At The Turning of the Tide: The Catholic Moment?
Faced with the seemingly unstoppable tsunami of the Dictatorship of Relativism and cultural Marxism in society, waves of trepidation could also surge within the priest’s heart to flood any hope of rebuilding Christian civilization, submerging his creativity and action.
The strongest barriers against such flooding are, besides mental prayer, prayed Holy Communions, frequent confession and an “ecosystem” of the cardinal virtues, a rich “historical imagination”.
For by study of similar ordeals in the Church’s long history we will penetrate the perennial causes of defeat and victory thus empowering ourselves with both idealism and realism to marshal the right resources for the present struggle.
For the chronicles of yesteryear lay bare not only the corruption but also the glory of man under tyranny: for although the majority of men often conform outwardly to the reigning Lie under pressure of fear, the desire to know and do the truth remains within the hearts of many, even if only a few have the courage to stand and fight.
In our days many people look at the society of “reason” and science and see that it is in trouble; they look on in dismay as the institutions of marriage, family and integral education go up in flames.
Most of them merely remain as onlookers, enmeshed in their own circumstances, just half-regretfully shrugging their shoulders.
But then there are the others: that handful of the alert and the brave.
They – like the child of “The Emperor’s new clothes”- have begun to shout: “He, Society, has nothing on! He offers no purpose to life except that of “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”; he has no meaning for marriage, family and love; he offers no future for society and above all he offers no meaning to man’s existence.” Quite: for the Enlightenment stripped him bare and now the winter winds are upon him.
The historian and member of the Académie Française, Henri Daniel-Rops, wrote in similar vein of the historical period most like our own – the age of 200-500 AD when the Roman Empire was collapsing:
“The vision of a society marching towards its end embarrasses the mind which draws back from contemplating the scene. The death struggle of a civilization is no more pleasant to behold than that of flesh and blood. In consequence, periods of decadence are historically the least familiar. Of Rome we remember only the great epochs of Caesar, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius and possibly those of Diocletian and Constantine: the reigns of their unworthy successors seem to be lost in a dense fog. It is, however, in these periods of tragic confusion that the sinews of rebirth are fashioned. The living realities of the future germinate in the putrescence of dying civilizations; and, although it is true, contrary to romantic prejudice, that decay is ugly, we can yet admire the effort made by a few to pierce the threatening shadows, the war waged against death and decadence by a clear-thinking minority”
The only hope for our own decaying civilization is the “clear-thinking” ancient Church of Rome – in spite of so many half-hearted and even treacherous leaders. Because what Lactantius said as the barbarians crossed the Rhine into the Roman Empire in the 400s is still true today: “The Church, and only the Church, safeguards all and preserves all”.
“We may yet live to see a civilization,” wrote Arnold J. Toynbee in A Study of History, “that has tried and failed to stand alone, being saved, in spite of itself, from a fatal fall by being caught up in the arms of an ancestral church which it has vainly striven to push away and keep at arms length. In that event a tottering civilization which has shamefully succumbed to the intoxication of a showy victory over physical nature, and has applied the spoils to laying up treasure for itself without being rich towards God, may be reprieved from the sentence – which it has passed upon itself – of treading out the tragic path……an apostate Western Christendom may be given to be born again as a Respublica Christiana which was its own earlier and better ideal of what it should strive to be.”
Similar was the intuition behind the phrase “the Catholic Moment” coined by Richard John Neuhaus in the 1980s in his book, The Catholic Moment: the Paradox of the Church in the Post-Modern World, when he proposed that these years should be “…the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.”
Although under God’s providential action every moment can be a “Catholic Moment”, it is especially in moments of deep social crisis that men are more willing to listen to any “creative minorities” in their midst.
Hence opportunity strikes for the Church in this epoch of civilizational turmoil for she has the unique ability to give birth to the necessary leadership groups that the West urgently needs: she was the original builder of the ancient society and she still holds the architect’s plans as guardian not only of divine revelation but also of the Natural Law – starting with the blueprints of who man is, what the family is and what society is in relation to the individual through the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.
Urgently must we seize this “Catholic Moment”!
For the present crisis and accompanying opportunity mirror closely those of the collapse of the Roman empire when a minority of Christians seeking to live out the truths of the Faith in daily life, gradually, amidst clashes with both the old Roman decadence and the new barbarianism, created a new social order based on the religious and moral truths of the Gospel.
We need only look closely at what they achieved in the midst of so many obstacles to feel a surge of courage: the flowering of Christian culture in a society that protected the dignity of womanhood as never before, Gothic spires piercing the heavens, the music of Palestrina, the vernacular European languages and a political dynamic set in motion towards democracy.
If all that occurred five hundred years after a fisherman and a lone Jewish intellectual arrived to Rome, what might not occur in our days with our two thousand year old patrimony and millions of Catholics on all continents?
Signs of another springtime are not lacking. For instance in the West there are conversions of remarkable intellectuals and in China Christianity’s growth occurs in a land where Christianity is associated with modernity.
All around our globalized planet there is a minority of men and women of all religions and none who are perplexed about the decline of moral standards in society and the type of world the future generations will inherit.
Recognizing the threats to mankind – the underlying causes of terrorism, genetical engineering, unprecedented suicide rates, social engineering – they listen respectfully to the Catholic Church.
For a second time in history men look towards the Church not only from the perspective of individual salvation but also for the saving of society. That is why the Church in our times is so highly relevant even to many non-believers, as can be seen even when she undergoes attacks in mass-media from those who see in her the polar opposite of their paradigm for a secularized world order.
Indeed – and this to some might seem intolerably “optimistic” were it not based on historical precedent and proposed by as prestigious a modern historian as the non-Catholic Toynbee – the present “globalization” may yet turn out to be a providential opportunity for the Catholic Church:
“There is one unprecedented feature of our own post-Christian civilization which, in spite of being a rather superficial feature, has a certain importance in this connection. In the course of its expansion our modern Western secular civilization has become literally world-wide and has drawn into its net all other surviving civilizations as well as primitive societies. At its first appearance, Christianity was provided by the Graeco-Roman civilization with a universal state, in the shape of the Roman Empire with its policed roads and shipping routes, as an aid to the spread of Christianity round the shores of the Mediterranean.
“Our modern Western secular civilization in its turn may serve its historical purpose by providing Christianity with a completely world-wide repetition of the Roman Empire to spread over. We have not quite arrived at our Roman Empire yet, though the victor in this world may be the founder of it. But long before a world is unified politically, it is unified economically and in other material ways; and the unification of our present world has long since opened the way for St. Paul, who once travelled from the Orontes to the Tiber under the aegis of the Pax Romana, to travel on from the Tiber to the Mississippi to the Yangtse; while Clement’s and Origen’s work of infusing Greek philosophy into Christianity at Alexandria might be emulated in some city of the Far East by the infusion of Chinese philosophy into Christianity.
“This intellectual feat has indeed been partly performed already. One of the greatest of modern missionaries and modern scholars, Matteo Ricci, who was both a Jesuit father and a Chinese literatus, set his hand to that task before the end of the sixteenth century of the Christian era. It is even possible that as, under the Roman Empire, Christianity drew out of and inherited from the other Oriental religions the heart of what was best in them, so the present religions of India and the form of Buddhism that is practiced to-day in the Far East may contribute new elements to be grafted onto Christianity in days to come. And then one may look forward to what may happen when Caesar’s empire decays – for Caesar’s empire always does decay after a run of a few hundred years. What may happen is that Christianity may be left as the spiritual heir of all the other higher religions, from the post-Sumerian rudiment of one in the worship of Tammuz and Ishtar down to those that in A.D. 1948 are still living separate lives side by side with Christianity, and of all the philosophies from Ikhnaton’s to Hegel’s; while the Christian Church as an institution may be left as the social heir of all the other churches and all the civilizations.”
Toynbee is not alone in such “prophecies”. Another contemporary intellectual, the French anthropologist René Girard, also foresees a Christian renaissance in the near future. After his election to be one of the 40 “immortals” of the French Academy, he remarked that “we will live in a world that will seem -and be – as Christian, as today it seems scientific.”
Hence opportunities for evangelization are not absent. Another triumph of the Cross may lie in wait around the corners of history. As Gandalf said to the Fellowship: “Be merry! We meet again! At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming but the tide has turned.”