While it is true that nobody is in this life utterly beyond the reach of the Hound of Heaven, the Epistle to the Hebrews warns about the danger to those who have been fully incorporated into Christ and then reject him. “It is impossible,” the inspired writer tells us, mincing no words in the fashion often falsely called pastoral, “to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (6: 4-6). While we must balance that “impossible” against the claims of Jesus that in the matter of salvation, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26), nevertheless there is a real spiritual truth here. It is dangerous to at all times to reject the grace of Christ: it is much more dangerous to reject that grace after one has been given it in full. The terms of Hebrews—enlightened, tasters of the heavenly gift, and partakers of the Holy Spirit—have been read historically as referring to the fullness of incorporation in Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.
Sure enough, it is those who have left the Catholic Church intentionally, whether in an act of formal apostasy or, without actually physically leaving, in an act of internal apostasy by which they set themselves up as the arbiters of what in the Creed of the Church is true or tolerable, who truly seem to be impossible to reach. The latter, having refused to admit they have left anything, are like the amiable but damned bishop in The Great Divorce for whom “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” and whose infernal theological society spends time debating how Jesus “would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience.”
The damned bishop was not alone. In the midst of the controversies this past year over the investigation into the women religious associated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I thought not just of the rather public repudiations of Christian doctrine, but of a conversation with an Evangelical Protestant neighbor a couple years ago. An occupational therapist, she did quite a bit of work with a local religious order who had, as a community, wed the age and were now not only widows, but aching and sore ones. Their bitterness about their plight and the fault of the Church’s hierarchy in causing it (to their minds) spilled over in many harsh words, no doubt made harsher by the fact that my friend was stretching tendons and ligaments that no longer stretched easily. Trying to sympathize, she told a number of the sisters that she understood that church leaders could be faithless, but ultimately the sisters could look to Jesus, right? She was rendered speechless when, after a silence, one of the sisters told her that while she might think of Jesus as God, to them he was just another man.
With the numerous losses in the cause of marriage and other moral issues, as well as the continuing cultural recrudescence surrounding us, I often get a feeling from other Catholics as well as other Christians that we are defeated. Western culture, once broadly Christian, is now merely broad, as in the broad way that leads to hell. It is heathenism that seems to be the substance of our culture but, as Sigrid Undset observed, it is not and cannot be the old “pre-Christian heathenism as though the experience of Christianity had not intervened between it and us.” Modern heathenism, she argues, “is a new thing—a declaration of war against a God who has spoken, where the old heathenism was a love song to a God who hid himself, or an attempt to live with the divine whose power men felt around them.” To update Undset, today’s heathenism is all pantsuit nuns announcing christological heresy, with all the condescension and rudeness of Lewis’s bishop, but snarls rather than amiability.
Even looking beyond the angry nuns can be depressing when the vision seems to rest on the rise of angry “nones,” that growing group of generally young people who respond to questions about religious affiliation by marking “none.” Many of them are reflexively left-wing and instinctively hostile to any perceived religious element of culture that is public or seems likely to affect public policy. Many of them are the children of broken families in which the absence of fathers has implied to them the absence of a Father. Their acquaintance with Christianity has been simply to hear that their own situations have been a handicap to their development and the result of sin. Whether they agree with this assessment or not, they resent Christianity for pointing it out.
The same might be said about younger Catholics who seem to have written off much of Catholic teaching even if they do attend Mass now and then. They are likely to support the redefinition of marriage and the legal right to kill one’s offspring as long as it is in the womb. It is easy to simply apply Hebrews 6 to an entire culture and mentally write them off, write off the possibility of influencing our culture and perhaps even large-scale public evangelization itself. Unlike Blessed John Paul II’s talk of a New Springtime of the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger echoed at least the less optimistic predictions of the near future over fifteen years ago in Salt of the Earth. He offered that the end of traditional Catholic cultures may have come and that we may be facing “a new epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world.”
I suspect that the Pope and my more pessimistic friends may be right about this stage of the Church’s history. And yet, whatever the dynamics of Western culture are when glimpsed as a whole, I’ve often wondered whether we do not seriously err when we attribute to individuals or groups, even nuns and nones, Undset’s notion of modern heathenism as a declaration of war against God. Many people are hostile to Jesus Christ and his Church; but many are only superficially hostile, having too little acquaintance with the essential teachings or even the story of Christianity to really have an opinion.
Several years ago I was at a Christmas party and overheard the hostess, a Catholic woman in her late-sixties, explaining the Christmas story to a young boy of about 7 or 8. He had been looking at the very elaborate creche scene displayed in one corner of the room on a low table and was fascinated by what he saw. What did this exotic group of animals and humans signify? Who was the baby?
The hostess was both surprised and bemused that the boy had never heard about the birth of Jesus or how Christmas is a compound word made up of “Christ,” a title given to the baby, and “Mass,” the Church service that Catholics participate in. The boy’s parents, very kind and utterly secular, had never actually explained the religious origins of this winter feast, even before coming to a party hosted by practicing Catholics. But I didn’t get the sense that they had a whole lot of knowledge of these matters either. Another couple at the party had a new baby and were discussing the imminent baptism. The Nativity-Scene-Questioner’s mother asked in all innocence when Christians did that baptism thing.
Like the six Herdman children in Barbara Robinson’s 1973 classic, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, this young boy was fascinated by hearing the story of the Nativity for the first time. It was perhaps weirder than the silly stories of Santa Claus that the boy had probably already begun to disbelieve, especially since his hostess told the story not in the “once upon a time” fashion, but as a bit of real history. Who knows what that boy or his parents made of it? They were, however, open to hearing about Bethlehem and Baptism, though, perhaps because they were simply ignorant of these things.
What is true of the truly secular is even more so of the vaguely Catholic. For the last eight years or so, my wife and I have taught, every other month, the course for parents having their first child baptized. This is a course that is demanded by canon law. Many, if not most, of the parents coming are doing so sheerly out of a desire to check the box. Many of them have not been in a Church that often apart from their own Church wedding. Yet after each hour-long class covering the basics of the theology and symbolism of baptism we have found that the commonest response is simply gratitude for teaching something substantive about Catholic faith. Too often, even if these young adults had a Catholic school or religious education program as children, it was insubstantial. To see that the faith has content, substance, something to bite into, is a step in the right direction.
Evangelization is not easy. In Porta Fidei, the apostolic letter announcing it, Pope Benedict emphasizes that the Year of Faith in which we are currently engaged, is a time to catch flame ourselves by rediscovering the truth and the beauty of the Gospel. We have to read the biblical stories and study the doctrines again with the same level of interest and wide-eyed wonder that the secular and the Christmas-Easter-Only Catholics demonstrate. When we do, we may see that the possibilities for witness are much greater. So are the opportunities for success.
Editor’s note: The image above, entitled “The Sermon of St. Stephen,” was painted by Fra Angelico in 1447-49.