There is debate among some in Church, as I suppose there has been in every age, as to how to interpret the signs of the times. It was common in the 1970s and into the 80s for many to speak hopefully of a “Springtime for the Church” as they looked with confidence for the fruits of the Second Vatican Council to take off.
And there have indeed been many Spring fruits: a laity that is more engaged in daily Church life, a Liturgy that flourishes in very diverse ways from traditional Latin Masses, across the spectrum to more charismatic and vernacular expressions, the Catechism of the Catholic Church which has helped stabilize the content of catechesis, the bouncing back of vocations that is underway and the founding of new and reformed Orders along with the blossoming of many lay apostolates, these and other such things speak to the fruits of a kind of springtime.
And yet it is increasingly hard to argue that the temporal order is in anything but increasing disrepair, at least in what we call “The West.” The family is in crisis, shredded by sexual promiscuity, contraception, divorce, single motherhood, and the overall crisis of rebellion against authority and tradition. Sexual misbehavior and the contraceptive mentality that severed the relationship between sex and child bearing, between marriage and child bearing, has led to grave sexual confusion and the increasingly widespread acceptance of homosexual activity and same sex unions which some want to term “marriage.” Along with this crisis in the family and sexual confusion has come a falling away from the Catholic, Christian faith this is nothing less than astonishing, especially in Europe. Even in this country only 25% of Catholics go to Mass. There is also the rise not only of religious indifferentism and secularism, but also of a militant form of atheism that might better be termed “anti-theism.” There is increasingly, outright hostility for the faith, especially the Catholic faith and traditional, Bible-believing denominations. We discussed this last week here)
So there is light and darkness. I think there are many good signs that, in the Church, the Lord is working a reform and clarity that we are going to need going forward. For the lights in Western culture are going out, one by one. The crisis which we face is getting clearer, and the conflict between the Gospel and this culture grows ever sharper.
To some degree it has always been so that the Church is a “sign of contradiction” to this world. Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms outside the ancient temple. And in holding Jesus he held also the Church. Simeon said to Mary his Mother of Jesus (and by extension his body the Church):
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34-35)
And thus, the conflict between the gospel and this world, between the Church and this world has been from the start. Yet for us in the West the conflict, once, perhaps, more subtle, has now become much clearer as the premises of a post-Christian West become increasingly hostile to all we hold sacred.
Of these times Blessed Pope John Paul II remarked, prior to becoming Pope:
We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine providence. It is a trial which the whole Church… must take up” (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (Bl. JOHN PAUL II) to the American bishops in 1976, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 1978).
Perhaps, then Cardinal Wojtyla’s European experience, caused him to see Americans as less aware of the crisis of faith. For Europe, in the wake of the Second World War, had already seen an astonishing falling away from the faith. As early as 1953, CS Lewis spoke ominously of the waves of atheism sweeping Europe . Eastern Europe too was still in the grip of Communism. And all this must have helped the future Pope see more clearly the growing crisis of which he thought too many Americans were unaware.
If we were unaware then, I think many of us now “get it.” Within the Church here there is growing consensus, especially among younger bishops and also younger priests that the crisis in our culture grows ever grave, and requires of us and increasing courage and clarity. Many lay people too, are learning to courageously and unambiguously witness to the faith, both to their family and to this culture.
And that is the key word: courage. For what may have been less obvious in the remnants of the more “Christian Culture” in which many of us grew up, is that that the normative state of the world in the presence of the Gospel is one of conflict.
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. But because you are not of the world, for I have called you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15:19).
The normal Christian life is steeped in deep conflict with the world. To be sure we are to love all, yes, our enemies too. But it does not follow that they will love us, or the Lord and the truth we proclaim. Thus, though we do not seek it, conflict inevitably arises and finds us.
We must overcome sheepish and fearful notions that shrink from the conflict that inevitably comes to us. That we are hated, reviled, ridiculed or dismissed, does not mean we have done anything wrong. It may merely mean that we have encountered the same conflict that our Lord endured. But endure he did, and he did not compromise to avoid the inevitable conflict. He was a sign of contradiction to this world. So he endured, he persevered. And so must we.
The gospel is currently out of season, especially that part of the gospel that speaks of chastity, of faith, of life and obedience. The “social gospel” may still be “in,” but even there, the Church is being told to get out, and/or to keep Christ out of charity.
Yes, it is winter for the gospel in our culture and it is going to require an inner fire of love and zeal by us to see this season, through to a better day. Courage and the acceptance of conflict are no longer an option for the true Christian. Only the strong and determined will have what it takes to endure. Clarity with charity, and charity with clarity, love and truth must march together and be fused together with great courage.
Perhaps George Weigel said it best last week when he wrote (and I excerpt):
Shallow, tribal, institutional-maintenance Catholicism is utterly incapable of meeting the challenges that will now come at the Catholic Church….Only a robustly, unapologetically evangelical Catholicism, winsomely proposing and nobly living the truths about the human condition the Church teaches, will see us through….Radically converted Christian disciples, not one-hour-a-week Catholics whipsawed by an ever more toxic culture, are what this hour of crisis….demands.