Two Cheers for Pessimism

Published October 14, 2021

The Catholic Thing

I’ll start with a simple fact.  I’m angry most of the time.  And I’m not alone.  Most of the people I know are angry about something most of the time.  I’m angry at the Taliban.  I’m angry at China.  I’m angry at Donald Trump and his adolescent narcissism.  I’m angry at Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and all the other self-described Catholics in Washington who’ve turned abortion into a sacrament.  And most of all, I’m angry with myself for cultivating my anger.  For dwelling on it, enjoying it, and allowing it to become a poison not just in my own life, but in the life that I share with the people I love.

Now, if you multiply that by 30 or 90 or 150 million people, you get a sense of the real virus infecting so much of current American life.  Obviously, our culture has important strengths and positives.  We need to remember that.  It’s not just one vast landscape of rage-addicted troglodytes.  But anger is now a pervasive background radiation to our politics, our court battles, and even our conflicts within the Church.

The irony is that we live in the wealthiest, most successful democratic republic in history.  Even many of our poor are rich by the standards of half the world’s population.  So how do we account for the anger?  There’s no “one” reason.  In the Catholic solar system, bishops get blamed for everything.  And sometimes they earn it.  But bishops didn’t invent the birth-control pill.  They didn’t create the sexual anarchy that flowed from it.  Bishops didn’t invent the transistor, or the microchip, or the cell phone, or videogames, or gay dating apps, or the internet cocoon of pornography that’s destroyed millions of families and vocations.  And bishops don’t have a magic voodoo ray to cancel out the massively negative influence of popular culture on their people.

We’re living through a sea change in our politics, economy, technology, culture, and self-understanding.  This is obvious.  And the Church has survived sea changes before.  What’s unique about our current moment is what the social researcher, Hartmut Rosa, calls “acceleration and alienation.”  Our tech advances are changing not just the way we think and act. They’re also radically speeding up the rate of change.

This disrupts organizations and behaviors.  It undermines traditional loyalties and social stability.  We can’t digest one change before another overwhelms us.  And this renders individuals confused and frustrated.  Which then leads to a sense of powerlessness.  Which then triggers anger.  Which eventually burns us out in exhaustion.  Which then leads to cynicism, or acedia, or despair – or all three.  It doesn’t always play out this way.  Humans have amazing resilience.  But it’s too common a pattern to ignore.

So what does that mean for the Church?  For the next twenty-five years or so the road ahead will be rough for the Church in terms of resources, attendance, and infrastructure.  And if current trends continue, our culture’s attitudes toward Catholic belief are unlikely to improve.

We can mitigate the pain with intelligent planning and fresh evangelical energy.  But we can’t quick-fix problems we behaved ourselves into.  We’re suffering from outside factors we couldn’t predict and can’t control.  But we’re also harvesting the effects of a century of Catholic assimilation and naïve optimism about the compatibility of Catholic teaching and American culture.  I’m a big believer in the potential of Catholics to be a sanctifying leaven in American life.  It just hasn’t worked out that way.

That can change.  But it requires believers who think for the long haul, with evangelical witness as their first priority.

Which brings us to the value of realism.  Among America’s most annoying traits are relentless optimism and sunny “can-doism” – both lately harder to sustain.  But Christian hope and secular optimism are two very different creatures.  Augustine of Hippo was a bishop of profound hope, but given human nature, the experience of his own sins, and the turmoil of his times – optimism, not so much.

Of course, pessimism can be just as toxic as optimism.  Nobody likes a chronic downer.  It’s alien to the spirit of the Gospel.  But in medicinal doses, a little pessimism – let’s call it a sensible realism – forces us to search for, and to treasure, the real sources of hope.  To borrow from the late British philosopher, Roger Scruton:  A sensible realism restores balance and wisdom to the conduct of human affairs.  And we need that.  It produces a healthy skepticism that asks sensible questions.  For example, when we’re told to “follow the science,” we should ask: Why?  And to where?  And if, in fact, we should follow the science, then why don’t we follow it when it leads to the heartbeat of an unborn child?

Scruton wrote that “St. Paul was right to recommend faith, hope and love as the virtues that order life to the greater good.”  But he added that false hope, “hope detached from faith and untempered by the evidence of history, is a dangerous asset, and one that threatens not only those who embrace it, but all those within the range of their illusions.”

Those words are wise and true.  So it’s the task of the Church to offer people real hope rooted in Jesus Christ.  Among the most urgent problems families face today is the routine, tepid, practical atheism that seeps into our heads from the noise all around us; the implausibility of the supernatural in a world of nonstop scientific and technological propaganda and mumbo-jumbo.  And so much of it boils down to depressing lies about our nature and our purpose as human beings.

We need more than lies.  We yearn for things that are better than that: beauty and purity; meaning and truth.  The Word of God is water in a desert.  And a lot of thirsty hearts are out there.  So this isn’t a bad time to be a Christian.  It’s exactly the opposite.  It’s the best time, because what we do now matters.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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