David Mills, writing over at Ethika Politika, offers some compelling thoughts on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s observation that late-modern religion itself, rather than secularism or scientism, is responsible “for its own defeats.” Mills goes on to quote Heschel in more detail:
Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.
Truth be told, Heschel’s observations aren’t new, nor are they particularly profound. I shudder to think how many trees have been felled over the past two centuries in the service of announcing to the world (or at least the West) that religion — specifically Christianity — is in some sort of “crisis” and that what is needed is a “revival” or “rediscovery” of the “true essence” or “true spirit” of the Gospel (and so forth). And after these calls are made, I wonder, how often is good fruit borne? The Second Vatican Council was supposed to usher in a “Second Pentecost” and “New Springtime” for the Church, and it failed on both counts. Certain pro-Conciliar Catholics like to opine that prior to the 1970s, Catholicism was a “pay, pray, and obey” religion, lacking vitality and genuine sanctity. Even if that were true (and there are good reasons to doubt this gloom-and-doom account of the near-past), what can we really say in comparative favor about the Church today? In the name of “love” and “compassion,” the Church’s message has become largely meaningless, particularly on an eschatological level. Instead of telling the world that what it needs above all else is Salvation through Jesus Christ, the Church’s hierarchy and institutions waste endless resources trying to be the globe’s largest NGO. Something — an authentic Christian vision — has been lost.
Mills agrees in part with Heschel, though he frames his agreement in distinctly Christian terms, reminding readers that Christ knew He was leaving His Church in the hands of fragile, sinful creatures. But then Mills cuts in a different direction, noting that while Heschel may be right in significant part about the type of people who belong to the Corpus Mysticum, we cannot ignore that the world (and, I would add, many of the faithful themselves) tends to embrace a conveniently incomplete idea of the Church’s true message. Here is Mills:
[ . . . . ] However inadequate we are, we bear a message and life that the world needs and wants and at the same time doesn’t want and often hates. The second desire is usually stronger than the first.
One may want the comfort and security of family but not the marriage that creates it, nor the Church’s rules for the creation of marriages (one man, one woman, open to children, ’til death do them part). One may love the Church’s vision of the good society, but not (depending on one’s political views) her understanding of individual responsibility or of solidarity and the common good.
We cannot ignore that in America in particular, a sizable portion of its conservative-to-traditional Catholic population play pick-and-choose with the Church’s social magisterium based on what they believe best supports their particular policy preferences. Left-leaning Catholics, too, are guilty of this, commonly parading expressions like a “preferential option for the poor” while blowing off crucial social principles such as subsidarity and the right to private property. Further, contemporary Catholics feel more than entitled to downplay “unpopular” aspects of Catholic doctrine on topics such as hell, abortion, contraception, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc., either because of an (ill-formulated) private theological opinion or simply personal conviction. Where the Church once brought clarity on these and innumerable other matters, it now opens up the floodgates of confusion, dissent, and revisionism, often in the name of combating the problems Heschel identifies.
The late Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann once observed that in 2,000 years of ecclesiastical history there has always been more lukewarm Christians than fervent ones. The Church herself has spend centuries beholden to tyrants and brigands, with “worldliness” remaining a perennial problem. Even so, has there ever been this much confusion over what the Church believes and professes? Has the criteria for what makes a Christian ever been this murky (or, to put it another way, open-ended)? The world has its reasons to detest the Church, and as Mills indicates, they are bound up exponentially more with contempt for Christ than hatred of our sanctity — for there is so very little of that to go around these days.