from this sinful world and singularly seek to be the church, challenging rather than cooperating with mainstream social structures. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwindable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation” (p. 12). This involves embracing what he calls the “Benedict Option,” a proposal that grew out of his reading of Alasdair McIntyre’s suggestion in After Virtue (his pivotal treatise on ethics); McIntyre said cultural barbarians have again inundated Western Civilization and it’s time to await “a new—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” leading us to build monastic preserves devoted to maintaining truly Christian faith and practice.
To better understand St. Benedict (a sixth century reformer), Dreher travelled to Norcia, Italy, and visited with a dozen (mainly young American) monks who recently reopened the ancient monastery, 200 years after it had been closed by Napoleon. There he saw the ancient Benedictine Rule, blending prayer and manual labor, carefully followed. Though the Rule was intended for monastics, its truth can easily be extended to any Christian community (family; school; church) committed to shaping its life in accord with love for God and man. Politically, this means abandoning the effort to “take back America” and follow the examples of dissidents within Communist countries (bearing witness to eternal truths—“living in truth,” as did Vaclav Havel), and fighting for religious liberty. It also leads to homeschooling or establishing classical Christian schools for children, living prayerfully, creating a robust Christian culture. Above all, it means making family (a “domestic monastery”) and church the absolute foci of everything we do.
For those interested in joining Dreher and embracing the Benedict Option, he provides examples and resources. Clearly there are small communities around the world, such as Tipi Loschi in Italy and the Saint Constantine School in Houston, who are committed to living out their faith in radically countercultural ways. And though the Benedict Option will never be embraced by large numbers of Christians it remains a viable means whereby the Faith is preserved and transmitted to coming generations.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has many concerns for the future of Christianity, but in Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, c. 1917), he balances those concerns with a robust confidence in the strength of both individual believers and the Church herself to overcome them. He especially urges us to put things into perspective, noting how dramatically a truly global Christianity has emerged during the past century. Thus: “In Africa, 9 million converts enter the Catholic Church each year. By 2030, if current trends hold, China may have the largest Christian population the world” (p. 1). In Europe and America the churches may be struggling, but around the world they may be enjoying their finest hour! And despite much bad news, there’s much encouraging news in both Europe and America as believers creatively respond to our postmodern and increasingly post-Christian world.
Rather than despair, Chaput urges us to remember that there have always been, as Augustine taught, two cities—the City of God and the city of man. “We are born for the City of God. The road home leads through the City of Man. So we are strangers in a strange land, yes” (p. 246). But the Church has been forever attacked and sometimes withered away in various geographic regions. For 2000 years the Church of Jesus Christ has endured—and surely she will do so unto He returns. Unlike Rod Dreher, who takes St. Benedict as his exemplar, Chaput celebrates St. Augustine, a bishop caring for his flock in the North African city of Hippo. “For Augustine, the classic civic virtues named by Cicero—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Therefore, political engagement is—or at least it can be—a worthy Christian task” (p. 14). Despite its many flaws, this world is still a good world—what Augustine called a “smiling place.” Despairing at the conditions of society can be as sinful as despairing of one’s own salvation. “As Augustine said in his sermons, it’s no use complaining about the times, because we are the times. How we live shapes them” (p. 17).
Turning to our country, the United States, Chaput urges us to remember our godly heritage, honoring what’s good before railing against what’s bad. Though never perfect, this nation has embraced the Christian religion and encouraged its “free exercise.” Protestants and Catholics alike have supported America’s guiding principles, routinely giving thanks for the freedoms they enjoyed in this great land. As late as 1955, a leading Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, could still assert that the American commonwealth “‘is not intelligible and cannot be made to work except by men who possess the public philosophy’ that the founders first brought to building it.” Inasmuch as possible, it remains our task to recover the Founders’ vision and make sure the constitutional republic they established will survive.
Yet times have changed, Chaput acknowledges, honestly documenting the many harmful cultural currents which have eroded much of the nation’s spiritual and ethical landscape. As would be expected of a Catholic bishop, he devotes considerable attention to the baneful consequences of the Sexual Revolution and the dissolution of the family. But he also looks more deeply, lamenting changes in our educational system which shows little interest in any search for ultimate Truth. “What the modern world really wants, as Josef Pieper said, “‘is flattery, and it does not matter how much of it is a lie’” (p. 226). Indeed, we’re surrounded by what Scott Peck described as the People of the Lie. But a healthy society requires the careful use of words, and Pieper noted that “‘the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word.’ And the degradation of man by man, and the systematic physical violence against human beings, have their beginnings ‘when the word loses its dignity,’ because ‘through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality’” (p. 122).
Amidst all the dreary details portraying a post-Christian world, it’s easy to despair and retreat to well-fortified cultural castles. We must honestly assess and respond to the challenges we face, knowing that the “Church of tomorrow won’t look like the Church of today, much less of memory” (p. 187). It may very well be smaller and poorer, but it can become more disciplined and effective. Neither despair nor isolation are options for Chaput. Christians necessarily have hope because Jesus arose from the grave! “This small moment, unseen by any human eye, turned the world upside-down and changed history forever” (p. 146). As a supernatural virtue, hope enables us to see everything in the light of eternity, never despairing of what God may in fact bring to pass. Thus it’s our duty, John Henry Newman said, to set forth on “‘ventures for eternal life without the absolute certainty of success’” (p.152). Despair results from trusting ourselves. Hope springs eternal because we trust God. Trusting God means following His precepts, summed up so powerfully by Jesus in the Beatitudes, to which Chaput devotes many pages, and embracing the call to holiness as have saints throughout the centuries.
For guidance in the 21st century Chaput finds fascinating clues in a second century document, The Letter to Diognetus—a wonderful manual for Christians marching as pilgrims though a hostile land. In that ancient letter we’re reminded that the Christian Faith is not a man-made construct. Rather it was given us by the “Creator of all, the invisible God himself, who from heaven established the truth and the holy incomprehensible word among men, and fixed it firmly in their hearts.” So Christians live normally, following the daily customs (food; drink; clothing, work) of their countrymen. “They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast off their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.
It is true, the Letter to Diagnetus says, that Christians are “‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.” In sum: “What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwelling the world, but do not belong to the world. The soul, which is invisible, is kept under guard in the visible body; in the same way Christians are recognized when they are in the world, but their religions remains unseen.” Yet even when unseen they animate and uplift the world. Loving God and others, Christians are truly the leaven, the salt, and the light of the world. Not always triumphant, they are called not to succeed but to remain faithful, bearing witness to the Gospel—that greatest of all truths, the Good News the world always needs to hear, especially the post-modern world that despairs of any truths at all, much less one overarching Truth. Our task, as John Henry Newman said, is “not to turn the whole earth into a heaven, but to bring down a heaven upon earth’” (p. 218).
To do that, knowing that “beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men” as Dostoyevsky said, part of our task is to preserve and cultivate beauty. Wherever we encounter it, beauty points upward, symbolizing a transcendent Reality. Discerning beauty in God’s creation ennobles us and should lead us to tend it wisely. “Thus the spoiling of the earth with waste and the brutalizing of our human habitats with ugly art and buildings are not just clumsy mistakes of progress, but desecrations.” Militant Muslims vandalize Buddhist and Roman monuments; iconoclastic Puritans eviscerated cathedrals; “transgressive” modern artists defile the “image of God” in their depictions of human beings. Western Christian Culture was a God-centered culture, but “God has never been more cast out from the Western mind than he is today. Additionally, we live in an age when almost every scientific advance seems to be matched by some new cruelty in our entertainment, cynicism in our politics, ignorance of the past, consumer greed, subtle genocides, posing as rights like the cult of abortion, and a basic confusion about what—if anything distinctive at all—it means to be human” (p. 229).
We must remind the world of what it means to be human! The world needs no more “love, sweet love,” but Christians who live out the Love of God, bearing witness to the eternal verities of the City of God while living responsibly and robustly in the city of man, the best counsel available in our trying times.