Published March 4, 2020
We’re living in the midst of a second Reformation. That may seem implausible. Life today is very different from 500 years ago. Theology, to take just one example, profoundly shaped human thought, culture, and social organization in 1520. Today it’s a marginal discipline. Religion has declining public influence.
As technology advances and reshapes society with new modes of thought, the process of secularization speeds up. Inherited religious certainties weaken, become irrelevant to many adults and incomprehensible to the young. Fewer than half of U.S. Catholics now believe in Christ’s “Real Presence” in the Eucharist.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The atheist ideologies of the last century still had a kind of “religious” dimension – e.g., Marx’s belief in the eventual withering away of the state. Today’s advanced consumer economies are different. They neither dispute nor attempt to disprove things supernatural, but rather, as the philosopher Augusto Del Noce noted, render them uninteresting, unintelligible, and ultimately absent. Thus, they’re more thoroughly atheist.
It’s in this sense – a revolution in how we think about and organize the world; a world where the idea of God is ridiculous because it has no “utility” – that we’re living a new “Re-formation.” We’re also living a huge paradox because Man is an instinctively believing animal. We’re all believers in something. We all take certain things on faith, and then build our reasoning on those articles of faith.
Without God at its center, society always reverts to some form of idolatry. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger wrote, “there is no worse idol than that which imitates the true God.” In his own French laicist environment, he saw how a society that removes God from public life and discourse invariably puts itself and its concerns in his place – no matter how much religious “neutrality” it claims.
Luckily, people still suffer and die. This is a source of hope. Mortality anchors us to questions of meaning. And questions of meaning, seriously engaged, open a path to clear thinking and a search for answers, answers that only Jesus Christ can fully satisfy.
As Catholics in the years ahead, we might profitably focus our concerns on four main areas:
First, the uniqueness and fragility of the American Experiment. The religious roots of the United States were, in part, a rejection of the expansive and idolatrous state. A strong version of religious freedom is essential to American public life. Ordered liberty with limited government can only succeed if citizens have a deep reservoir of self-mastery and guiding beliefs, reinforced by communities of shared moral convictions. Personal excess and indifference to community eat away a res publica.
Second, sex. Sex is hardly a neglected topic. But one central crisis of our age is anthropological – in other words, who and what is a human being? Is being “human” something fixed, a part of God-created nature, or moldable according to the will?
Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution was, in retrospect, a work of perverse genius. He foresaw in the 1930s that lasting revolutions take place not politically or economically, but in personal sexual relations. For Reich, marriage and the family were prime targets, and America, with its deep streak of individualism and conflicted Puritan roots, was the ideal seedbed for the revolution he sought. Human sexuality – how, when, why, and under what conditions we discipline sexual desire and behavior – defines what a culture means by being “human.” Sexual anarchy inevitably diminishes claims of any “sacred” human dignity and increases the need for a coercive state.
Third, Church reform. American civic life needs religion to thrive; and not just any religion, but specifically Jewish/Christian belief. “Spirituality” is too easily reduced to private therapy, and it lacks communal strength. Only the Catholic Church has the experience and organizational depth to succeed at resisting dehumanizing trends in our national life.
But the Church has been crippled by decades of internal post-conciliar divisions and cultural assimilation, and weakened further by sex abuse. She lacks the ability to produce consistently strong clergy leadership; to realistically face her problems; and to quickly and creatively address them. Her current structures are classically bureaucratic and sclerotic, starting at the very top.
Fourth, the role of laypeople. “Clericalism” is as much a lay illness as it is a clergy problem. It enables laziness and provides a convenient alibi for many laypeople to avoid the missionary obligations of their baptism. It invites people not to repudiate the Church on well-reasoned grounds, but to drift away from her out of irritation and indifference. Ironically, at the same time, lay Catholic leaders, movements, organizations, and communities shoulder a heavily disproportionate share of the evangelizing energy today in the United States.
This is not without precedent. Church reform has rarely started with bishops and senior clergy; historically, it forces its way up from below. On a practical level, it becomes important to understand which lay leaders, movements, and organizations are most effective, and why.
The point is this: The “next America” that Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote about a decade ago is here, now. Over the next generation, the Church in the United States will face a very painful contraction, loss of influence, and right-sizing. This is not necessarily a bad thing; seeing and understanding reality accurately are the first steps in changing our reality for the better.
Renewing the soul of a culture (and through it, the political and economic structures it sustains) is the expertise of the Christian Church. And renewing the Church in our age will not primarily be a matter of technical skill or organizational structure or material resources – as important as those things are – but the persuasive power of faithful lay witness.
Awakening lay people to their vocation and the meaning of “holiness;” steeping them in fidelity to the Church and her teaching; and empowering them to take leadership in the Church. Such is the way God begins to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5) in the Church, in the nation, and in the world.
© 2020 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.