Published March 30, 2023
Having criticized the Washington Post for its March 9 hit-job on the unpleasant but revealing work of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal (CLCR), I now feel a weird kind of gratitude. Though not intending it, the WaPo article triggered an interest in some of CLCR’s broader work. And among that work is a new Substack site – What We Need Now – worth following in the months ahead.
This summer is the 30th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). Veritatis Splendor is an ongoing bone in the throat for a whole, unhappy cohort of today’s theologians and Church leaders. Hostility to it was obvious at, but even well before, the 2015 synod. So the new Substack’s inaugural article, by Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Philadelphia’s archbishop emeritus, is a great – and needed – reflection on the encyclical’s enduring importance.
What We Need Now’s mission statement is simple:
Western culture is in the midst of a sea change – the Great Reset, the New Reformation, the Upheaval, the Great Transformation; it has different names but the same substance – and the Catholic Church is both victim and agent in this crisis. Catholic churches in the western world, Europe and North and South America specifically, are emptying. Many Catholic institutions have lost or softened their Catholic character. Christian young people and adults often seem cocooned by a web of technology, social media, and materialist culture. Catholic leadership, even at it most senior levels, can appear confused and ambiguous.
The Church is always in need of self-examination and reform, but few moments in history have evidenced that need in so obvious and pressing a way as our own. Personal holiness – the hard work of personal reform – is always the first step in any effort for Church renewal. But many practical areas of our shared ecclesial life also need urgent and serious review. . .and where necessary, rethinking.
The purpose of “What We Need Now” speaks for itself. As a Substack, it will publish essays and interviews that address the nature of today’s cultural realities, and the need for faithful, authentic Christian reform. Our goal will be frank but constructive reflections and guidance that can help Church leaders pursue life-giving renewal. Content will be guided by five qualities: fidelity; intelligence; prudence; candor; and courage. Bitterness is not on the list.
High-quality sources of Christian analysis and counsel like The Catholic Thing, First Things, the work of Carl Trueman, Mary Hasson, Mary Eberstadt, Helen Alvaré, Robert Royal, George Weigel, R.R. Reno, and many others, have served as guideposts in my career. What We Need Now will take time and sustained strong content to match their standing. But its launch is promising. And it’s well worth following.
And while we’re on the subject, two other more recent guideposts deserve mention: N.S. Lyons and Paul Kingsnorth. I’ve written about both previously; Lyons and his Substack site The Upheaval here, and Kingsnorth – novelist and author of the Substack site, The Abbey of Misrule – here. Whether Lyons is personally religious is unclear, but seems likely. That he’s religion-friendly is obvious. As for Kingsnorth, after wandering through atheism and then onto different religious paths, he converted to Christianity and entered the Orthodox Church. In his interviews, he’s acknowledged that he had been drifting toward, and resisting, Christianity for some years.
Whether a conversion “sticks” of course is always a matter of time, humility, and dedication. But both men, Lyons and Kingsnorth, have a keen sense of the apocalyptic nature of our era. It’s “apocalyptic” not as the end of the world, but as the end of an age; a revelation of previously disguised truths about who we really are, and the virtues, sins, and consequences of the civilization – the myth of endless material progress and human perfectibility – that we’ve built.
In an essay, “Uncivilization,” written years before his conversion (and collected here), Kingsnorth observed:
[H]uman civilization is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.
Once that belief begins to crumble, the collapse of a civilization may become unstoppable. That civilizations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning. . .
This is a moment to ask deep questions and to ask them urgently. All around us shifts are under way which suggest that our whole way of living is already passing into history. It is time to look to new paths and new stories that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side.
The irony, of course, is the path and the story that Kingsnorth did later find: a story always ancient and forever new, old as the hills and young as spring. These last days before Holy Week are a moment of grace. They’re a time for self-examination; for repentance; for forgiving the sins of others, and so to be forgiven ourselves. We each carry hidden in our hearts a world of anger and hurt, vanity, petty cruelties, and avarice. That world can end on Good Friday, and a new one begin on Easter. That, more than anything, is “what we need now.” But we do need to believe. . .and then live like we mean it.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.