A Field Guide for Millennial Catholics: How to Live as Catholic in a Secular Age (a five part series)

Byron S. Hagan

#2 Politics and Christian Community

In our first talk we painted a pretty bleak picture of our society. We said that

1. [Charles Taylor—Fragility of Belief] because Christians in our “secular age” know that Christianity is just one path among many that a reasonable person may choose, there is a “fragility of belief” for Christians and this leads to a private paralysis that makes for a public paralysis as well—Christians become secularized almost by necessity, because by default. My coming of age in the secular society entails “losing my religion.”

2. [Pierre Manent—Flight from natural determination] our society is marked by a radical rejection of “Natural Law” or any reference to prior limits (whether those limits be nature, God, organized religion, tradition, public institutions) that would restrict the realization of the self as product of pure desire and will. Our society in general is not open to argument by “natural reason” on this point precisely because it has already decided against the very desirability of such reason.

3. [Alisdair McIntyre—the Futility of the Moral/Ethical Argument and the Juggernaut that is our Secular Age] the field of public discourse in moral/ethical and thus political sphere is so radically broken and polarized that no real progress is possible as long as the situation persists, and it is not only persisting but increasing.

4. [Ratzinger/Benedict XVI—Practical Atheism] our society is marked not by philosophical but by practical atheism: even though we almost all “believe in God” we live as if the God of Jesus Christ does not exist, the God that created us and cares for us at every moment and seeks to form a community that will be the “Body of God” in the world, a body marked by the sacrificial love (agape) that brings reconciliation of man to God and man to himself. We are “on our own” and thus helpless to resist the practical atheism of our time, which is not merely a tidal wave but the very air within which “we live and move and have our being.”

Christopher Dawson—Religion and Culture.

There has never been in the history of the world any culture which was not bound together by a fundamental religious view of the world. Culture is the way in which religion manifests itself in embodied practices: common ways of living, institutions, laws and/or customs, taboos, and social norms. Never has there been in the history of the world, until our own time, a culture which has attempted to establish itself on the basis of secularity, and because this is for the long term impossible to sustain, a “religious view” will be smuggled back in, a “political religion,” which cannot be wholly successful but which will sustain at least for a time this otherwise “secular” age.

Salvation and the Social Question  In our time, the appeal of Christianity is greatest for those who have a strong sense of social responsibility. Salvation is no longer understood as that of the mere individual but of the whole world. Man needs deliverance not only from his private sins but from all the evils that are expressed in social and political forms. Thus it is the “political religions”, the various forms of cultural Marxism, that pose the greatest challenge to Christianity in our time. That there has arisen in our time this “counter-religion” to Christianity proves that, whatever else may be said to the contrary in secularist rhetoric, our present secular culture understands very well the relevance of Christianity in history, and by it’s virulent opposition to Christianity demonstrates that it sees Christianity as its fundamental rival in the struggle for cultural domination. The new counter-religion must, of course, fail in the end. It fails because it brings about of the very evils from which contemporary man is trying to escape. The whole of the counter-religion is an attempt to construct artificially the notes of Christianity which human societies have perennially have found so deeply attractive: [transcendence, communion with the invisible world, spiritual freedom, and familial and social harmony]. The new counter-religion speaks a rhetoric of freedom but it is in fact totalitarian. Because human beings were not made for subjugation but for true freedom, the totalitarian society will inevitably fail under the weight of its own incoherence. It is precisely because of the inevitable failure of the new political religion—failure that we have for sometime been witnessing, actually—that a tremendous opportunity for Christianity is being reborn from the ashes of the old civilization of the Christian West. Thus, the outlook for Christianity is in our time—despite the bleak picture we have painted—especially bright, perhaps brighter than it has been for the past two centuries or more. This is not to say that we are on the very verge of a new, pan-Christian society—far from it. It is only to say that, the continued mega-trend of secularization in our society notwithstanding, there is also a small but real and intensive [crossfade] in effect. (Christianity and European Culture, 13-14, my paraphrase with additions ad libitum).

The Ecclesial Movements. For over a full generation now there has been, along with the rapid and miserable depletion of the older forms of Christian society, a regeneration of new forms and new life. A new family of ecclesial movements, have arisen. These movements have understood themselves quite consciously to represent the seeds of the rebirth of Christian society, indeed the birth of a new Christendom, innovative, engaged, informed, contemporary, and at the same time “traditional” insofar as they understand the faith to be that which is “ever ancient and ever new.” The new movements are setting about to “essentialize” or, in the words of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, “crystalize” Christianity for our time, to re-appropriate its traditional forms and imbue them with a fresh energy.

The new movements, both lay as well as priestly and religious, understand well that before Christianity is prepared to face the new challenge of the Secular Age there must be a prior cultural preparation that entails a kind of tactical retreat from the world, a retreat that does not mean a closing off from the world, but rather a refusal to live in the world merely on the terms of the world, with its desiccated spiritual landscape and its artificial, frigid imitations of community. There is the understanding that if Christianity is to have anything to offer this new age of affluent and technologically sophisticated barbarism it must first recreate for itself forms of social life that can truly nourish and sustain the moral and spiritual life, and that in order to do this, while it lives in the center of the Secular Age it cannot by any means live from the center of this age. This tactical retreat will not be easy, and there will be many who cannot participate in it directly. It will be of necessity a “creative minority” that will take on many sacrifices and sufferings in order to persevere in its mission. But in choosing this, those who give themselves to it will flourish mightily, in intellect and in spirit. Whether in marriage or in consecrated celibacy it will give new birth to and live out the authentic human communion for which human persons were made. It will not merely preserve and wait out the storm, it will create, innovate, and re-form a new Christian future that will actively stand-by until the surrounding culture begins to turn to it for rejuvenation. We are, in fact, seeing this already.

McIntyre on New Dark Ages and New Communitarianism (After Virtue pp. 244-245, my paraphrase) In the early stages of post-apostolic Christianity there came a turning point in the society of the Roman Empire. Certain people of good will—a small minority to be sure—ceased to identify with Roman society as they found it, ceased to think of that society as the background within which moral community must be lived out. They refused to continue a direct engagement with that society, but rather set about building a new form of community that could authentically sustain a life of moral and spiritual goodness during the coming darkness. If we are right in our estimation of our own time, then this look into the golden age of western monasticism offers us a crucial instruction. Our age, like that of the 5th century Roman Empire, has also passed a “point of no return.” But unlike this former age, in which the socio-political, moral, and even physical structures were collapsing in such a way that none were able to deny it, our own age appears materially and structurally robust. Yet the moral barbarians are not merely gathering “at the gates” of our age. They have been sitting comfortably in the halls of cultural power for a well over a century.

Benedict XVI and the “Benedict Option.” The true “divine” future for the culture of the late-modern West does not lie along the arc of its current, secular trajectory. The “divine arc” of Western history belongs to those who will identify with the “creative minorities” and seek to form such minorities, to live, I don’t say counter-culturally but according to an alternative culture that represents the seed of renewal for our society.

From Joseph Ratzinger, “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?” Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009, pp. 114-118. From an original German radio broadcast, 1969).

       “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves. To put this more positively: the future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality. Unselfishness, which makes men free, is attained only through the patience of small daily acts of self-denial. By this daily passion, which alone reveals to a man in how many ways he is enslaved by his own ego, by this daily passion and by it alone, a man’s eyes are slowly opened. He sees only to the extent that he has lived and suffered. If today we are scarcely able any longer to become aware of God, that is because we find it so easy to evade ourselves, to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other. Thus our own interior depths remain closed to us. If it is true that a man can see only with his heart, then how blind we all are!”

       “How does all of this affect the problem we are examining? It means that the big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, [that Church] will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.

       “Let us go a step farther. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.”

       “The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”

       “And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult,….but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”