Lately, there is a lot of talk within Christian circles how to live the Faith in the midst of a morally-decaying (and increasingly hostile) Western culture.[i] I would like to join the fray and add some of my own observations.
There is an old saying, “Every analogy limps” and another that says, “History does not repeat, it rhymes.” I find these sayings to be applicable in the current discussion. We can never go back to ancient times, live in the Roman Empire and experience—as the Romans did—the cultural decay. We can, however, experience trends and similar events/movements, and in so doing, our own history “rhymes” with that of the Romans.
Contemporary events and their commensurate culture wars (kulturkampf), see similarities with the decay of the Roman Empire.[ii] There is, however, at least one noted difference that I have yet to see people engaging on any serious level. For the first three or so centuries after Christ, the light of the Gospel had not yet shined upon the whole of the civilized Roman world. The Church was viewed as a sect, eventually outlawed and its adherents were persecuted and forced into some truly despicable things such as forced worship of pagan gods.
To put the above in stark terms, the kingdom of Satan held sway and much darkness was in the minds and hearts of men. This setting was the historical scene onto which entered the light of Christ and His Holy Gospel. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the spread of this light an easy task. We can thus propose a model based upon the historical record. From this record, we can see that man was in the darkness of paganism and the dominion of Satan, and coming into the light of Christ and His authority.
What we are seeing happening in front of us in the contemporary world is different than the model offered above. Man is moving away from the light of Christ and returning to paganism and the dominion of Satan. This observation is important because it just might have an effect upon how the Church responds to the contemporary situation.
One such way it could affect the Church’s response is by the acknowledgement that man is not necessarily “ignorant” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as he was in the ancient world. The Church cannot presume upon such precisely because of the historical record over the past 1700 or so years since the legalization of Christianity. People, at least in Western civilization, have heard the Gospel. There is, however, a unique facet to this point that is very sensitive to ecumenical relations. This point revolves around a simple and yet profound question, “just what ‘gospel’ have they heard?”
Since the Protestant Revolution of the 16th Century, there has been a gradual rejection of Divine Revelation. This rejection is essentially a rebellion, once which has continued to our day and age and has had tremendous impact upon the social realm. As this gradualism continued to lead men on a downward spiral, the darkness of paganism and the dominion of Satan returned, gaining more and more ground against the City of God.
Divine Revelation being discredited and discounted bit by bit, it was only a matter of time before simple math takes effect and “bit by bit” adds up to a more serious problem. We see this in the various events known as the “Enlightenment,” the French Revolution, the 19th Century Revolutions, Liberalism, Socialism, Communism, etc. Inevitably, with the darkness of paganism returning to the world, the Christian religion could only become more and more scorned and ridiculed.
We see this scorn and ridicule, partly, in a particular contemporary popular trend wherein many Christians (and perhaps others) discredit religion and try to divorce their Christian lives from it. I am speaking of the “I’m spiritual, not religious” ideology. Insofar as this contemporary trend is concerned, it is believed to offer an answer to many misconceptions of Christianity by secular society. What is, however, considered to offer “light” is actually dark, and woe to those who call good “evil” and evil “good” (Isaiah 5:20).
The “I’m spiritual, not religious” ideology is dark partly because it does not factor that there is such a thing as the virtue of religion, which safeguards one’s connection with God by ensuring due worship to Him. The problem here, however, is that with the gradual rejection of Divine Revelation, people hardly even know anymore that God has demanded that He be worshipped in a specific way. This demand is rooted in Christ’s command, “Do this in memory of Me” (Luke 22:19).
The above discussion brings us to the parallel that we are currently examining: the similarities between the ancient (Pagan) Roman world and the contemporary world. We are not simply dealing with a world that had long before given itself over to the dominion of Satan and suddenly the light of Christ appears and we begin evangelizing. We are dealing with a world that has seen—and known—that light (and/or some variation of it) and rejected it.
Christianity is now seen as being hostile to the contemporary world and its so-called “progress.” What contemporary society calls “progress,” however, is really a regression. It is so because it has become a godless, pagan culture based upon the false notions of license identified as liberty and the reduction of man to that of animals and economics.[iii] “We live now in an evil hour,” says Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “for though goodness has its day, evil does have its hour….All evil can do in that hour is to put out the lights of the world; but it can do that.”[iv]
In light of the events of his day (1948), Archbishop Sheen reminds Christians of some basic truths of Christianity in his book Communism and the Conscience of the West. He wrote:
- Christians “will make the world worse by failing to recognize” both the “horizontal” and “vertical planes of life.” It is the vertical “which leads to God.” Finding “scapegoats” (identified by Sheen as the political “left” or “right”) is to shirk Christian responsibility towards the world.[v]
- The Christian attitude towards life and history “comes to optimism through pessimism.” In other words, there is no “resurrection” except “through a passion.”[vi]
- The “Church is less a continuing thing than a life that dies and arises again.” She “has never suited the times in which [she] lived, for if [she] suited the times [she] would perish with them, and not survive them.” “The Church is not a survival….[She] has the power of self-renewal [whereas] civilizations have not.”[vii]
- “There is not a single record of a civilization that ever perished which rose again.” The Church, however, “has the power of coming out of the grave, of apparently being defeated by an age, and then suddenly becoming victorious….”[viii]
- The Church is “being sepulchered in the bowels of the earth where it is digging catacombs and whence one day it will emerge to reconquer the earth.”[ix]
These truths ought to show us that while the power of the Church may wane in a given age, she will never disappear. What matters is that Christians keep Divine Faith throughout while continually praying and doing penance. Sheen reminds us of an all too forgotten truth, namely that “civilizations prosper and decay to facilitate the development of Christ’s kingdom in this world.” [x] “As a Christian civilization grew out of the decay of the Greco-Roman world, so a new Christian order will grow out of the decay of historical liberalism and communism. What we are witnessing in our day is not the decline of the Church, but rather the death of a civilization that has been egocentric and has been trying to make selfishness a success….”[xi]
In light of the above, what is an authentic Christian way to respond to this crisis within Western civilization? I believe that heaven has indicated it by giving us the devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Archbishop Sheen remarked, “Since the world has lost Christ, it may be that through Mary it will recover Him. When Our Blessed Lord was lost at the age of 12, it was the Blessed Mother who found Him. Now that He has been lost again, it may be through Mary that the world will recover Christ their Saviour.”[xii]
At Fátima, in 1917, Our Lady gave the remedy for the ills of contemporary man—prayer (particularly the Rosary), penance, sacrifice, reparation and the conversion of sinners. She also asked for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart and for the spread of the 5 First Saturdays devotion. This revelation, “is a reminder that we live in a moral universe, that evil is self-defeating, that good is self-preserving; that the basic troubles of the world are not in politics or economics but in our hearts and our souls, and that spiritual regeneration is the condition of social amelioration.”[xiii]
Thus, it seems to me that the challenge before Christians is not to place faith in political structures and strategies or to run from the world. Doing so would be to shirk our Christian responsibility to be the conscience of the world. We ought, rather, to be looking at ourselves and where we need to recognize sin, repent and do penance.
It is first and foremost by the reformation of our own lives and being witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we can begin to see a change in the world. If it seems likely that people of like mind will flock to one another to help with this endeavor, such an act does not mean that the world must be abandoned. Not everyone is called to the monastic life. Moreover, without a voice to the world, can Christians honestly expect to be left to themselves without “interference” by the godless?
At this juncture of history, it appears that a remark made by Pope Benedict XVI is ever more relevant. He said:
And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence it seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.[xiv]
Following the lead of the (now) Pope Emeritus, let us admit that we have sinned by turning away from God and repent, all the while asking the Blessed Mother’s intercession.
[i] I think of one such discussion known popularly as the “Benedict Option.” Fr. Mitch Pacwa also recently offered a reflection on this during a Q&A session on his show Threshold of Faith on EWTN. Prof. Anthony Esolen also offers some excellent thoughts. This latter article goes well with the heart of an article of my own entitled Quis ut Deus?
[ii] For one such similarity, see this very good article from 2012 by Dr. Benjamin Wiker (see another by R.V. Young). The only caveat that I would issue is that there is no proof offered in either article that the topic was ever enshrined in Roman law. In fact, Roman historians seemed to treat it with disgust which gives some perspective to the matter.
[iii] Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948), 199-200. Hereafter Sheen followed by page number.
[iv] Sheen, 206.
[v] Sheen, 208.
[vi] Sheen, 207-208.
[vii] Sheen, 210-211.
[viii] Sheen, 211.
[ix] Sheen, 212.
[x] Sheen, 213.
[xi] Sheen, 214.
[xii] Sheen, 205.
[xiii] Sheen, 207. At the time, Russia was specified by Our Lady of Fátima as being the vessel which would communicate many errors—namely atheistic Communism and all those goes with it. To prevent those errors from spreading, Our Lady requested the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart in 1929. This was not done in time and the errors of Russia spread, infecting many institutions and structures in Western civilization, including the Church. The Church now undergoes a terrible crisis, its own passion, not just with respect to former political structures, but a crisis of faith. Just what glorious resurrection awaits the Church, we do not know just yet.
[xiv] <http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20100415_pcb.html> (Accessed 28 April, 2015).